Character change – the gradual transformation of characters – is at the heart of every great story.
Bestselling authors know that readers crave character change because (as your friendly neighborhood mental health expert will explain) part of the reason we read is to experience change and to reignite the hope that we, too, can change.
With that psychological tidbit in mind, let’s look more closely at a few principles for maximizing character change in our stories. First of all…what is character change…
Here are a few Character Change Secrets of Bestselling Authors
- Characters change as they experience story events.
- Character change should not (in general) be surprising.
- Set up character change with at least (and often more than) three scenes.
- The bigger the change, the more motivation for change must exist in the story (i.e., more story events, more scenes)
- Character change begins internal (thoughts/feelings) then becomes external (words, actions and patterns of behavior)
Although the protagonist might act “out of character” temporarily based on the story situation, the kind of change that inspires and moves readers borders on “conversion”, a total and prolonged/forever transformation.
- The vigilante ex-cop becomes a loving father
- Neo realizes (and embraces that) he is the “One”
- The girl forgives herself
My protagonist in my Past Lives novel series changes when he accepts the reality that he is a reincarnated serial killer.
This brings up another point…
While not every character in every story changes, characters in bestsellers often change over course of the entire novel. Instant or miraculous change can appear fake and unrealistic. Better to dramatize gradual change. In other words, character change should be shown and grown.
Shown = Visually represented on the page. How does the internal change affect the external character (dialogue/actions). How can you visually show the change? Sometimes a character’s appearance indicates the change. For example, in my novel, Dark Halo, one of the main character’s is an angel whose clothes and skin darken throughout the story, revealing an internal change.
Grown = Character change, at it’s most powerful, is organically and gradually expressed in the story. Organic in that the change is integral to the character, story, plot and theme. Organic in that the story events themselves provoke a changed belief/attitude that alters actions/behaviors. Bestsellers often show gradual change. Perhaps a character starts out as cold and distant, refusing any human contact, even hugs from his children. Later in the story, someone hugs him and he tenses, not returning the hug, but not refusing it either. Even later, maybe near the end (or at the end depending on the story), the character initiates a hug with his children. Gradual change feels more real and more powerful.
What other tips for character change do you use in your stories?