Change-or-Die Checklist

In his article “The Science of Character Change in the January 2014 Writer’s Digest, award-winning novelist David Corbett discusses the importance of crafting a character’s decisive moments of insight, culminating in a “change-or-die moment” that alters your hero’s course and propels readers through the heart of your novel. In this online exclusive companion sidebar, he offers up a checklist to help you put his technique to work in your own writing.

To craft a great Change-or-Die Moment, you have to understand the competing forces vying for the character’s soul—safety versus wholeness—and push the character down a path of “success through failure,” where by acting in accordance with his original ignorance, cowardice or deceit, and by harming those who care most about him, no matter how harmless or gentile that lifestyle may seem on the outside, he’s on a collision course with a failure so devastating, so shocking, that he’s forced to reevaluate the course of his life. That insight will prompt a decision. The rest is up to him.

1.              Identify the type of change your character undergoes in your story:

a)    Boy Meets Girl

b)    The Little Tailor

c)     Man Learns Better

2.              Identify the character’s misguided belief or behavior, the compromise with his pain that is “ruining his life,” even is he’s seemingly content and well off.

3.              Probe beneath the surface compromise to identify the core longing underneath (the “State of Lack”), the thing the character truly wants, without which his life is meaningless or unfulfilled.

4.              Explore the mode of harmful, deceitful, or cowardly behavior the character has developed and employs to deny the core longing. Ask: Who is he hurting?

5.              Identify the false, mistaken, or misunderstood desire that the character is pursuing instead of the core desire or longing.

6.              Identify the other characters with the insight, the power, and/or the desire to help or force the character to change.

7.              Chart out the scenes—many if not all of which will include the characters identified in Item 6—where the principal character’s misguided beliefs and behavior lead him into one mishap after the next, with the consequences becoming increasingly critical, until he appears on the brink of failure, disaster, or death.

8.              Return to Item 1 and identify the type of insight necessary for the character to change:

a)     Boy Meets Girl: The character realizes that, without the loved one, life will be hopelessly empty.

b)    The Little Tailor: The character realizes that, without realizing his true nature and power, he will be destroyed.

c)     Man Learns Better: The character recognizes both the error in his thinking and its disastrous consequences.

9.              Follow through on Item 8 by identifying the “Change or Die” decision the character makes in response to his “dark night of the soul.”

10.           Don’t forget the Validation Scene, where the character’s change—or refusal to change—is revealed in his behavior.

For the full article by David Corbett on The Science of Character Change, see the January 2014 Writer’s Digest.



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