During a writer's group that I was attending through lawritersgroup.com, I came across something in one of the writer's pages she'd turned in that week. This writer, named Barbie, was writing about how her main character was in a rut. All she did was go to work, go home, the same ol' every day. Sound familiar? A lot of have found ourselves in a rut at some point in our lives (maybe at present). But what does this mean in terms of story?
The main character is often in a rut at the beginning of her story. She is stagnant. Maybe she has a lot of bad habits that are holding her back from the life she really should be living.
I heard once that, post-Freud, the modern novel would never be the same -- for now writers held the ability to psychoanalyze their main characters. What will any psychologist tell you if you reveal how your life is going nowhere, that you are in a relationship that no longer works for you, that you have a crap job, that you have a lot of friendships that are pulling you down because they are toxic? The psychologist will challenge you to change!
This is exactly what main characters have to do throughout the course of their journeys. They have to change. The main character's story then is about exactly HOW THEY WILL CHANGE. In essence, the main character's journey is about getting out of this rut and then transforming into a better person, who wins more than loses.
Ever met someone with so many bad habits that you fear they are going to die? This often happens in the case of people with addictions problems. And herein we have the basis for the tragedy. A tragedy, in the dramatic sense of the word, is the story of someone who cannot change. They have the bad habits -- they are stuck in a rut -- but they don't take the steps necessary to change their lives. They don't have courage. One of the most basic flaws a main character can have is fear. As I write, the movie Talledega Nights pops into my mind. Sure, it's a comedy and all, but Will Ferrel's main character suffers from fear. This is why he can no longer win, and thus the writers put him through some funny moments when he is learning to overcome his fear. But, nevertheless, it is his fear that he has to deal with over the course of his journey.
So... What have we learned? When plotting out your stories -- either in novel or screenplay form -- consider creating a rut for your main character to be in at the beginning of the story, before she is either pushed or seduced to change (and thereby enter act two).