Identifying Your Protagonist’s Illusions to Develop Plot and Strengthen Character Arc

character development, writing character

Identifying Your Protagonist’s Illusions to Develop Plot and Strengthen Character Arc

Last week I wrote about examining the assumptions your characters make that can heighten conflict and thus their suffering.

This week I want to talk about what often lies underneath those assumptions: illusions, a more global set of misapprehensions you can use in developing and deepening your characters’ internal and external arcs, and another way to turn the screw on their suffering even more (because let’s face it, a good portion of the writer’s job description is “sadist”).

Illusions are the stories your character tells herself that are not true. They are subtle internalized beliefs or value systems that shape the way she regards the world and herself, dictate the actions and behaviors she takes over the course of the plot, and are often the framework for the emotional journey she goes on in your story—the character arc.

Illusions are the stories your character tells herself that are not true.

That’s not the same as her “core wound”–that trauma event at the root of many characters’ emotional obstacles they must overcome in the course of the story–but often your characters’ illusions can be what springs from that wound. The wound can be the stimulus for the character to form an illusion, and that illusion then informs the way she lives her life: “I’m not capable,” for instance, or “people can’t be trusted.”

But illusions are broader than that and can stem from nearly any formative experiences: how we’re raised; values or ideologies conveyed to us by influential figures like parents, teachers, loved ones; misinterpretations of experiences we have or what we see in the world; even incorrect extrapolations from seemingly minor or random incidents: someone who bounces a check and decides she’s no good with money, for instance.

These broad, sweeping illusions underlie many of your character’s internal struggles; affect her actions, behavior, and demeanor; dictate her personal relationships; and create internal obstacles that keep her from happiness, or from pursuing her dreams or achieving her goals.

But what do these illusions actually look like in story, and how can you use them to deepen and develop your characters and their arcs?

What Are Illusions?

First let’s look at what some of these illusions are. They can often be difficult to spot or define because they are so intrinsic they may seem invisible–and many mask themselves as seeming virtues.

For instance, let’s take a particularly American illusion—that success means being the best, the winner, number one. On the surface that sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Who would consider this an illusion, or question it?

But let’s look at what it actually means: By definition there can be only one “best” in any area. If everyone has this same directive or goal then all but one person will fail. So living under this commonly accepted illusion means that the chances are excellent you can never actually attain that goal—which sets you up for a lifetime of feeling inadequate, less-than, not good enough.

  • Illusions can be about ourselves, like the above, and can involve internalized values like, “good people are always…” fill in the blank: kind, generous, easygoing, universally liked, etc. The moment you evince some behavior or thought that doesn’t fit this impossible generalization about human nature, then inductive reasoning insidiously tells you that clearly you are not that thing, and thus must be a bad person, or worthless, or unlikable.
  • They can also involve illusions about other people that reflect on self: generalizing someone else’s life by the fraction of it they present to the world, ascribing to them traits like unflagging self-confidence, constant successes, a perfect family, infallible style. Since you know that you yourself are not uniformly any of these things, then you must be less-than, inferior, inadequate.
  • Or perhaps they are illusions about relationships: “Love conquers all” or “love fixes everything” or “I’m nothing without a relationship.” If your protagonist operates under the illusion that finding “the one” means living in perfect alignment and harmony with her soul mate, for instance, then at the first indication of marital discord she may conclude that her partner must not be her someone, and end a relationship that may otherwise be strong, healthy, and very satisfying.
  • Your characters’ internal struggles can be based on illusions about the way the world works: good always conquers evil; the world is fair; everything happens for a reason, etc. Or fantasies based on if-onlys—I’d be happy if only: I were rich, I had love, I became a bestseller, I were popular, I were pretty, etc. Or they can be broad generalizations about categories of people: “Beautiful people lead charmed lives” or “rich people have no worries” or “liberals/conservatives are evil.”

The problem with these illusions is that they are based on generalizations that are impossible and unnatural–there is no such thing as consistency in nature, no absolutes: Mountains erode, volcanoes erupt, continental plates shift. Organisms survive by eating other organisms, or killing them–and none of these things are either good or bad–they’re simply nature.

Human nature, too, is that same magnificent welter of contradictions and constant change—it comprises all that is human, meaning we contain every possible permutation of human behavior within us. We are not black-and-white, but infinite shades of gray: We are kind and ruthless, successful and unsuccessful, knowledgeable and fallible, good and bad. Expecting otherwise sets us up for failure, disappointment, and self-loathing—the rich, rich turf of juicy character arc.

Using Illusion to Strengthen Character Arc and Story

So how can you use illusion to deepen and define your characters and their arcs and hone your story’s plot?

Illusions are a wonderful way (narratively speaking) to create a character who is at war with himself, a powerful source of internal tension and strife for his arc that can reverberate outward to every aspect of his life—and thus his journey, and thus the story.

For example, if your protagonist internalized the illusion—from how he was raised or childhood messaging or any other experiences throughout his life—that “real men are strong and stoic,” then every time he experiences a normal human emotion, reaction, or behavior that doesn’t fit that ideal of his illusion—as he will and must, since as we already established there are no absolutes—then he may feel inadequate, less-than, not good enough, wrong.

And how might this impact his behavior? People who feel bad about themselves can tend to attack themselves, or suppress themselves, or numb out, or lash out at others to feel better about themselves.

How might that help shape the plot? Maybe this illusion makes him work harder to be a “real man”—by shutting himself off from his husband or kids when he feels he’s too “emotional” with them, let’s say, or ignoring his dreams of pursuing an acting or dancing career because “that’s for sissies.” But if those behaviors and choices don’t mesh with his true nature and actual preferences and goals, then he will feel unhappy, or unfulfilled, or like a failure.

Finding your character’s illusions can offer the key to creating a richly developed, believable, satisfying internal arc. One great way to identify what central illusions underlie her journey is to start with the traits you have imbued your character with or need her to have for the story, and then dig backward, a “reverse-engineering” process I often suggest for fleshing your characters out.

Finding your character’s illusions can offer the key to creating a richly developed, believable, satisfying internal arc.

Let’s say you have a protagonist who suffers from impostor syndrome (um, hmm, for no special reason I may have written about here and here and here…) that’s keeping her from pursuing the promotion she wants and deserves. What might the greater illusion behind that be?

Perhaps she has the illusion that experts are all-knowing and infallible in their field. She knows she is not either of those things, and so she always feels like a phony, despite what may be absolutely adequate and satisfactory competence, experience, and knowledge.

So how do you use this to develop the plot and define her emotional journey in the story—her arc? Your protag is going to need to reexamine her illusions and learn to redefine them in more realistic, human terms.

You might use that information to create a plot that gradually allows her to see that as information is gathered, knowledge evolves—that’s the very basis of every single advance in human history, from “the world is flat” to “wearing masks stops the spread of disease.” As more is learned, true experts know how to incorporate new info and data and reexamine conclusions—which means any expert in any field by definition can never know everything at all times. They will be wrong. They expand their knowledge from failures, over and over again. Trial and error is literally the main method of human learning.

This may help her realize that the “experts” she reveres and feels inadequate to are no more all-knowing or infallible than she is. Even more–that it’s ridiculous to define expertise in that manner, as nothing in life is static and our knowledge is always expanding.

She has shattered the powerful illusion of omniscience and infallibility that underlay her impostor syndrome—and this allows her to finally fully claim her own expertise, and gives her the confidence to demand the promotion she’s earned.

Identifying and destroying illusions allows your characters to use the experiences they undergo in the plot to reevaluate their own assessment of themselves, grow, and evolve. And that is the very basis of story.

Putting It on the Page

A great way to practice learning to identify illusions in your characters is to examine what unconscious illusions you yourself may have about your own life, views, or values. What messages have you unconsciously internalized about the way the world works, or your own abilities, or how you regard others? What effect do they have on your worldview, and how do they stand in your way?

As you develop your characters’ arcs, ask yourself what illusions might underlie their vulnerabilities or hang-ups or main obstacles. How might you use the examination and breaking of those illusions to inform the plot to create the perfect storm of situations for her to face that force her to identify and question those illusions so that she can evolve past them with a more human, realistic worldview?

4 Comments. Leave new

  • Dee Buckingham
    May 13, 2021 6:58 pm

    Tiffany, that was wonderful. I’m reading both of Lisa Cron’s books right now and you have taken her “misbelief” concept and clearly, easily presented it. You tied in the core wound and disbelief, yet separate them. My favorite line today: generalizing someone else’s life by the fraction of it they present to the world. Ah yes!
    Off topic: I loved living in Canada. If it were not for the weather, taxes and cost of living in Toronto, I’d move, but one of the things that struck me as comfortable was living in a culture that did not have to be number one. I went through the whole judgemental process of wondering why they would think doing your best would be good enough, but when I got to that point, I felt myself exhale. Thanks for all your posts and all you do for WFWA.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 13, 2021 7:07 pm

      I love Lisa’s research and books–they’re revelatory about human nature as it pertains to story. Love her “misbelief” concept too; I think it’s so key to character arc. These kinds of illusions can be even more pervasive and global than that central misbelief; they filter into so many aspects of our lives and they’re fun to play with in characterization. Thanks for your comment.

      That be-the-best mind-set is a tough one for me too–it’s so seductive, and I have to remind myself often, “Good enough is good enough.” Also, at the risk of being cliched, Canadians always seem so NICE! 😀 I haven’t been to Toronto but it’s on my list–just wish it weren’t so cold….

  • Barb DeLong
    May 13, 2021 8:36 pm

    Excellent post! I love the clarity it brings to the subject with concrete how to’s. Both my character’s allusions come to ahead in the climax of my story–both must give up their allusion in order to “save” the other. Speaking of Canadians, yes, we are very nice, thank you. However, the cold drove me out of Toronto to sunny southern California years ago.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      May 13, 2021 8:51 pm

      I cannot blame you! The cold unfortunately takes many otherwise lovely-looking places off our potential resettlement list. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Barb–I’m happy the post was helpful.


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