There is this story that I was working on, for an extended period of time. I have scrapped many ideas and drafts but I just could not seem to let go. The idea of this story, in my mind, is simply too precious for me to abandon. This is a story heavily driven by character and character development, but I just don't know how to portray him.

Like the title suggests, the protagonist William is a broken man, he is defeated, in both body and mind, and has lost his drive because of severe trauma. Now he is alone, living off past savings and has no will to do anything. In short, he does not know his reason to live. He sees growth, interactions and social advancement as pointless, and spends most of his time either asleep, or drunk. This is a character that has no more reason to live, but sees no rationale to die. And he will continue "living" this way if not for a convenient plot device showing up and asking him for help.

In addition to the above, William is also mentally ill, severe PTSD aside, he is also prone to Delirium and Schizophrenia. This made him question reality and his purpose of existence, but reaching no answers. He also doubts the existence of love, happiness and other generally positive emotions, often citing them as "a convenient lie". He is also incredibly conflicted due to this, as he contemplates his own death frequently, but never proceeds to do so when this idea "might not be his own".

He is, needless to say, extremely cautious and paranoid. After all, what can be trusted when he cannot trust his own mind? However, this is not in the way of "everyone will take advantage of me" paranoia. "After all, what more can be taken from me?" He just continues to question everything that was told, but with no answer in sight. If life be nothing more than an endless series of questions with no answer, why try anything at all?

My question is: given such a character as this, is character development even possible? How do I even begin the plot when William outright refuses to cooperate? What could possibly drive a character such as this? I refuse to simply handwave this problem away and say he helps because reasons, I want this story to feel real, and I want readers to empathize with William's feelings (or lack thereof), his illness, and most important of all, the humanity that he (somehow) regains. My problem is that I have absolutely no idea how to do this, so any help from you will be appreciated.

Additional points to consider: The world in the story is very similar, if not outright identical to ours. Miracles does not exist, so that will not be a factor that he looks forward to.

I mentioned he is "once brilliant" as a military scientist, he will not ever regain that level of intellect. I want him to venture as a human. He will not offer help in the hopes regaining his mind.

He knows perfectly well that he is not some center of the world type person. This world does not revolve around him, and he has no superhuman influence within this world. In fact, this is the argument he gave for not helping at first.

That is all from me for now, leave any questions and suggestions in the comments. Feel free to edit this post to make it better.

Summary for the lazy: Given William's character above, what could possibly drive him to leave isolation and venture to help others? What would possibly cause this character to change and develop? And in the case that he really does change, what would theses changes be?

  • 2
    This format generally works better with a single question, rather than the three I see above -- but also, you may be in danger of the question being closed for "opinion based" because anything anyone can offer on this will be based on their opinion of how to approach this. It's also perilously close to an off-topic "what to write" question. – Zeiss Ikon Feb 20 '20 at 13:31
  • @ZeissIkon whatever I just need advice, whether I get it here does not concern me. I will just seek help elsewhere – user752518 Feb 20 '20 at 13:50
  • 1
    We do want to help -- but in order for this kind of site to help, we need questions in a certain form, where there can be a single, best answer that can be supported by the answerer. – Zeiss Ikon Feb 20 '20 at 14:08
  • 1
    Go read Bartleby the Scrivener -or- Death of A Salesman. I think they are both examples of how people have successfully written interesting stories about broken men. You'll need to find another forum for a brainstorming session; but those are both works that can explain by example. Think about how and why they work when you read them. – Kirk Feb 20 '20 at 14:20
  • 1
    @Kirk: Read "Bartleby the Scrivener?" I would prefer not! – hszmv Feb 20 '20 at 14:58

The most natural story about a broken man is story of how he becomes less broken

Normally, someone has a (relatively) unified sense of self, and a hierarchy of priorities. A "broken man" has lost whatever central motivation he possessed. The man who wanted raise good children, and see them live better lives than he did? His children are dead. The man who was working late, taking night classes and sacrificing weekends to get the promotion and the corner office? His reputation was ruined, and he's now stuck in a dead-end job and knows he will never be promoted. Your "broken man" has faced a critical disappointment (or a critical mass of disappointments), and has given up.

So what's left, after you've lost your reason for living? A person still gets hungry, and eats. A person still gets bored, and drinks and/or watches TV. A person might still in the habit of going to work, and maybe doing enough to not get fired. He might still hold doors open for strangers, because it was conditioned into him by his mother when he was a child. Even with no unified sense of self or driving priority, the fragmentary pieces that once made up a whole man still linger on.

If some remaining fragment of habit to help when asked lingers, and help is asked for, your broken man can eventually be moved to go through the motions. That's perfectly reasonable. But a good story will not stop there.

A very typical part of a story is to take someone to their lowest point, where disappointment appears to be overwhelming them and they have given up - and then quickly or gradually stitch them back together. A broken leg won't hold your weight - but broken legs typically heal. Even a poorly healed leg, and a limp, is more functional than a fresh break and the inability to even stand. Even if your character does not fully heal and become as great as he ever was, once some kind of attachment develops between your character and whatever convenient plot device has begun to move him, he becomes definitionally less broken, because he has a sense of purpose and direction again.

The old man whose children all died starts out by yelling at kids to get off his lawn. But when one of the kids falls down while fleeing, and he give the kid first aid, then finds out the kid doesn't have much of a home to go to and begins to take an interest in helping the kid... The formerly ambitious worker, now disgraced and just marking time, meets a younger worker, not sufficiently motivated, and decides to light a fire under him / or meets a fiery and ambitious worker cruising to make the same mistakes and face the same humiliation, sees himself, and decides to take a hand in heading off someone else's catastrophe...

A character arc is about change. The renewed and growing interest in life implied by a budding attachment to some kind of cause is change.

  • 1
    The opposite is equally true: A broken man going through utter self destruction is a fine story to tell. – Weckar E. Feb 20 '20 at 15:04

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.