I’m currently reading “The Martian” by Andy Weir, and the book’s premise is wonderful–a man’s struggle to survive on foreign soil. By itself, the plot moves along like a greased roller skate; unfortunately, the characters never do the same.
While reading the book, I became aware of the main character’s lack of growth. I mean, come on, he’s stranded on Mars, and yet from page one, he’s equipped with all the knowledge and grit needed to overcome every broken vehicle, station, and communication device (There’s no room to grow). It’s apparent the protagonist is a thinking machine with full emotional stability and a Swiss Army Knife of mechanical ingenuity for every situation. In other words — he’s too “super” to be human, and that’s how the story begins.
Characters should have room to evolve and become better versions of themselves. The following tips provide a framework for establishing the “change” process.
Determine the Change Before Writing.
Sometimes characters change before your eyes. It’s not uncommon for a character to suddenly stand up for himself or to make a choice he’s never made before. However, as general good practice, the writer should have some idea of how the character will change. Without plans for how the character might transition, the writer may never create a situation where change is plausible or even attempted. Deliberateness in writing does not hinder creativity; rather, creativity thrives under intentional planning.
Foreshadow the Change Early.
A character change should not happen spontaneously. The change must be believable, or the reader will feel betrayed. To ensure a smooth transition for your reader, it’s best to foreshadow the potential for change early on. Characters should display subtle emotions or actions that hint toward the possibility for change. In fact, the reader should be so well-informed of the impending change that he is not surprised when the flip occurs. Consider this sage advice from writer Kurt Vonnegut:
Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Let the reader see a card or two before slamming a royal flush upon the table.
Write the Character’s “Lowest Point.”
Readers want to see the character struggle. To ensure this occurs to the reader’s satisfaction, early conflict should revolve around the character’s inability to overcome an obstacle due to missing some intrinsic value or quality. This might be the character’s lack of courage to stand up for a loved one, lack of motivation to change a dire situation, lack of sympathy for some demoralized group, etc. Make this “low point” in the character’s arc awful and oppressive so that the eventual change is noteworthy in juxtaposition.
Allow Conflict to Drive the Change.
Let the boilerplate of the character’s turmoil rage until change is the only option. Throughout the narrative, allow the character to come into constant opposition with himself, a struggle that directly relates to the primary conflict of the narrative. In The Hunger Games trilogy, the political unrest within the protagonist’s district causes her to consistently face doubt, fear, anxiety, and disgust. These emotions eventually propel the character into a place where change is the only means to survival. The most believable character transitions are those born from a sense of urgent response to an intrinsic need. For more information on how to establish conflict in a story, click here.
Reflect on the Change in the Resolution.
Unless you’re guaranteed a multi-book contract, avoid cliffhangers. Your story ending should provoke wonder but shouldn’t leave the reader so much in the dark that he can’t see a streetlight. In the very least, the reader should understand the results of the story’s climax and be able to guess the repercussions. Once your character changes, let the reader get inside the character’s mind to see the effects. After all, suspense is meant to be satisfied, and if you’ve written a good narrative, your reader will be chewing fingernails, begging for resolution. Reward the reader for making it to the end.
Like real people, fictional characters are destined for change. Give them room to grow, and let them become more than what they ever hoped to be.
What’s the best and most believable character change you’ve read? Let me know in the comments below.