One of the most important aspects of many stories is the transformation of the main character in which he overcomes his flaw. It can be dramatic, like the transformation of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Or it can be more subtle–it probably should be in most stories.
Stories in which the main character changes for the better have a positive change arc. The positive change arc is popular because it usually provides a happy ending and brings hope. You can read more about positive change arcs and other character arcs on K.M. Weiland’s blog.
Characters change in the crucible
Your character changes because you put him in circumstances that make him change. He can’t solve his external problems or defeat his antagonist until he’s overcome his flaw. And he doens’t want to face his flaw and overcome it.
Put your character in circumstances that force a confrontation with his or her deepest flaw. This will be the moment of greatest testing–when we see whether a character has what it takes. Make the conflict intense.
This is one of the most important parts of a story. It takes place after the worst thing has happened in the story. In three-act story structure, this is the disaster at the end of Act II. The character must face the flaw and defeat it to triumph in the climax.
Here are some character change writing prompts. Each prompt gives a character who needs to change and a situation to motivate him to change.
Overcoming a History of Failure
A person with a history of failure has often lost confidence. He may find it hard to start over. In this case, the character test is whether he can overcome his past.
- A character who feels like a failure is put into a situation where he or she must succeed–if a major disaster is to be averted.
- He’s never done well in school or cared about it. Now, he’s decided on a career goal–and getting his grades up will be essential.
- He’s been drifting from job to job, and now wants to pursue an ambitious career.
- After her first business failed, she decided entreprenuership wasn’t for her. She now works at a stable job that she finds boring and unsatisfying. Can she find the courage to start another business?
- Her rash words have cost her a friendship, and now, she’s in contact with this person again. Can she seek forgiveness and renew the relationship?
The Costly Stand
Sometimes, taking a stand can be costly. The cost might be minor, or it could cost your life. Situations like this force your character to face who she really is and what she really believes in and values. Does she value social standing, money, or her own life more than she values her convictions.
- She’s a timid person who retreats in the background. But she feels passionate about a cause and feels she must speak up for it.
- A character living in the antebellum south becomes an abolitionist, which means alienation from his family and friends.
- A character who’s desperate for work has a chance to take a job that will require a compromise of her integrity and values.
- She’s desperate for friendship–but her new friends are pressuring her to do something wrong.
The Truth No One Sees
If you can see that others around you are living a lie, it takes courage to act on the truth.
- A character discovers that what she and everyone around her perceives as reality is an illusion. What does she do? Does she seek to find the truth and tell it to others?
- A character sees that there’s a major threat to his society–but no one else seems to see it. He knows it’s essential to warn others, but he fears being mocked has a lunatic. And what if his fear of the threat is misplaced.
The Temptations of Wealth and Power
Often your character’s crucible will involve adverse circumstances. But wealth and power can test a person’a character, too.
- He suddenly comes into great wealth–and he doesn’t know how to handle it. He finds he doesn’t have to work and has plenty of time and money for partying.
- He’s unexpectedly won an election–and finds himself tempted to become like the politicians he’s long despised.
- She’s made some new scientic or magical discovery that will give her great power over others–but should she use it?
- He’s long sought to take revenge on someone who’s harmed his family–and he’s unexpectedly gained the power to do it.
The Little Things
Real people and fictional characters who do the right thing in major dramatic circumstances are often admired as heroes. But most of us don’t face that kind of challenge every day. Instead, we usually face much smaller crucibles. Sometimes, they are so small we don’t recognize them. But making the right decision in little things prepares people and characters for greater tests.
Try writing a story about a character who must do the right thing in a small matter. Perhaps the decision to do the right thing has much greater ramifications than the character knows at the time.
- She’s tempted to engage at some minor dishonesty at work when it appears no one will ever know about it.
- He’s tempted to break a promise.
- She’s tempted to engage in some harmful gossip to be friends with a popular person.
Facing Our Own Character Change
It can be humbling to write about people who do the right thing in seemingly impossible circumstances. Would we do the right thing under this much pressure? We don’t know if we haven’t faced it. We like to think we’d have been part of the resistance if we’d lived in Nazi-occupied Europe–but most people didn’t have the courage.
Once you’ve written a story about a character like this, you might be ashamed of little compromises in your own life. Your own characters just might inspire you to take courage.
Why do we like stories like this? We don’t like it when we have to face circumstances like these in real life? Perhaps we like experiencing character change vicariously, just like we like to experience an exciting and scary adventure vicariously.
Longing for Transformation
Perhaps it’s because we long for transformation in our own lives. Perhaps, deep down, many people long to break bad habits, break the patterns of their lives, and start anew. It could be a desire to change careers or start a business. Or it could be something much deeper.
There’s an entire online industry dedicated to providing transformation–or at least promising to provide it. Transformational coaches offer methods which they claim will provide personal transformation so people can start businesses and make more money.
But this isn’t the sort of transformation we want to read about in fiction. The transformations characters in stories go through is painful. Sometimes, doing the right thing leads to more suffering.
Do Circumstances Really Make Us Change?
When we write a story, we often put the main character in circumstances that force him to change. The situation is one in this the lie he believes is exposed and his main flaw prevents him from victory. Sometimes, it seems that real people need to change, and don’t get a situation that forces them to.
There are many people who are strengthened by adverse circumstances. But others are broken by them. It’s said that adverse circumstances reveal who we really are–and sometimes, they show us our need for change.