While the growth of the Main Character through a complete story is regarded as one of the most important aspects of a story, it is also the most difficult to quantify.
Previous attempts to describe this process (those that rely heavily on the Protagonist as Hero model) often resulted in paradigms that confused a character’s development over time with their actual final resolve at the moment of crisis. The fallout from such thinking produced the well-worn, yet highly inaccurate, notion that every Main Character needs to change.
Proficient writers know instinctively that Main Characters need not always transform.
Understanding Pressure and Who Sits at the Controls
Imagine climbing into a diving bell and being lowered into the deep, blue sea. As you descend, the pressure on the outside of the bell increases. This requires you to compensate for the pressure by building up pressure on the inside so that there remains a balance between internal and external. Each change in depth requires further attention towards maintaining that balance.
If you raise the diving bell, the pressure on the inside becomes greater than the outside and there is the threat of an explosion if internal pressure isn’t reduced. If instead you were to lower the diving bell, the pressure on the inside would become less than the outside and there would be the threat of an implosion if internal pressure isn’t increased.
Internal or External: Which One is Unpredictable?
In a complete story, either the external or internal forces applied to the diving bell will seem to flow naturally (or predictably), while the other will seem to have some sort of uncontrollable or unreasonable element to it. In this second example, the one at the controls will be the unpredictable factor.
In stories where the Main Character ultimately transforms, they will appear to be the unpredictable side of the equation. As the external pressure increases or decreases, the Main Character either cannot stop using the controls of the diving bell and overcompensates, or is unwilling to use the controls sufficiently enough to prevent discomfort or harm. An example of the former would be Cobb in Inception. Surprise trains and playful children manifest themselves as projections of his attempts to overcompensate for the guilt he feels for his participation in his wife’s suicide. An example of the latter can be found with Bud in The Apartment. His unwillingness to stand up for himself describes perfectly that character who, for whatever reason, refuses to change the pressure within the bell. The imbalance increases until finally he has no other choice than to change.
When the External Becomes Erratic
In stories where the Main Character maintains their resolve throughout the moment of crisis, the Main Character is perfectly willing to go along for the ride, but whomever or whatever is controlling the ascension or descension of the diving bell is erratic or uncompromising. A perfect example of this can be found in any one of the Bourne movies. Jason Bourne, while somewhat unpredictable from an external perspective, is completely unwavering on the inside, much like his country cousin James Bond (except for the most recent Casino Royale where Bond breaks the mold as a Steadfast Main Character). In these types of stories it is the other principal character, the one with which the Main Character develops a meaningful relationship, that becomes the unpredictable factor.
In the first Bourne movie, The Bourne Identity, it is Bourne’s girlfriend Marie who is the uncontrollable one, her allegiance and complicity with his actions forcing him to maintain balance. In the second, The Bourne Supremacy the person working the crane holding Bourne’s diving bell is CIA Analyst Pamela Landy. Like her counterpart Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, Pamela works as the wildcard, erratic in her attempts to fully assess the situation. And finally, in The Bourne Ultimatum it is fellow assassin Paz who is uncompromising in his efforts to lower Bourne deeper and deeper into the ocean.
In all three films, it is that other character that ultimately transforms and brings back balance between the internal and external worlds.
Who Is At Fault Here?
In stories where the Main Character ultimately changes their nature, they often appear to be the cause of their own difficulties. Inception, Star Wars, Hamlet—stories of transformation deal with characters who have trouble keeping that pressure level bearable within that diving bell. In stories where the Main Character remains true to their nature, they will appear to be the victim or pawn of larger forces. Trapped within that diving bell, they do what they can to maintain equilibrium. Jason Bourne, Dr. Richard Kimble, Salieri - stories of steadfast resolve center around characters at the mercy of external forces.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
This concept of the diving bell and the Main Character originated with an initial conversation with Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators behind the Dramatica theory of story. It is an attempt (a fantastic attempt) to qualify the difference between Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth.
When it comes to Main Character Growth, Stop and Start affect the controls of the crane raising and lowering the diving bell (external world), as well as the controls inside the bell increasing and decreasing the internal pressure (Main Character).
In a Change story, the Main Character is the unpredictable element. In a Stop story, the Main Character can’t stop using the controls or overcompensates as pressure increases and decreases. In a Start story, the Main Character is unwilling to work those controls.
In a Steadfast story, the Main Character is willing to go the prescribed course, but whomever or whatever is controlling the ascension or decension of the diving bell becomes the erratic or uncompromising factor.
Stop and Start describe the Main Character’s efforts to come into balance with the external pressures, so that once there is a close equilibrium, he can then take that final step toward removing the inequity entirely (through Main Character Resolve).