Some of the decisions I’ve made were the result of some seriously flawed thinking. (Combining cognac and champagne being only one of them) The benefit of time passing is that I’m able to look back and understand the roots of those choices and see the flaws in my thinking in a whole new way. And I’ve grown because of it.
Our protagonists should go on the same kind of journey. They start off hopelessly unaware of the flaws in their thinking and how this affects their actions. Over the course of the story they come face to face with these flaws and through recognizing them are able to change (or sometimes not). This overall arc is the spine of a well-constructed story.
So how can we do this?
Establish your protagonist’s belief system.
Everyone has a personal belief system honed from their individual life experiences. For example in The King’s Speech Albert’s belief system is that he’s not good or worthy enough to be king. In Don Jon Jon doesn’t think real sex can ever be as good as the porn he watches daily.
Show how these beliefs dictate your protagonist’s actions.
What we believe about ourselves, other people and the world around us then shapes our actions and choices. In Saving Mr. Banks P. L. Travers doesn’t trust Walt Disney to do her books about Mary Poppins justice. In fact she has a hard time trusting anyone even her own agent. As a result she refuses to give Disney the rights to her books and insists on script approval. During the script sessions she is outrageously demanding and belittles her songwriters making the development sessions difficult. She refuses to warm to anyone including Walt and remains aloof throughout much of the story. Historical inaccuracies aside (an ongoing discussion best left to another time) P. L. Travers’ belief that people can’t be relied on or trusted shapes her actions. If she didn’t feel this way she would have immediately released the rights and we wouldn’t have the movie Saving Mr. Banks.
Use this flawed thinking to create conflict.
Throughout the story conflict is generated from the protagonist’s faulty thinking. Albert is unable to accept his role as king creating conflict with his instructor Logue and his family. Don Jon can’t maintain a relationship. P. L. Travers can’t connect or relinquish control creating strife for everyone. Ashburn in The Heat is so uptight and shut down she can’t let Mullins help her on the case or accept her friendship complicating their attempt to bust the drug ring.
Give your protagonist a moment of self-reflection where they see their flawed thinking.
In order to give the story an emotionally satisfying arc the protagonist needs to change. What we’re invested in from the get go is seeing how our protagonist is going to overcome their flaws and become their best self. One of the strongest ways to do this is to give your protagonist a moment of self-reflection where they see the flaws in their thinking and therefore their actions. In The King’s Speech this is during Albert and Logue’s preparation for the coronation when Logue helps him to see how he’s the one holding himself back. In Don Jon the more mature Ester helps him to appreciate a sexual relationship that’s rooted in real life not fantasy. During a particularly poignant conversation in Saving Mr. Banks Walt Disney helps P. L. Travers to connect the dots on her past and see how this has led to her inability to trust. And in The Heat Ashburn has a moment of reflection while looking at her high school yearbook finding a message from Mullins that helps her to see the flaws in the way she’s been conducting herself.
Show how the protagonist uses this epiphany to change.
Once the protagonist has this new insight they have an opportunity to change. Albert accepts his role as king, Jon embarks on a real relationship, P. L. Travers turns over the rights to her books, and Ashburn reconnects with Mullins and they solve the case. Sometimes you may choose not to have the protagonist change even though they come to an understanding of why they are the way they are. This worked particularly well in There Will Be Blood. Regardless your protagonist has to have some kind of shift that shows their new awareness whether they embrace it or not.
As for me, well, why I ended up drinking those cognac and champagne Wild Mustangs is a long story but suffice to say I eventually figured out the flaws in my thinking that led me to them and I’ll never, ever drink them again!