Yesterday I read the bestseller Lovely Bones (I seem to always be behind on bestsellers). The protagonist of the novel, Susie Salmon, tells the story from her heaven. I expected it to be a mystery, but she starts off by telling us about her death. So I was left wondering: what will this novel be about, then?
It turned out not to be about Susie at all. She watched her family and friends dealing with her death. She followed her younger sister’s grief and her father’s obsession with revenge and her mother’s guilt and depression until it was a family drama and not a story at all. Being in heaven, Susie switched into omniscience and related scenes with insights into all the characters’ heads. Susie was present but she was not a part of the scenes; she was not confronted with decisions to make except to be frustrated in trying to help her loved ones. I was invested in the other characters, but I kept wondering what was going to happen to Susie in the end.
One of the most important aspects of a story, be it flash fiction, a short story, or a novel, is the character’s journey. The protagonist needs to start in one state of mind and end with the opportunity to change that state of mind. This is true whether it is a character-based story or plot-based. Knowing this, I was watching for a character arc for Susie as well as for her family members. Susie starts attached to her old life and her loved ones, and she follows them around to see what they are doing. Then as the novel progresses, she talks about taking breaks from her family and watching strangers. But for Susie to really be able to change, she needed an opportunity to confront the problems she left behind on Earth. So at the end, before she can really accomplish a character transformation, she had to come back to Earth. She got to interact with the people she left behind, the vestiges of the future she could have had, and what allows both her and the reader to let her move on afterwards is that the whole time she is there, she keeps seeing the heaven she left behind. Only once she has had the opportunity to glimpse what she lost versus what she has can she return satisfied to her heaven, and then move on to a more permanent heaven.
In other words, Lovely Bones, like the ever-invoked Great Gatsby, uses a narrator who is not the main character. If anyone, I would name Lindsey, Susie’s little sister, the main character. But the novel is really about the people who were affected by Susie’s death, not Susie. Still, Susie had to have her own character arc and the opportunity for a transformation, just like a narrator who is the main character of their story.