A note you are likely to receive in the course of your writing is that “your character needs to change” by the end of the story. Sometimes, you will be told the character needs to “learn” something or needs to “grow”. Too often, the writer is tempted to include a superficial “change” to meet this note. Doing so usually destroys the story. Here are some observations on how to avoid this pitfall and what is at the heart of character change.
How a character is transformed is different for each story. More importantly, the creative process through which a writer discovers and then creates this character change is likely different for each writer. There is no formula or magic process. However, while you are working through these issues, there are some key questions to ask yourself in order to test whether your conception of the character and of the story itself will ultimately lead you to a story with “character change”.
I use the following questions as departure points to create not only the character but the very bones of the story to support that character. By conceiving of the story through these types of questions, I force myself to create a storyline that comes from character change. Here are the key questions (for me):
1. What fact defines the character’s identity that he or she comes to see differently by the end of the story?
2. What does the character find out that makes him or her see the world differently?
3. What aspect of the character’s core identity does he or she learn something new about which makes him or her a different person at the end of the story?
These are not superficial questions. They involve and have implications for every aspect of your story. Each of these questions involves the very core identity of your character and they all assume that this core changes by the end of the story. The best way to understand this is to see it in action. Here are several examples:
CASABLANCA = The core of Rick’s character is angry bitterness because he was stood up without explanation by the woman he loved. By the end of the story, he finds out why she left him and that she still loves him. It transforms him into a different character (in this case, restoring him to the man he once was). Notice, he literally learns a new external fact that goes to the very heart of his being and changes it.
THE SIXTH SENSE = The core of Malcolm’s character is his belief that he is a phony, not a good doctor to these children. Eventually, he has an insight, namely that Cole might be telling the truth when he says he sees ghosts, and through helping the boy, Malcolm comes to learn that he is not a phony. He ends the story with a great sense of self-worth that he did not have at the beginning. Notice, what he “learns” is an instantaneous insight – namely that he should listen to the Cole instead of judging him. The insight itself does not change Malcolm’s sense of self-worth. Rather, the act of successfully helping Cole gives Malcolm his new sense of being. This is different than Casablanca, where the new fact itself transforms Rick and everything that follows is just a reveal to us that the character has truly changed.
IN THE LINE OF FIRE = Frank thinks he is a coward and that because of his cowardice, the world is a worse place. He is driven by his feeling of cowardice and his need to prove himself. He learns he is no coward when he takes a bullet for the president. He is no longer driven to prove anything. In this case, there is no external fact learned and no instantaneous insight. Rather, his very act of courage transforms him.
UNFORGIVEN = Munny lives a hard life, a cursed man suffering for his sins of the past. Ultimately, he is changed by having to use the same tools he used as a drunken, valueless, murderer to enforce some sense of values and honor. He leaves a changed man with some sense of redemption, clouded though it be.
DIE HARD = McLane thinks he is too dumb and unsophisticated to keep the interest of his wife. He learns he is smart enough to save her life. This is the weakest change of all the examples, but it is still present and important to driving the story forward. This picture was elevated from a B-movie to an A-movie in large part because the change McClane had to go through resonated with the audience.
In each case, the “change” is the character discovering what is already inside of him. Each of these stories leads that character to this discovery in a different way. However, all of them share something in common. The story is conceived in terms of character change. In Casablanca, Rick must become a different man in order to do the right thing. In Die Hard, McClane must actually be that smart person to save his wife. In In The Line Of Fire, Frank must be courageous to save the president. Notice that the stronger the story conception in terms of character change, the stronger the story. In Casablanca, perhaps the strongest of all of these, the change that is required is the enormous. Rick must go from selfish, bitter man to selfless, understanding hero. The person at the end is the polar opposite of the person at the beginning (but, importantly, the person at the end was really there all along; Rick just had to discover him again).
This may be helpful; it may just be Monday morning quarterbacking. Or, like Rick in Casablanca, I may be misinformed. You decide.
Enough. Now go write….