Dodging the Truth)
At the start of the 1999 film The Matrix, Neo already knows that the world is hiding something from him. Somehow the life that surrounds him seems off, and he is trying to find a reality that resonates more truly. Finally that new reality reaches out of the shadows and greets him. A mysterious figure named Morpheus offers to show Neo the truth, but he makes clear that once Neo sees it there is no going back.
Thus begins Neo’s trip into the real world. He discovers that the life he has known is nothing more than a simulation in a computer. His mind has been connected to that simulation, called “the matrix,” while his body floats in a massive power grid, feeding energy to an all-powerful AI. Neo is awoken in the real world, which is a truly bleak and grim reality. Here the last free humans are hiding from sentinel machines, trying to mount a resistance against their robotic overlords.
But now that Neo has discovered the real world, he still has to figure his role within it. One theory is that he is “the One,” a prophesied savior who will be able to rewrite the matrix and lead all of humanity to salvation. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t resonate with Neo at all. At this point he is full of questions only, he doesn’t have any answers for the larger world.
Morpheus takes Neo to met with the Oracle, though, who is a prophetess that look into a person’s eyes and sees their ultimate destiny. Neo meets with the woman in private, and she frankly tells him that Neo is not “the One.” Neo is visibly relieved, but it is short-lived, as almost immediately afterwards Morpheus is captured by agents that work for the computer simulation.
Though it seems a suicide mission, Neo goes to rescue Morpheus, and inadvertently rewrites the simulation’s code when disaster is about to strike. One danger after another comes to bear, and Neo finds himself able to rise to them by discovering one unknown ability after another. Then, at the end, he is able to finally “see” the simulation for what it is: streams of code that he can touch and manipulate as easily as flipping a switch.
Neo truly is “the One,” the Oracle only told him what he needed to hear at the time, leaving fate to prepare Neo to receive the truth. Finally, at the conclusion of the film, Neo knows and accepts who he really is.
There are, of course, many stories like Neo’s. Stories where the main character either denies or is ignorant of their foreordained destiny, but then they are brought into that role by extreme necessity. Sometimes, though, we have a character who doesn’t necessarily have to become the hero, yet they do anyway.
This is the case with Chuck Noland in the 2000 film Castaway. Chuck is an executive for FedEx, traveling the world to increase the productivity at packing and shipping facilities. On one such trip his airplane is destroyed in a storm, crashing into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Chuck is the lone survivor, and washes up on a small island, thousands of miles from civilization.
Like Neo, Chuck does not identify as a hero at the beginning of his story. His attempts to survive are awkward and uncoordinated, and in a moment of doubt and loneliness he even considers taking his own life. But like Neo, he awakens to inner abilities over time. Through trial and error, practice and refinement, Chuck becomes a survivor. Several years pass, and he has been molded into a lean and efficient hunter. He also becomes incredibly resourceful, and finds a way to make a raft with his limited supplies and sail off the island.
But it never feels like Chuck had to become the survivor. There was no prophecy that foretold he would be, no greater purpose that was served by his transformation. Chuck eventually comes back home, and looks from the outside in at the life he might have had if not for his years-long detour.
The story suggests that Chuck could very well have not been stranded on an island and become a hardy hunter. There were actually many possible identities that he could have lived through those years as, and things just so happened to reveal the warrior one of those.
So do we become the person that we were born to be, or are we crafted from our circumstance and choice? Perhaps both.
Too Important to Hide)
Another type of character revelation is to have the protagonist already be in their true form, but then have them conceal it until the end.
In the play A Man For All Seasons we are introduced to Thomas More, a lawyer in the court of appeals who is privately opposed to King Henry’s divorce of his wife, a practice that was illegal at the time. One by one the nobles and lords voice their approval of the divorce, but Thomas More remains persistently silent. He has no intention of coming out in open rebuttal, but he will not contradict his conscience either.
Thomas wishes to be left quietly alone, but he is simply too important of a man for his silence to go unnoticed. Thomas is extremely well-respected, and even the Lord Chancellor of England. There is too much attention surrounding him for the king to let the man just not take a stance on the issue.
And so Thomas’s story is not about how he evolves into his true self, he is already his true self right from the beginning. His story is about how he tries to conceal that truth through one legal maneuver after another. He is too clever to be tripped up by honest means, so eventually his enemies fabricate a false story to force him to the gallows. With death laying ahead he has nothing else to lose, and so he finally does voice his true opinions. He lays bare his disapproval of the divorce…but also his undying devotion to his king.
In The Salt Worms I have had my main character conceal parts of his true character, like Thomas More, and through flashback sequences I have progressively exposed those parts to the reader. I have also hinted at the transformation that led the main character to be the man he is today. He had traversed a dangerous world, and by every adversity became more and more hardened to his cause, like Chuck Noland in Castaway. Soon we will have the last flashback sequence, in which we will see the singular moment that completed his evolution, like Neo’s awakening in The Matrix.
One of the key pleasures of story is how we get to know a character layer by layer, until at the end we have a complete understanding of who they are. I hope the revelation of Nathan Prewitt’s character has been satisfying for my readers as well, and will continue to be so as I press on to The Salt Worms’ end.