|Posted by firstname.lastname@example.org on February 23, 2013 at 12:15 AM|
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo must carry the Ring of Power to the place where it was crafted. One of his companions is the wretched creature Gollum, who at first he detests, but later he pities. In the end, he sees that any hope for his own survival depends on the redemption of Smeagol… People don’t grow when they’re static, when they’re firmly in their norm. They are lured through hope, vision or physical necessity to the wildlands—a place that is often figurative and literal—where anything can happen. It is the place where the protagonist grows.
Of course, this portrays character growth as a reactionary concept—the consequence of being thrown so far out of one’s element that he must adapt or die. It’s an uncomfortable place, and not just for the protagonist. As the reader (or watcher), we hold onto a belief that if we can only overcome adversity, we’ll be stronger for it. Like life, fiction has given us numerous examples of how this doesn’t always hold true. How many soldiers have come home from war, broken inside? And statistics show that most sex offenders were once the victims of sexual abuse. The protagonist who overcomes adversity sometimes goes on to become someone else’s antagonist… This alludes to a mode of growth that we are distinctly uncomfortable with: the character who survives adversity, but ultimately is unable to transcend it.
This is what became of Frodo Baggins. He was not saved by his last ounce of moral strength, nor by a surprise redemption on Gollum’s part. The Ring of Power was destroyed by the very hatred and envy it inspired in them. It can be difficult to read (or watch) a story of descent because it challenges our fundamental notion that rising above adversity equals a happy ending. When we are thrust into situations that require us to grow, we may not always grow in ways that we would be proud of. We may not even grow in ways that allow our lives to continue as they have been… Surely this was what Frodo Baggins discovered at the end of his adventure.
These stories of fallen protagonists can shake us to the core, because they resonate with the way life really is. In every opportunity for growth lies the potential for our destruction. For me, the most compelling character struggles are those where the character must confront not only the monsters around him, but those inside as well. This makes for a character we can empathize with. Nobody is pure. Nobody is perfect. While we possess the capacity to reflect, we are fundamentally reactionary beings. That’s why growth must be initiated from the outside in. If well done, a tragic character is beautiful. Not physically, perhaps, but as a representation of the dilemmas real people grapple with in their own lives.