Monday, December 22, 2008

Change in Your Characters

When Cheryl Klein spoke on plot at Prairie Writer’s Day, there was one thing she really hammered home: your main character must change. It’s part of the definition of internal plot.

I’ve heard the same thing from many others, and it’s rare that I enjoy a story where the main character doesn’t change. So this idea of change must be true, but my question is this: what does change mean, and how is it applied?

Webster’s definition of change: to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone; to transform or convert; to become different; to become altered or modified; to become transformed or converted (usually fol. by into); to pass gradually into

Hmm. Sounds pretty drastic, especially if your character is a baby-stepper. Some characters are good at altering a particular mindset, eliminating or adding to a huge part of his normal life, or even changing of who he is. Others...not so much.

If your character is resistant to change(like many people in the real world), what do you do? What if his life is not too bad the way it is? Does that automatically mean his story will flop? I don’t think so.

I think that there are varying degrees of change. With a character who’s open to change, his growth must be more drastic than the ones who aren’t open to change. With a character who’s not open to change, he still needs to grow in some way, even if it’s simply taking one tiny step toward the change he needs to make.

I think a lot of writers make a huge mistake in this area. They think their characters need to change, so they change them, regardless of whether it’s the right kind of change for that character. But how do we know what the right kind of change is? It’s all in the character, and writing what’s consistent with what your character would do, given the circumstances he’s under.

For example, I’ve said before that I didn’t think Frankie’s change was consistent with her character in THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS. Given what we knew of her, and how good she was at getting what she wanted, her initial confession didn’t fit her character. Nor did her actions afterward fit.

Conversely, Connor’s change in UNWIND makes perfect sense. What starts off as self-preservation turns into a desire to help more than just himself. Given the circumstances he’s been in, he’d have to be a horrible person to not take this path. Readers don’t generally like reading about horrible people. : )

Anyway, I guess my point is that, yes, a character must change. But the level of change must be consistent with who your character is.


Marcia said...

Hahahaha, I have a future blog post that is KIND OF tied into this scheduled for Friday. Your point is very well taken. Sometimes the change in a story seems dictated by what the writer thought should happen in the PLOT rather than what would be likely for the character.

Gutsy Living said...

Since I'm writing a memoir and not fiction, an unexpected change happened to my husband and me, during our one year living on a Caribbean island, due to our environment. The change that happened to our teenage son, was the one we had hoped for.

Kelly Polark said...

That is a good reminder. I'm working on a PB and the main character needs that change a little bit!

Anonymous said...

As someone who's stubborn to change myself, I hear what you're saying. And I'm taking it in for my character... I usually go for the more subtle having-eyes-opened-to-something changes in a character by the end of a story. Not like she turns into a werewolf or something. Here's to hoping that's enough!

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Thank you! You have stated this well. My first novel's MC changes very little. She goes through a terrible experience, but comes out not too different from where she started. For her, however, the change is HUGE. Just a baby step for most people, but large for her.

It's all in the way you tell the change that matters.

Bish Denham said...

Sometimes changes are subtle, or should be. I don't always like those knock-you-over-the-head, I'm-in-your-face, isn't-it-obvious changes. People rarely change suddenly over night, or over a summer. In my experience it's a slower process than that.

PJ Hoover said...

Change is good. I also look at the doorways of no return. The character can't be the same person they were before they went through the doorways. So I try to see how different they will be once they've gone through.
Great post!

Tabitha said...

Good morning all! My kids are home with me for the next two weeks so posting will be erratic. :(

Marcia - are we surprised? Nope, not in the least. :) I swear we were handed the exact same brainwave at birth. :)

GutsyWriter - interesting point! I guess I should have qualified my post that this was for fiction, since non-fiction is already set. Then, you must give the reader the change as it really happened, or it's no longer non-fiction. Thanks for bringing that up!

Kelly - I think you can get away with very little change in PBs. Kids that young are changing every day, and don't quite understand growth yet. And sometimes I think you can get away with the circumstances changing more than the character. But I don't write PBs, I just read them to my kids. So take that with a grain of salt. :)

GWG - Hi! I've really been enjoying your blog posts lately. :) And yeah, I LOVE the journey a character undertakes, and the growth achieved as a result. That, to me, is what makes a story great. :)

Nova - I think people in general are resistant to change. Yet a lot of stories out there are more about the huge my-life-will-never-be-the-same-again alterations. So it's refreshing to hear that you write about the subtleties. :)

Lady Glamis - exactly! Everything is in the execution, and a tiny change can seem astronomical as long as it's consistent with the character.

Bish - boy is that ever true. I'm a person who's open to change, so I can make huge, life-altering changes when I see it's necessary. But those tend to take years, especially under relatively normal circumstances. I'm with you in that I prefer a more realistic change rate. The others seem like they're going for shock factor or something. :)

PJ - oooo, good point! Point-of-no-return can happen with anything, a simple choice. I think the most common examples of this are when the character is in an extreme situation. Like THE HUNGER GAMES, or UNWIND.