Casablanca GifA 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.

= 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….

59 thoughts on “WHAT IS CHARACTER CHANGE?”

  1. Great post.

    My problem is that I’m writing a script where the character does not change until the very end of the story (last page), and so his change in no way affects anything in the plot. What it does is show us that he’s now going to be okay from this point on. Can this be enough?

    Other than “A Christmas Carol”, can you think of examples where this works successfully?

  2. Wow! Very nice analysis there. Yes, in the end I find it always best if the characters emotional reality is challeneged or changed by his situational reality. Very nice exmamples. I’m talking a bit about structure and this at my site too!

  3. i like munny (unforgiven). this is a complex layered character. he walks the staight and narrow in honor of his deceased wife’s wishes. when he has the opportunity to be paid for killing he accepts the offer, but only, on the face of it at least, for the welfare of his (and his wife’s) children. but, here is the point: did munny have to take this job? life was certainly rough out in the middle of nowhere, but they had been making it, hadn’t they? there was no immediate pressing need for money, at least none that hadn’t been there for what is presumed to have been years.

    this is a finely flawed char (written by david webb peoples – who also co-wrote a little sci fi ditty named ‘bladerunner’). while munny’s intentions seem good, his motives are not so clear. it’s quite possible munny simply is in the mood for a hunt (and tired of taking care of the homestead) as much as he is concerned for his kid’s welfare or bringing justice to a small town. i beleive munny did indeed want to return to his old ways. he claimed not to, but this was self-deception.

    dwp created a colorful group of subtly layered characters, all of which suffer the same thematic flaw: self-delusion. there is a sheriff who convinces himself he keeps law and order when he is a sadistic self-appointed judge and jury who enjoys keeping the township powerless and in fear. there is a biographer who believes he is an important perceptive writer writing about a great man when actually he is propping up his self worth by shadowing a cowardly killer and lapping up his grandiose dictacted lies.

    but, munny is a cut jewel. it seems to me that it’s possible that munny’s arc is reversed. he starts out a good man whose past is checkered, but ends up a terrible man. munny returns to drinking so as to facilitate killing, and this seems to be the central facet of this character. he may be killing criminals, but he is nonetheless killing. in fact, he is hunting and executing. he is fueled by drunkeness and the ability it gives him to murder bad men.

    with every drink munny takes his aim becomes sharper, and, his enjoyment of what he is doing deepens. by the time the smoke clears and he is through relieving the town of its criminal element, munny is swaggering. this progresses to the end when he flatly warns that if anyone hurts more whores he’ll ‘come back and kill every one of you sons of bitches’. this man is as much a contrast to the man we first see trying to corral pigs as you could hope for.

    this, to me, represents the nadir of an arc. the absolute lowest point reached by a man who is trying to right a wrong. however, when i heard this line i cheered internally (as did most, i believe). so, what does that say? that munny’s character rings true. that we all hate to see injustice. but what do we do about it? mostly, nothing. we deceive ourselves as much as the characters in ‘unforgiven’. we cheer a man who is willing to step up when we do nothing. munny may sink before our eyes but he also rises to the status of hero. he may engage in some dirty deeds but it’s for the right reasons and, at least, he is honest with himself – he enjoys it.

  4. Actually, Munny was very reluctant to return to his old ways. He was offered half the bounty money if he’d team up with the kid, but Munny refused. He did NOT want to return to that life, so he said “No” and let the kid ride off alone. BUT his pigs were coming down with some disease and were going to die, so realized he needed the money to feed his kids and keep the farm.

    And I think he killed the people at the end only because they murdered his friend and left him staked out on the street. If they hadn’t done that, Munny would have headed back to the farm.

    Someone please correct me if I’m wrong — it’s been a while since I’ve watched it.

  5. Keith –

    As far as placing your pivotal moment of character change on the last page, a few thoughts:

    1. “Christmas Carol” does not have the change on the last page. Rather, Scrooge has pages of good deeds after he changes. These good deeds make a difference for everyone around him, the very people he abused before. We see he really is a changed person.

    2. When you say your character’s change in no way effects anything in the plot, I assume that his desire for change is present throughout the plot. “Rocky” is a story where the very act of “going the distance” is the character change. The old Rocky would not have done that, but in the act of hanging tough and going the distance, Rocky changes – and the story is over. A character can change on the last page, but the change must be the result of f the entire story before it and the entire story must be directly focused on that change. In “Rocky”, every scene drives towards that character change where, for the first time in his life, Rocky goes the distance at any cost.

    The other thing to be sensitive to is that characters do not always change in one moment. Even in “Rocky”, the change is a process of the course of many scenes. Your character change may be more like that, where it result of the change occurs on the last page.

    Alan and Keith –

    One of the nice things about “Unforgiven” is that very ambiguity you disagree upon. I have had this same argument with many people on both sides of it. Personally, I have always seen the story more like Alan, but I understand the other point of view, too.

  6. keith/tw

    yes, it’s not clear. on the surface munny has perfect justification – and this is the level most movies work on; ‘the aliens will blow up the world if i don’t act’. unforgiven offers the possibility that, privately, munny embraced the opportunity to go on a bounty hunt.

    the pigs had a fever… well, they faced this type issue every day. if you fractured your ankle out there, at that time, you were in bad trouble. if you got a toothache, ingrown nail, strep throat – you name it. what we take for granted today was misery out there, then, in the middle of nowhere, three days horse ride in the heat to the next nowhere in the middle of noplace.

    to suggest the clean version — munny had to act — is just a bit convenient, just a tad. to me, mr. peoples created (engineered) this possibility – munny may have just gone on out there because he wanted, had wanted for years, to toss back half a bottle of whiskey and kill the shit out of some men. and, finally, i think mr. people’s very fine writing supports my contention. if you stop and examine the quality of any scene in ‘unforgiven’ you see what i mean. they’re all so subtle, layered, and beautifully crafted – loaded with subtext of such depth. it’s fair to say (and you must agree) that a writer of this caliber would have the wherewithal to create a character as finely spun as munny (should such a writer choose to do so).

    munny may or may not have had the secret desire to return to the life he left behind – but, this is my point: we will never know. munny is dead. he died way back before the turn of the century out in the middle of the prairie — his character is that real, that believable. munny is the way people are – you never know what their real motive or intent is. not really. who could be that naive? people say ‘good morning, how are you’ when they mean ‘burn in hell, ass’.

    this duality, self-delusion, is thematic. every character in ‘unforgiven’ is actively self-deluded. (a good topic for another post is you like)

    however, you make a valid point, and i agree. most movie characters are far more two-dimensional. this is usual. normal. par for the course. this is because the average writer is ‘par for the course’. again, i tip my hat to mr. peoples. he is a fine writer, a cut above. his ‘munny’ is a beautiful (but not sugary-dumb) man. munny does not ride off into the sunset wistling a tune, he rides off in the night in the rain, drunk, a killer. and where does he go? back to his home in the middle of nowhere. and, what does he do? he tends to his fever struck pigs (he may or may not have been paid any money and even if he was it would not have changed his circumstance permanently for the better).

    if you choose to believe munny had no choice but to go kill some people he didn’t know, who didn’t affect him, so that he could keep his livelihood and family together (when that had to have been threatened every day by one thing or another), that’s fine. the story works on this level. if you choose to wonder whether munny or any of these characters had layers of depth, motive, desire, ego, and history that makes them real and three-dimensional people whose motives are unclear, this story also supports that.

    ‘unforgiven’ won two academy awards (1992), best pic, best supporting (gene hackman). david webb peoples was up for best original script but did not win. i believe ‘unforgiven’ was up for these awards because its story resonates, stays with the viewer long afterward (we’re 14 years out now). this must be due to the depth of character. the plot doesn’t have any such depth (plots never do. they can be complex or simple but they do not have depth. character and theme have depth). i’m putting my money on munny (sorry). this story, his story, really happened someplace somewhere (a billion times over). when it did (does), the guy in the middle of it all has to make some very difficult decisions. these decisions were not, are not, black and white – they are gray as fog – just like us and the rationale we cling to in order to support of our actions, even if those actions are mundane, but especially if they are not.

  7. TW – thanks for your comments. I think I’ve just figured out the solution to my problem. And you’re right, of course, about A Christmas Carol — I’d forgotten it goes on quite a bit from the point he wakes up a changed man.

    Alan – Nicely written argument. I certainly didn’t mean to imply the character of Munny was not deep, complex, painted in shades of grey, etc. I just felt that the story was written so that we see him as being RELUCTANTLY drawn back into the world. I think it’s something he’d rather avoid.

    For example, it’s not as if he is eager to kill the cowboy in the canyon. Nor does he take any joy in it. He only does it when his partner is unable to, and passes him the rifle. (Again, I’m going by my spotty memory, but I think this is how it played out.)

    What works so well for me is how GRADUAL his change is, back to the drunken killer he was many years ago. A less skilled writer might have given in to the temptation to have Munny revert too soon in the story, and too suddenly.

    If Munny had agreed to go with the Kid instead of turning him down, it would have shown that Munny hasn’t really changed much from the killer he was. Instead he basically tells the kid “That’s not who I am any more.” This sets up the gradual change that takes place in his character until, ultimately, he returns to being the vicious unremorseful killer he once was.

    I wish I had more time to discuss this, but I’m desperately behind on two scripts.

    And I have a feeling it would be fun to discuss other things with you, like why Ordinary People deserved to beat out Raging Bull for Best Picture. Maybe when I come up for air.

  8. keith

    yeah, munny doesn’t say ‘okeedokee, let’s go kill us some bad guys in exchange for money’, then go skipping up the trail six shooter in hand. certainly, you can’t have that. but, though munny says ‘that’s not who i am anymore’, it doesn’t necessarily make it so. you read literal values into what the character says, i don’t. the absurdity of the ‘okeedokee’ response is just as bad as having munny say to the kid, ‘well, i promised my wife that i wouldn’t be like that, but she’s dead and the pigs are sick and i could use the money, so okay, let’s go do some hired killing’. munny is absolutely conflicted, not sort of conflicted.

    but, what is he conflicted about? is it breaking his promise to his wife because his family needs money, or, is it returning to a life that, in fact, he never wanted to leave in the first place?

    munny promised his wife he would not return to being a killer. but, this promise was made while she was dying of smallpox (a very nasty disease). here’s munny out in the middle of the prairie in the 1800’s watching his wife die a slow terrible death. he makes a solemn vow. but, did he mean it or was he trying to alleviate her worry for her children’s future? imagine the guilt he would have to live with if he knew in his heart that it was an empty promise, and that he would never be anything other than a ‘known thief and murder, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition)? [all this taken from dwp’s preamble to ‘unforgiven’]. you don’t write such stuff and not mean it. peoples wanted us to know this man’s past and how painful his wife’s death was. under the conditions, munny could very well have told his wife something he knew was not true. munny could feel that he was a hired killer posing as a good father and provider. if that were true then he would have lied to his dying wife. that would be a heavy burden to bear down the road.

    this is not something we can know, but more importantly (and i think mr. peoples conscientiously incorporated this into the character of munny), munny himself doesn’t know which is the case. he would convince himself that he did the right thing only to instantly counter that he is a liar. back and forth for years. that’s the beauty of his character; it’s ambiguous and conflicted — the way real people are.

    this really is what i’m getting at. dwp created a story populated with fully fleshed-out three dimensional characters, not cardboard cutouts. you don’t look at munny and think ‘oh, he feels this way – he thinks this (or that), he does that for simple clear reasons’. most movie characters, however, do not have that depth and you could not (rationally) argue that there is any possible motive for their actions other than that which is obvious. most writers create scripts with characters that are simple, direct, and not compelling. munny, clearly, is not these things. what he is, though, can’t be summed up neatly or conclusively. not by us or him.

  9. Will Munny is what he is, and he seems to realize that his past will never leave him. He does his best to ‘save’ the younger of their group by offering up a dose of outlaw reality (which is probably one of the most poignant and distinctly human moments in the movie, I thought) — the truth that once you cross that line, once you murder another human being and take away everything he is… was… and would ever be… it’s not something to feel good about. It stays with you, and it’s often messy — it leaves a hole which can never be filled.

    Personally, I loved the film. It’s one of the best westerns I have seen since “High Noon” with Gary Cooper.

  10. Awesome! Thank you so much for that! One of those guiding posts that we should all always keep in mind.

  11. I’d better get back to my own script. I’m not sure if I engineered enough of a character transition in the main protagonist. He is thrust into a reality he once only studied in textbooks and museums. He goes through terror, anger, and ultimately acceptance. I guess if he had one change, it was that in the end he was at peace… letting go of all his previous baggage (the loss of a wife, missing a daughter, and ultimately being far removed from his former life… never to return to it). He’s given the ultimate ‘start off fresh’ card… but it has a price. Hmmm… maybe my character has an arc after all!

    I’ll have to think about it. Crafting a good story is very challenging, confounding (at times), rewarding (more often than not), and addictive!

  12. What a great opinion…
    I’m doing my S1 final project now and my topic is “how the character change affected language change”…
    and I took Eat Pray Love as my source data analysis…
    Sorry, to copy one of your question above for my statement of problem…

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