I like to think we’re all this, in a good way. I’ve long believed that a sense of forward momentum is one of the essentials to human happiness. Everyone wants to feel like they’re ‘progressing’ in life in one way or another. It’s like that old advertising tag line, “I’m not getting older, I’m getting better.” But the key word here is ‘work’. There’s the rub. Alas, real progress in any arena almost never simply happens all by itself. It takes effort, and usually a lot of it.
And the same is true for our characters. Forward momentum for your hero is critical, and that inevitably entails obstacles and setbacks and a lot of hard work. Without them, you don’t have much of a story. And I’d have a fairly easy time making the case that without them, you don’t have much of a life either. The only way you never fail is to never try. Much as we all wish that our road were always smooth and easy, it’s adversity that often brings out the best in us. It’s the obstacles and challenges that force us to rise to the occasion, strengthen our skills, and in one way or another become ‘better’ people. You don’t build muscle without resistance.
I received this great quote from one of my clients recently, “The deepest secret is that life is not a process of discovery, but a process of creation. You are not discovering yourself, but creating yourself anew. Seek therefore, not to find out who you are, but seek to determine who you want to be.” – Neal Donald Walsch.
I think this goes double for the fictional characters we create. You get to play God as a writer. Think about who your main character ultimately ‘wants to be’, and then give him a series of challenges that will somehow force and enable him to grow and progress toward that over the course of your story. Make him earn that progress with hard work, and have him persevere through the setbacks, and the audience will invest and root for him to succeed.