How Characters Change

How Characters Change - Writing Worksheet

At school you probably learned the distinction between “static” and “dynamic” characters. Static characters are usually defined as those who don’t change, or those who resist change. Dynamic characters, in contrast, are transformed by the story.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THIS WORKSHEET (PDF)

The change that a character undergoes from the beginning through to the end of the story is also called the “character arc”, or “character development arc”. Often, a strong development arc is considered to be one in which the character makes an essential change, and improves their situation.

Characters change because:

  1. The experiences they undergo during the story alter their perception of the world, of other characters, and of themselves.
  2. The world is changing around them and they need to adapt.
  3. They travel to a new world and need to adapt to it.
  4. They’re growing older.

Characters remain unchanged because:

  1. They’ve reached a mental, emotional, or physical peak or plateau.
  2. For various reasons, the story has not required them to change. This might signal a weakness in the story plot.
  3. They’re resistant to change. This is often the defining trait of a tragic hero.

How Characters Change

Most stories describe a character’s transformation from one state to another, and over time, storytellers have developed plot formulas to help them understand how characters change and how this change can be related to an audience.

In general these formulas guide the character through the following steps:

  1. THE CHARACTER REACTS TO AN IMPETUS: The character receives an impetus to change. This trigger to action may be internal or external. In other words, the character may decide to leave their current state of being of their own accord, or another person or event can urge them to do so.
  2. THE CHARACTER ENTERS A NEW WORLD: The character comes in contact with new places, new people, new ideas, and new rules that make them rethink or doubt the ways of their state of being at the beginning of the story. This new world creates a sense of uncertainty that is necessary for unsettling the character’s old beliefs, in order that new perspectives can take their place.
  3. THE BEGINNING STATE IS PROVED TO BE UNSOUND: The uncertainty created by the character’s meeting new people and ideas is further eroded. The character sees the problem of their beginning state, and the direction in which they’ve been heading. Sometimes, especially in the “mythic mode”, the character undergoes a figurative death.
  4. THE CHARACTER UNDERGOES A PARADIGM SHIFT: A paradigm shift is a fundamental change is perspective that has repercussions for an entire belief system. Often this shift is a synthesis of the original state, and the lessons that the character has learned in the new world. It leads to an important insight that allows them to finally understand the direction in which the story is taking them. Some frameworks describe this as the moment when the character moves from being reactive to being proactive.
  5. THE CHARACTER EXPERIENCES LOSS OR FAILURE: Sometimes a devastating failure or seemingly-fatal defeat will further detach the character from their old state of being, or from the direction that they thought their story needed to go. This may be the death of a mentor, guide, or guardian, or it might be an event that seals the fate of a particular enterprise. The loss guarantees that the character can’t go back to the way things were, but it may also give them a sense that they have nothing more to lose.
  6. THE CHARACTER DISCOVERS WHAT THEY TRULY NEEDED: Finally, the character understands the new state of being that they are being led towards, and accepts the change. This usually involves a hidden part of their personality coming to light, and bringing them the necessary strength and certainty.

Consider how closely this summary follows a change you recently made yourself, or are hoping to make…

As readers we enjoy  following the logical unfolding of this progress in the character’s psyche – although this does not necessarily mean that we need to have access to the  character’s mind. If a step is skipped, or dealt with in an unconvincing way, we might feel that the writer has missed an important insight, or rushed ahead to a conclusion.

For more guidance, please refer to this post on plot formulas.

Plot formula cheatsheet

Internal vs. External Change

Internal changes are visible only to the character themselves, and to the narrator who has access to their thoughts and feelings.

External changes are visible to other characters, and to the narrator who has access to the character’s appearance, and behaviour.

How Characters Change their World

Some characters, having undergone a change through the story, will end by changing the world around them. In the Hero’s Journey (or monomyth), this occurs when the character steals or wins the Elixir of Life – a symbolic substance that restores life – in the underworld, and brings it back to the Ordinary World in order to share it with others who have not been through the same journey.

As well as bringing life, the character may also change the world using the knowledge and wisdom they’ve gained through their experiences in the story.

Common Character Changes

Characters may change:

  1. The way they think and feel about a particular person or group of people.
    For example, they may come to realise that an enemy or opponent is no different from them.
  2. Their occupation or preoccupation.
    For example, they may change from being a warrior to a healer.
  3. A trait or set of traits they possess.
    For example, they may change from being disappointed to being determined.
  4. In status.
    For example, they may change from being a commoner to a member of the royalty.
  5. Their level of knowledge.
    For example, they may change from not knowing anything about magic, to being a master magician.
  6. Their level of ability.
    For example, they may change from being a terrible public speaker to one of the most articulate speakers in the world.

Not all change that characters undergo is positive, although in general negative change is the domain of failed heroes or antagonists. If you’re enrolled in The One Page Novel, you can read the lesson titled, Failed Heroes, Tragic Heroes, Antagonists, Villains, and Anti-Heroes for more guidance.

How to Use This Worksheet

If you’re using this worksheet while studying a story:

  1. Enter the story title at the top right.
  2. Enter the name of the character you’re studying at the top left.
  3. Enter their beginning and end states. In The One Page Novel method, these are the Stasis and Resolution states.
    1. What’s one word or phrase that describes the character at the beginning of the story? Note down this word or phrase in its internal and external aspects.
    2. What’s one word or phrase that describes the character at the end of the story? Note down this word or phrase in its internal and external aspects.
  4. Find references in the text to the 6 steps.
    1. Does the character demonstrate all of them?
    2. Does the character go through the steps in order?

If you’re using this worksheet while writing a story:

  1. Enter the story title at the top right.
  2. Enter the name of the character you’re writing at the top left.
  3. Enter the character’s end state. Refer to this plot workshop for more guidance.
    1. What’s one word or phrase that describes the character at the end of the story? Note down this word or phrase in its internal and external aspects.
  4. Turn the end state into its opposite to create the beginning state.
    1. Note down this word or phrase in its internal and external aspects.
  5. Brainstorm scene ideas for each step of the process of change. Alternatively, you could draft a short summary for each step, taking into account the internal and external aspects of the character’s journey.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THIS WORKSHEET (PDF)

Neil Gaiman Writing Masterclass

How Characters Change & Why

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