If you think about it that way, what effects does the spiral have on the story? If the character is a hermit in a cave, maybe the damage is limited to some cleanliness issues. In all other instances, though, the character’s downward cycle exerts a gravitational effect on other characters.
Realizing that a protagonist’s plight is not individualistic allows you to take advantage of a novel’s structural strengths. This fictional world that you have created is a construct, after all. All of the pieces you put into it are linked to other pieces. The more you interlock major pieces, the more the reader is moved by these binding forces.
A black hole is defined by the gravitational force it exerts on surrounding space. If your main character is going through a rough patch, he pulls down others with him. If a man in midlife crisis mistakes sex with a paramour for true love, think of all the people affected by this delusion: his wife, his lover, his children, most likely a brother or best friend, and down the line. In other words, love as a matter of course involves the beloved other person, but you can spread the tainted ripples much further.
Nowhere is this approach more valuable than in a plot-driven novel. Because events take up so much space, you can forget that even the protagonist has to unburden herself to someone in order for the events to have an impact. If a woman president has to face a terrorist threat, all of the palaver to the talking heads in her cabinet isn’t going to matter a bit to the reader. She needs a spouse, or a best friend, in whom to confide her fears for the citizens who are killed, for the ruination of her career, etc. As the novel goes on, her crises will matter more if those close to her are also affected by her distress. A husband who increasingly keeps his distance hurts much more than a poll about voter disaffection. If the ship is going down, whose arm among the rocking waves is she reaching for?
Exercise: As you review a manuscript, ask yourself: what impact does a scene’s plot event have on the supporting characters? Stop and think about the event from that character’s point of view. Now, how important is that character to the protagonist? Can you link up the two so that the event matters more to the reader?
“Growth is a spiral process, doubling back on itself, reassessing and regrouping.”
—Julia Margaret Cameron
Copyright @ 2016, John Paine