The basic mechanism of character change in any story is incredibly simple. A hero starts off with a weakness that is ruining his life and he moves to the logical opposite of that weakness. If he’s purposeless, he gains purpose. If he’s fearful, he becomes fearless. If he lacks maturity, he becomes an adult. If he feels he can’t lead, he becomes a leader. Of course, you may have already figured out there is one exception to this rule. When a character does not make this change, we have a tragedy. We have a character that fails to live up to their potential and they fall, ending in their exile, humiliation or most likely their death.
When you first discover there are rules in writing, you rebel. It’s natural. In fact, as a writer moves through his career, he discovers more and more rules. Immediately he starts to wonder how he can break those rules. For every rule he learns, he tries to find stories he thinks are exceptions to these rules. He begins to think, every rule can be broken. This is a battle we all fight. How do we learn the rules of writing and then learn when we can break them?
I can give you one sure fire way to tell if you are off track when breaking a rule. If you are breaking a rule simply because you hate rules, or because you feel rules destroy your creativity, you are off track. Why? Because this is an emotional reaction to rules. Rules seem at odds with the free flow of creativity. They aren’t though. Even creativity has it’s own rules. For instance, when you write, I bet you have a ritual. Maybe you go into isolation or sharpen pencils or free-write before you start writing that novel or screenplay. Maybe you don’t edit or maybe you edit first. Whatever your ritual, its really a set of rules, designed to enhance your creativity. The rules that guide story creation are the same. They are there to help and no amount of resistance will make them less effective or essential to your own story’s success.
The key to understanding writing is to recognize what rules are immutable. All manner of writers before you have tried to break every rule possible. Rule breaking has been taken to extremes by authors and painters and musicians who all went through a similar collective battles over the last few hundred years. Painting went from ultra-realism to impressionism to abstract to painting canvases a single color. I’m betting you don’t think painting a canvas all red is really art. I don’t. I think it’s a waste of time that a few pretentious art students and critics who never matured can make an argument for at the intellectual level, but never the emotional or spiritual level. When you think about stories that broke every rule, it’s likely those stories aren’t in your personal pantheon of great books and films. Maybe one or two of them are, because they appeal to your natural rebel spirit but not many of them. Rather, think of rule breaking like the impressionists did. They looked at ultra realistic art and said this isn’t how we see the world. We see it through an emotional filter that distorts and changes what we see. We see quick impressions. This is a subtle change in viewpoint that leads to a unique art form. But it’s radically different from painting a canvas red and calling it art. This is the change you should shoot for, a subtle shift that keeps the spirit of the rules. Impressionists were still painting the great subjects of life, the sky, the stars, the sun, the cities and the rivers. They just did it through their own unique lens.
So what rules are immutable in stories? Conflict is the first. No conflict, no story. That one goes deeper. If there is a conflict it must be resolved as a battle between the hero and the opponent. A third party can not swoop in and kill off the opponent. It never works. The other immutable is that change must be complete for it to be change. Now I won’t tell you every story must have a character that changes. There are a few genres, where the change in the main character does not usually happen, namely the detective story and the action hero story. Indiana Jones comes to mind as a character that never changes. However, the stories in those genres that transcend that genre, usually have intense character change. So if you want to write a breakout detective or action story, make that character change. In fact, every major comic book movie reboot over the last few years involves one major change, a focus on the change of the main character over the course of the story. The comic books themselves always had this element, it was just late getting to the screen. The result of these reboots that add the element of character change? Some of the most popular and beloved movies of all time. Spiderman. Batman Begins. The Dark Knight. Avatar.
If you’re going to do character change, do it right. If you are not, you better be doing it in a genre that expects that, and you better have a good reason why. But if you want a mature storyteller’s story, you want change. And if you want change you want to observe the deeper rules of change. Make the change a real weakness that must be overcome for the hero be successful. For instance, in my new story, I’ve decided to make the hero someone who doesn’t want to lead and who believes he can’t lead. And yet to win the war against his family and the larger enemies of his country, he has to become a leader. He has to throw off his immaturity and become a man who takes responsibility.
How do you figure out the arc of your character’s change? You start at the end. What will he be like at the end of the story. If he is a mature adult, then he should start as an immature kid, with lots to learn. You might recognize that as a Bildungsroman or coming of age story. If he is a man with a strong purpose at the end, he should start off with none. Again, these changes are not that hard to visualize. Don’t resist the character arc just because. Understand it. Use it. Make your story better because of it.