Happy Spring! Despite what the groundhog said, yesterday marked the end of winter. On the calendar, anyway. With the strange weather patterns we’ve been having, it’s anyone’s guess what the next few weeks will bring.
But the concept of spring conjures images of blooming flowers, budding trees, growing grass. Animals migrating north or coming out of hibernation. Melting snow, April showers, flowing waters. In short, ideas of renewal and rebirth.
On Monday, March 12, Joan’s post touched on the premise that there are only so many plots in the world, and every story is a variation of one of those few. Christopher Booker even wrote a book on it (conveniently enough called The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories). One of his plot types? Rebirth.
In its simplest form, rebirth is the positive conversion of a character.
Yes, every main character in any story benefits from a story arc, particularly a redemptive arc. But this concept goes beyond that. Rather than the character changing in the course of a story designed with another, stronger theme, the purpose of this plot is primarily the enlightenment and transformation of a character. Look at the character’s story. If he is in search of the Holy Grail but changes as a person, it’s not a rebirth story; it’s a quest. If he’s just living his life, going with the flow (even if the flow is rocky) and changes as a person, his story is a rebirth.
I’m sure you’ll recognize many, if not all, of these examples.
- A Christmas Carol (Ebenezer Scrooge)
- The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (Grinch)
- Beauty and the Beast (Beast)
- Original Star Wars trilogy (Darth Vader)
- Harry Potter series (Severus Snape)
The formula for writing a rebirth story goes something like this (I’ll be using Snape as my example):
- A character falls under the spell of darkness.
It’s a lot easier to have a basically good person corrupted by evil than it is to start with an inherently evil person. It’s common to see a tragedy make a character turn from his natural goodness to succumb to darker influences.
In the Harry Potter series, Severus Snape is just your run of the mill student at school, albeit one who isn’t very popular. He falls in love with Lily, who is one of the only people who is nice to him. But she only wants a friendship with him and falls in love with his nemesis, James Potter, and they have a son. This rejection sends him down a dark path, and he aligns himself with Voldemort.
- The character’s new status quo seems to be going well.
There’s no reason to show a nice person do something bad and have it fail immediately. We need to establish that the choice to turn bad helps the character. Maybe it soothes a heartbreak or fills another need.
With respect to Snape, he’s now involved with the wizard who is amassing power and seemingly can’t be defeated. Right or wrong, Snape is safe and has status, something his younger life lacked.
- The threat returns or strengthens, and the character is stuck in a seemingly inescapable state of agony.
You always have to raise the stakes in fiction. This plot type is no different. The character is starting to see the error of his ways, but digging out of the hole looks to be impossible, or at least too painful to consider.
Voldemort promised Snape he’d spare Lily’s life, but he didn’t. Now, Snape is known as a Death Eater, his reputation is permanently tarnished, and he’s left with nothing.
- The agony continues, with no end in sight.
The villain needs to look undefeatable. Not only will the character not see a different outcome, but the storyworld itself probably will, too.
In the case of Snape, Voldemort comes back to life and lays siege to the wizarding community. Snape feigns loyalty and becomes his right-hand man. It looks as though the Dark Lord will win the war, particularly with the death of Dumbledore.
- There is a final act of redemption.
The character is given an opportunity to switch sides or stay evil. Staying evil would clearly be the easiest thing to do, but the character chooses to take the hard road, even if it costs him his life.
In the case of Snape, he was a double agent, secretly helping the Order of the Phoenix battle Voldemort. Throughout the series, we’re never certain of his allegiance. In fact, he does some truly despicable things to maintain his cover. But in the end, his loyalty is proven, and his last act is to give his memories to Harry, which helps Harry not only understand all Snape’s motivations but also gives him the knowledge to win the war.
- A character falls under the spell of darkness.
Yes, it’s true, not every rebirth story will follow this blueprint perfectly. Even in the example I shared, there’s some wiggle room. What’s important to remember is that early choices by the character take them down a dark road, one that initially helps them then proves to be painful and seemingly inescapable. A decision at the end will have the character choose a difficult but freeing path, switching to the side of good, possibly at great cost.
In other words, if you read or write about a character who seems bad but ends up being good, you’ve probably written a rebirth story.
Have you written a rebirth story? Do you have a favorite that you’ve read? Let’s talk about it.