Character Changes

To recap – we’re talking about building characters. Not the nuts and bolts part of building characters, where you work out their relationship with their parents, where they were born, where they went to school and whether they enjoyed being in marching band. We’re talking about the action, the plot, the drama – how your character reacts to his story and what happens as a result. In other words, what makes the difference between a character who just takes up word count and a character who sticks in your mind for years to come.

First off, we looked at why your character probably shouldn’t want anything to do with the problems that first face them. (Check the comments for the full story on that.)

Then we looked at the art of believable decision-making. Discussing decisions brought us to the edge of this week’s topic: Character growth.

Before we begin, let me note that character growth is of varying levels of importance to different kinds of writers. Authors of novels and screenplays need to have character development if story is their primary goal. On the other hand, in many TV shows, comic strips and even, to a lesser extent, comic books, status quo is god and character development is actually something to be avoided. That said, I feel that this is just one of the weaknesses of those latter mediums in the modern era, so I’m going to assume that if you want to be one of those status-quo-cultists, you’ve stopped reading this already.

As I mentioned last week, the people we know are changing all the time, so we expect the people we see in fiction to be doing the same. Since we only see fictional characters in the context of their stories, they need to change visibly within those stories or they don’t seem believable. (Note that your story may take place over a very short period of time, and you may have to work at making that change seem believable. It’s important to think about these aspects of the story while it’s still in the planning stages.)

So what kind of changes can your characters make? Well, they might make a totally circumstantial change – going from rich to poor, or sick to healthy. They might make changes in relationships, making peace with a person they had previously been at odds with or, perhaps most commonly in modern fiction, falling in love with someone they met on the way. And finally, they might make a moral change, choosing to stop or start doing something because it is the right thing to do, or rejecting previously held standards as confining or misplaced. The best characters will make changes of all three types, although not necessarily of the same magnitude.

For example, a man might wreck a car, make up with his girlfriend while in the hospital and decide to give up smoking so he can take care of himself better (and make saving up for a new car easier). You don’t always have to tie the changes together like that, but there’s nothing wrong with it either.

What’s really important in showing changes is to make it clear that your character’s decisions throughout the story have led up to these changes. In the above example, maybe the man’s constantly avoiding talking out his differences with his girlfriend have put him under so much stress he wasn’t paying attention while he was driving. His insistence on smoking might be one source of tension between the two or maybe they’re both smokers and he’s resisted giving it up so she wouldn’t feel awkward when they were together.

This week’s example is Kuzco, the wacky narcissistic emperor from Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, a character who showed significant growth and change, even if it wasn’t all in the most believable of ways (how did Kronk and Yzma get back before Pacha and Kuzco?)

When the Emperor gets turned into a llama he’s in real trouble, particularly with his old adviser trying to make sure he doesn’t get back to normal. And it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be able to drag himself through the jungle all on his own. Enter Pacha. He’s got some disagreements with Kuzco, and a generally better view on life, but he’ll let himself be bribed into leading the Emperor back home. It’ll take a number of double crosses and at least one blatant plot hole to get him there, but by the end of the journey Kuzco’s attitude has improved for the better and the differences between Kuzco and Pacha are mostly resolved. Now if only extract of llama could be gotten from the neighborhood parenting supply store…

A challenge for you this week is to go back and reread (or rewatch) one of your favorite stories and write down all the characters who you feel changed, how they changed and what contributed. Once you’re done, you should have a better idea what kind of stories you want to tell about your own characters.

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