Change Brings Your Characters to Life

Nearly all writing manuals will insist on the same thing: “Fiction is about conflict.” In one sense, this is true. A story must have conflict. No one wants to read 14 pages, or 400 pages, in which everything goes smoothly for everyone. It’s boring. However, conflict by itself is not enough. A second story ingredient is even more important: change.

Consider a novel in which there is constant conflict—a war, perhaps. Battles are fought, won or lost. Then at the end of the book, all the characters go home, essentially the same people they were when the war started. Could you sell such a novel? Probably not. Readers would be dissatisfied unless someone was changed by the action (dying without any additional insights doesn’t count). Why should readers consider events important if they aren’t even important enough to affect the fictional characters?

Try a test of this idea. Pick out two novels or stories that you like and know well. For each, write a few sentences describing a viewpoint character at the start of the work: his attitudes, beliefs and behavior. Now write a few sentences describing that character at the end. The difference is called the emotional arc for that character, and its plausibility and interest very often determine the effectiveness of the story.

Who should change?

Usually, the character who changes will be your protagonist. In John Grisham’s The Firm, Mitchell McDeere becomes much more canny, cynical and competent in dealing with evil. In Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist, Macon Leary learns to open up and take risks. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Sethe ends her self-imposed isolation, understanding that human strength draws from the community.

However, some books present the idea that people cannot change, that they are locked into destructive patterns, either personal or shaped by society. In such fiction, the protagonists defiantly go on being as they start out. An example is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Daisy and Tom Buchanan will go on being “careless,” messing up other people’s lives and then retreating into the safety of their vast fortune. But who makes this point for us? The narrator, Daisy’s cousin Nick; and he is so changed by his clear view of New York society that he packs up and goes home to the Midwest. Without Nick’s change, the book would feel too static and hopeless.

Who will change in your story? Whomever you pick (and it may, of course, be more than one character), his change will contribute powerfully to your work’s overall impression on the reader.

How change happens

Change in a fictional character actually parallels change in a real-life person. As any therapist will tell you, a deep personal change has three parts: receptivity to change, causal events and validation. Let’s look at each.

Here are quick tips on introducing change
in your novel:
  • Choose a character(s) who will change in your story, and describe him in detail. How will his viewpoint differ at story’s end?
  • Create a character who has traits that make her seem capable of change.
  • Create a reason for your character to change—this is the conflict in your story.
  • To complete the change, demonstrate an action taken by your character that shows how he has truly changed.

Receptivity to change means that a person is capable of change. Some people are not. There are alcoholics who are never going to even try to stop drinking. There are believers in a flat Earth who will never be convinced that the planet is round. In fictional terms, they are Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

The easiest way to make your characters’ change believable is to show him changing in some way before the main events of your plot impact him. If we see him being flexible in one way, we’re more likely to believe he can be flexible in other ways.

For instance, consider Cuyler Goodwill in Carol Shields’ novel The Stone Diaries, winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Cuyler’s life until 1903, when he was 26, was joyless and deadeningly monotonous:

His family, the Goodwills, seemed left in the wake of the stern, old, untidy century that conceived them, and they gave off, all three of them, father, mother, and child, an aroma of impotence, spindly in spirit and puny of body … when Cuyler turned fourteen his father looked up from a plate of fried pork and potatoes and mumbled that the time had come to leave school and begin work in the Stonewall Quarries where he himself was employed. After that Cuyler’s wages, too, went into the jam pot. This went on for twelve years.

Then Cuyler meets Mercy Stone, marries her, and is “miraculously changed” by a “tidal motion of sexual longing [that] filled him to the brim.” All this is told in flashback; the story proper begins with Mercy’s death. But because Cuyler has been established as a person who throws himself completely into whatever seizes his heart, we believe the author when she subsequently shows us a Cuyler completely given over first to religion, then to business and finally to despair. We know he doesn’t do anything by halves.

Your setup for change may be less sweeping. Perhaps you show us a character persuaded into a different political position by the arguments of a colleague on the commuter train. We will later be more willing to accept other changes in his thinking—a trait which you may present as wishy-washiness or as admirable open-mindedness.

Why change happens

Once we believe your character is capable of change, the next step is to give him reason to change. A common, fatal flaw is the character who “suddenly realizes” that he has been a fool, or in love with the wrong person or ignoring a great opportunity. People almost never suddenly realize anything. You, the author, must make your character realize these things by shoving him into illuminating events. These events, of course, are your plot. Your plot is the reason your people change.

In The Stone Diaries, Cuyler Goodwill turns religious because his beloved wife dies young. He becomes a businessman because the care of his 11-year-old daughter, whom he has thrust onto others since her birth, suddenly falls to him at the same time that a new stone-quarry business is forming which needs his expertise. Given Cuyler’s character as we’ve been shown it, these are realistic responses to plot events.

Take another example. A young man enlists in the army and marches off to war. He sees horrific deaths, great heroism, terrible corruption. Each event changes him a little, until he emerges (pick one) stronger than he started, morally destroyed, or cynical and self-serving. If the events you show us match the man’s reactions, we will find his change plausible and interesting.

After the change

There is one more step you must take. How do we know for sure that this young man has changed? Maybe when he gets home, he’ll just revert to “his old self again.”

To complete your cycle of character change, you need a validating action on the part of the character. This is a strong, self-chosen (not thrust on him by fate) action that clearly demonstrates that he’s changed. The discharged soldier, for instance, who at the start of your novel was a self-absorbed snob, may propose to his worthy, working-class girlfriend as proof of his matured values (this is, in fact, the validation of Willie Keith’s character change in The Caine Mutiny). What he does depends on what kind of book you’re writing—but he must do something to demonstrate to us that, yes, he has really changed.

To summarize, you will greatly improve your plotting if you consider character change as you write. Ask yourself:

1. Who will change?

2. How will they be different at the end of the story?

3. What plot events will cause these changes?

4. What actions will they take to demonstrate character changes?

This article appeared in the November 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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