There is an art to endings. They can make or break a story. Good endings elevate a work and evoke a emotion that lingers for days. Some endings leave you breathless, eager for more. Others fill us with a deep sense of well-being and comfort. Occasionally an ending will rattle us, prompting deep thought and personal revelations. What all good endings have in common is that they leave the reader satisfied, content in a task well done. Bad endings, on the other hand, can turn even a good experience into one of frustration, disgust, confusion, or boredom. Sometimes the reader comes away from a bad ending feeling like they wasted their time, or were cheated and betrayed.
Endings are hard, and they require more than just tying up lose ends. One secret to a satisfying ending may surprise you, because on the surface it seems so obvious. Yet many writers neglect a key element that you’d never guess anyone could leave out.
They forget the main character.
Why the Main Character Matters
Strong stories are About something. And I do mean Capital A! A story’s About is more than its plot. It’s the message conveyed with that plot. Some call it a moral, some call it a theme, but no matter what the term, it is the heart of any tale.
The purpose of a story is to explore an idea, and the main character is the one of the most powerful tools writers have. The protagonist’s experiences, situation, and personal growth all reflect the central theme. The actions and events surrounding the central character illustrate, in a dramatic and engaging fashion, all the different perspectives of the core issue. The culmination of events highlights the importance of the issue being explored. The ending demonstrates how the message matters, and why the key concept is important to keep in mind when the stakes are at their highest. Leaving the main character out of the picture when that final moment comes undercuts everything that the rest of the story was built to express. If you’re going to have a main character, make sure they have a meaningful role in the climax!
Despite the importance of the protagonist’s role in expressing the theme, they are often forgotten in endings because people mistake them being present for being active.
Present Protagonists are not Active Protagonists
Having a main character be present in events, but uninvolved in their outcomes, reduces the protagonist to an observer. Things happen to the character, but they aren’t involved in causing those events. This disengagement undermines the journey they’ve been taking and the core message of the narrative.
This can be due to a Deus Ex Machina ending where a “god in the machine” entity steps in and solves all the problems for the main character. Sometimes it’s an actual god, other times an oddly convenient piece of technology or magical artifact that somebody just-so-happens to have. Nobody earns the resolution. The answer just falls into their lap. Unless the theme of the story is “bumble through life and let someone else solve your problems,” this creates a disjointed and pointless conclusion to whatever tale is being told.
In other examples, the main character plays a passive role and the people around them do the heavy lifting to resolve the central conflicts, often with the additional burden of rescuing the protagonist. A book I read recently had a very unsatisfying ending due to this problem. The main character was given all the information she needed to figure out what was going on, as well as the tools and means to defend herself. However, at the end of the story, the only thing she did was get tied to a tree while the villain explained everything the main character had failed to figure out. Friend #1 ran off and destroyed the villain’s source of power. Friend #2 pulled some magic scissors out of the Protagonist’s pocket to cut the ropes, dragged the Protagonist through a forest, and then traded places with the Protagonist at the end. Effectively, the main character was written out of the plot and the supporting characters were given her job. It made me wonder what the point of the book was, if the main character wasn’t going to apply anything that she’d learned. In fact, I started to question if she’d learned anything at all!
A protagonist can also be taking place in action without being active. Just because a character is running around, guns a-blazing, kicking butt and screaming bloody murder, doesn’t mean that what they’re doing matters. Often such scenes could be removed entirely and there would be no material difference in the course of events. So while it may look like the protagonist is active because they are moving around within the plot, they are not actually an active force within the narrative itself. They’re a puppet to create the illusion of purpose, but not a person actually propelling an idea.
If the main character isn’t involved in the ending of a story, they’re failing to carry the message of the tale. Which means they probably shouldn’t have been the main character in the first place.
How to make an Active Protagonist
Main characters don’t have to do everything to have an important role in an ending. Nor do they have to accomplish something by force or violence in order for them to be active. They have to use problem solving skills. This can manifest in a variety of ways. Here’s a few examples:
- Coming up with a plan and seeing it through
- Figuring out the answer to a mystery
- Negotiating between opposing forces
- Using trickery to outwit an opposing force
- Leading or inspiring a group to action
- Speaking up for what they believe is right
- And, yes, killing the monster or kicking somebody’s butt
Many of these examples rely on the presence of a group to ultimately overcome a problem, but you can see how each one require the main character to be an active participant and contributor to the conflict resolution. They are not reacting to obstacles, but proactively engaged in overcoming challenges. They might act in the heat of the moment, but the character is not unthinking or reactionary in the execution of the action. There is a situation, an idea, and then application of that idea. Most importantly, if the rest of the story has been exploring a theme and leading up to the moment when the main character acts, it will not feel reactionary even if the character operates on instinct. The audience will have seen all the work that went into that moment and understand why the main character has the strength to face the high-stakes situation in the way they did.
Returning to the About we discussed at the beginning, the plot may be the events that occur, but the change in the protagonist demonstrates what the story really means. Outer events, no matter how big they are, act as reflections for the more personal struggles of the main character. As a reader, we are able to fully understand the central idea’s importance by comparing how the main character behaved at the beginning of the story to how they act at the end. Sometimes they become better people. Sometimes they become worse people. Regardless, they have been changed, and by observing that change we understand its significance not only intellectually, but emotionally as well.
Key Questions for determining an Active Protagonist:
- Did your protagonist help solve the core conflict?
- Did your protagonist apply what they’d learned in the rest of the narrative?
- Did they meaningfully change as a person between the beginning of the story and the end?
Think of an ending in a book, film, or other narrative that had a protagonist that was not active. How could you have turned them into an active protagonist? In what ways would that have made it a more or less satisfying ending?