How to make your CHARACTERS CHANGE

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I've talked about characteristics of memorable characters and how to create a plot outline, so now I'll show you how to combine the two to make your characters grow and change.

I'll start with a discussion about dynamic vs. static characters. Yes, there exist some intriguing characters who don't change (e.g. Holden Caufield from The Catcher in the Rye and Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby), but both of those novels had a strong message/theme/symbolism in them. Unless you understood the message of the stories, you probably didn't like the protagonists very much (and I still don't care for Nick at all).

I'm assuming your novels aren't some strongly themed social satires trying to change the world. When you're writing a novel whose sole purpose is to entertain your readers rather than teach them an important lesson or offer some social criticism, usually a dynamic protagonist would be your best choice. Especially in today's age, books are written for purely entertainment rather than some higher intellectual cause, and readers expect a dynamic character, otherwise they'll be scrunching their noses at the “boring” nature of the protagonist

Protagonists who change as a result of their adventures in the story are fascinating to us because they offer hope that we may change for the better as well. It's also quite cool to finish a story and go back to the beginning, and you're caught off guard by what the character used to be. We like to see characters grow and change, so this is why I emphasize dynamic characters over static ones.

As some evidence to support this stance, I will direct your attention to this thesaurus entry for “dynamic”:

Synonyms: activating, aggressive, changing, charismatic, coming on strong, compelling, driving, effective, electric, energetic, energizing, enterprising, forceful, forcible, go-ahead, go-getter, go-getting, highpowered, hyped-up, influential, intense, lively, lusty, magnetic, peppy*, play for keeps, play hard ball, potent, powerful, productive, progressive, red-blooded, strenuous, vehement, vigorous, vitalizing, zippy

Antonyms: apathetic, boring, dull, inactive, passive, unexciting

So which type of character would you rather lead your entire novel, a static one or a dynamic one?

Now we'll move onto the main topic of interest of this how-to: How to make your characters change. At the end of the story, they should be a different person than they were at the beginning, and it should be a noticeable difference. How cool is it when you finish a TV show/movie/book/video game and go back to the beginning, only to be caught off guard by how different the characters were back then? It's a fun feeling, and it's one you'll want to emulate in your novel.

Let me emphasize that while your character should change, it doesn't always have to be for the better. It would be fascinating to follow the journey of a character who changes for the worse as a result of their hardships and adventures. Those stories probably don't have a happy ending, but by no means does the story have to end on a high note or a triumphant character for the story to be interesting. Look at Death Note for an example of a character who changed for the worse. Due to Light's personality disorder, it wouldn't have been realistic or believable if he'd become a better person from mass murdering hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

So you have your character. You know their likes, dislikes, achievements, failures, shortcomings, fears, and dreams. The problem is how you flip as many of those characteristics around to something different in a believable way over the course of your novel.

They key to achieving this is to show your character in their comfort zone, then brutally shove them out of it. Make them uncomfortable. Make them squirm in their shoes and start praying for divine intervention to get them the heck out of there and back into their comfort zone. But don't relent; leave them stranded there.

For example, if your character is an introvert, force them into a situation where they'll have to socialize with not just one person, but a whole crowd. If your character is really high-strung and opinionated, kick them into a situation where they have to hold their tongue (e.g. a Tibetan monastery, a yoga class, a court room). By no means do they have to change at that very moment (in fact, that would be what NOT to do). They can, and usually SHOULD, fail. They should mess up, do something stupid, make the situation worse. (Remember when I said the character's flaws should cause problems for them? This is where that applies!)

Let's analyze some movies.

In The Karate Kid (2009 version), Dre Parker, a kid from Detroit, was forced to move to China and start a new life there. He hated it. He couldn't communicate with the Chinese since he didn't know the language. When he finally made a friend, he got beaten up for it. And this set up the cause for change. If he didn't change, he'd get beaten up and possibly even murdered by the bullies, and his life would suck. That's why he sought out Mr. Han to teach him kung fu, and he learned it and overcame his fear of the bullies. Like Dre, your character needs a reason to change, and that reason comes from kicking the character out of their comfort zone and leaving them stranded in a situation they'd never actively seek out themselves.

In V for Vendetta, Evey Hammond got kidnapped by the government (I won't give spoilers, because if you haven't seen this movie, you MUST), shoved in a tiny, dirty cell, given a sack for clothes, and tortured. You can't get more out of the comfort zone than that. But that experience changed her. She found a note in a rat hole written by a previous prisoner. The note outlined that woman's life, and her story gave Evey the strength to overcome her fear of death at the hands of the government. By the end of the ordeal, Evey looked her captor straight in the eyes, proudly, and said she'd rather die than give them the information they wanted. Afterward, you could really see a big difference in the way she moved and acted. She was calm, in control of her life, and most importantly, she wasn't afraid anymore.

In The Matrix, Neo went from some dead-end computer hacker to The One. But first he got a mysterious phone sent to him, and a mysterious guy at the other end telling him to run from the agents snooping around at his office by going out the window (they were many, many stories up). Neo took one step out onto the window sill and chickened out. The agents caught him, and he got a creepy tracker bug up his navel. This is an example where the character was thrown out of his comfort zone but failed as a result. Then the Matrix guys came and took him in their car, and the entire ride, Neo was tempted to get out. They told him that his life could stay the same or it could change, and Neo took a leap of blind faith with them. Then look at Neo at the end of the movie. He's calm, confident, and in control of his situation. He turned this scary ordeal into his greatest strength and triumph.

The thing to remember about making your characters change is to not do it abruptly in just one or two scenes. It should take them at least 2/3 of the novel for them to change. That final 1/3 is them using their new character to do something. Each harrowing and uncomfortable event should slowly chip away at the person they were at the outset. By the end, they should be sculpted to a different person, but it's vital that this process is GRADUAL. Some events may cause the character to change more than others. (e.g. the death of their best friend/lover turns them from a shy, considerate person to a cold, ruthless, and vengeful one).

If you do have such abrupt and immense personality-changing events, you may want to include several of them. Have them change more than once. For example, Shu from the anime Guilty Crown started out really shy and always wanted to please others so they'd like him. Then he got these fancy powers and he became a little more bolder and confident. Then his friend was killed. After that, he became really harsh and cold, and he made some really “evil” decisions. By the end, he changed again and became more passionate toward his friends and comrades. So he underwent three distinct changes of character throughout the course of the show.

However you decide to change your character and how ever many times, remember not to go overboard. There's no need to change EVERY trait about them. If they used to like cheese at the beginning, they don't need to want to aim a death ray at every pizza and mozzarella stick for the rest of eternity. Find a few traits (or even a single, important one) to change. Also, the change doesn't have to be a complete 180 from what the trait was. If a person is very introverted and quiet, they might become more bolder by the end, but they don't have to become some fiery powerhouse. They can still enjoy quiet, solitary walks in the park or reading next to the fireplace. If you want to make a 180 change, go for it, but it's not required, and such drastic changes to characterization might be difficult to pull off depending on the situation your character is in and what trait you're trying to change with them.

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