You’ve probably heard this one before: Your character must change throughout the course of your story.
I see a lot of confusion over this concept. Writers can normally nail the change (weak to strong; bad to good; cynical to optimistic) but it often comes from a weird place that doesn’t sit quite right with what we know about the protagonist. Or it’s too big of a change (or too much of a “fairy tale ending”) to be believable.
Let’s take a look at how writers should deal with character change.
No one likes change
In real life, people change in small ways, but they’re resistant to that change. Change happens slowly, in a sort of cocooned metamorphosis, like a caterpillar to a butterfly. It doesn’t happen overnight, it rarely happens without lapses into previous behavior, and there better be a good reason for it to happen to begin with.
The thing that makes change in stories so fascinating for people is that, despite loathing change, humans want to believe we’re capable of changing, preferably for the better.
So your characters must change in order for the story to be worth reading. But they don’t have to like it.
Think of this: Your character changes because of the things happening around him/her. Not because they want to. Your character is forced to change by circumstances they can’t control. To survive and/or thrive, they must change to combat those circumstances.
Events trigger change
Character change is triggered by an event. A big one. It doesn’t have to be “big” as in a death or massive explosion (but it definitely can be!). It can be something smaller, like hearing your friend’s parents are getting divorced or your oldest child graduating from preschool.
Note that your character doesn’t choose this event. It’s an outside force that’s thrust upon them.
Then more events happen throughout the second act that force your character forward in a struggle toward transformation.
The triggering event is proportional to your character’s change. Something small shouldn’t send your character completely overboard. Something large shouldn’t have them shrugging and going back to normal.
Change should be believable
Do I really believe Scrooge woke up with a personality completely opposite from the one he had when he went to sleep? Not quite. I tend to think ole Scrooge went back to his miserly ways right after the shock of the ghosts wore off. Maybe not quite as miserly, but still.
That’s why aiming for a more subtle change often makes more sense within the confines of your character’s personality.
If a timid man is forced to defend his friends and family, that doesn’t mean he’s going to start playing a superhero all over town. That means he now knows he’s capable of stepping up with the going gets tough.
A grumpy teen might change her attitude and treat people with a little more respect, but that doesn’t mean she’ll suddenly become a do-good saint. It most likely means she’ll just stop snapping at her parents.
Of course, maybe the opposite is true. Maybe your timid man becomes the new Batman. Maybe your surly teen goes off to build houses in Haiti. It’s possible. But remember, the more massive the change in your character, the more important and life-altering the triggering event must be to them.
You should know your character better than anyone, so make sure their change happens in a way that’s realistic for them and proportional to the size of the trigger.
Realistic is better than drastic
You know your character has to change, but your readers aren’t going to empathize with that change if you step outside of bounds. Keep your change realistic and in line with your protagonist’s personality. And be sure to check out this article for details on moving your character through each step of change throughout your story.
What’s the protagonist’s change in the story you’re currently working on? Let me know in the comments!
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