How to create CHARACTER GROWTH (TV to Books: ATLA pt. 2)

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"Show character growth" is a common piece of writing advice, but often the mechanisms of how to do that aren't explained very well. This how-to will tackle those mechanisms!

A character shows growth when they've learned an important lesson. This is a lesson important to THEM, so the lesson could actually be seen as morally wrong to us. Characters can grow for the better or worse.

I'll exemplify with one of the most thought-provoking animated shows of all time, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Sokka starts out being sexist and mysoginistic. A big cause of that is the culture he was brought up in, where the men fight and go to war to protect the women. He's also got a younger sister he's told to take care of and protect, even though that younger sister (Katara) is a powerful water bender who can do more damage than he can.

So how does Sokka grow out of this unhealthy mindset? The writers put him against a group of female warriors, The Kyoshi Warriors. Sokka is at first arrogant in front of them, but one of them, Suki, quickly puts him in his place and beats him down.

The writers showed Sokka's growth in this situation by making him kneel before Suki and ask her to teach him how to fight. Sokka gained humility and took action to show it. Later in the series when he's dating Suki, they're all trapped in prison and trying to escape, and Suki kicks major butt. Sokka just stands back with a goofy smile on his face, so proud that his girlfriend is that strong and badass.

His mindset went a complete 180 from thinking women as inferior objects, to respecting them as fierce warriors and wonderful human beings, equal to any man.

What we can learn from a writing standpoint is that to make your characters grow, ask yourself these questions:
1. What is one of their major flaws in thinking/perception/value?
2. What event or situation would force the character to see the error in their thinking? Or what would force them to see things from a different perspective?
3. What concrete action can they take to show they understand that new perspective and internalize it?

I'll answer these questions with Zuko, now! There are a lot of flaws Zuko turns around, but I'll just exemplify one for now:

1. What is one of their major flaws?
He thinks his father is the only one who can restore his honor.

2. What event or situation would force the character to see the error in their thinking?
This is a hard question to answer for Zuko because it's really 3 seasons worth of events that change his thinking. By living as a commoner in Season 2, he learned humility and learned that commoners can be awesome and worth just as much as royalty. Uncle Iroh's many proverbs about honor being something you earn for yourself, not get handed to you, come into play as well. He joined up with his arch nemesis and trained him.

3. What concrete action can they take to show they understand that new perspective and internalize it?
Zuko faces his father and says one of the best speeches of this show:
Zuko: "For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me. To accept me. I thought it was my honor that I wanted. But really, I was just trying to please you. You, my father, who banished me just for talking out of term. You, my father who challenged, me a 13-year-old boy, to an agni kai. How can you possibly justify a duel with a child?!"
Father: "It was to teach you respect!"
Zuko: It was cruel! And it was wrong."

In this short exchange, we see the whole development in one fell swoop: Zuko thought he was the one at fault for so many years, but now he understands that his father was in the wrong, and he's now facing his father with swords in hand, holding his father accountable for his crimes against him.

Let's see some negative growth with Azula. With negative growth, the questions would be the opposite:

1. What is one of their major redeeming qualities in thinking/perception/value?
She actually didn't have any. Her flaws just got worse over time. So in that line of thinking: She was arrogant and ruled using fear.

2. What event or situation would force the character to change their thinking? Or what would force them to see things from a different perspective?
Her best friends betrayed her. Mai said "I love Zuko more than I fear you." That drove Azula into a deeper spiral of hatred and jealousy, and she became psychotic.

3. What concrete action can they take to show they understand that new perspective and internalize it?
She tried to kill her brother because she hated him so much. She was jealous that he was loved more by their mother, and now he stole her best friend's loyalty.


Keep in mind my questions aren't the be-all, end-all of character growth. They are very loose guidelines with so many exceptions. Rewrite the questions to fit your character's situation. For example, the character absolutely doesn't have to take a concrete action to show they internalized a new value. There are many ways to show that. Action is just one example.

You can see how Azula didn't fit 100% since she didn't have any good values to begin with (though you can definitely argue that she did!). If you try this with Aang, he starts out advocating non-violence, a redeemable trait. Then the other Avatars tell him he has to use lethal force and kill the Fire Lord, and Aang loses his mind trying to figure out what to do. Ultimately, he finds a non-violent solution. So his character growth revolved around not fixing a flaw, but rather strengthening a redeemable trait he already had.

It's impossible to create questions that would fit every situation, or even most situations, so use these if they work for your specific character, or rewrite them to fit.

So you guys give it a try now! Either with my questions or your own! If you write your own, I'd love to hear your explanations of how your characters grow outside this "mold" of questions I came up with. I'm all for the exceptions. Share your ideas in the comments!

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