Change

You can’t make someone change. They have to decide that they want to change, and they have to go through the steps required to make a change – and they have to do that by themselves. It’s true that you may be able to encourage someone to change, but that’s only if they agree with what you say and if they want to.

It’s the same way with fiction: a character cannot change totally out of the blue or if another character says he should. There has to be a great deal of motivation leading a character to make a change and become different. Character change is the hallmark of fiction: the main conflict of the story has to change a character from being a certain way at the beginning to acting a different way at the end.

For instance, if you have a drunken businessman who continually cheats on his wife, he’s going to have to change by the end of the story to make the ending feel worthwhile to the reader. And he has to make that change himself. Perhaps he realizes that his business is suffering because he spends his nights after work partying. Maybe he sees that his marriage is crumbling and wants to save it for the sake of the kids, so he reconciles with his wife. Sure, he can have people he trusts (friends, co-workers) tell him he needs to change for his job and family, but he cannot just say, “Oh, sure. I believe you. I’m going to change tomorrow.” The story’s conflict has to change him.

I know that’s kind of a cliche example, but it’s important for all fiction. Readers want a character they can sympathize with; a character who has motivation to become a better person.

It’s like in real life. We’re going to be disinclined to change unless we have a genuine reason to get better. Friends telling us is often not enough. We tend to wait until our bad habits and actions cause a devastating problem, then that’s when we make the change. Sometimes it’s too late, though.

7 thoughts on “Change

  1. You’ve hit on a really tricky concept here.
    I believe that change is essential to a character in a story, unless the character is based upon his or her character. Confusing? I like to use Superman as an example. People around Superman can change, but he cannot. His whole reason for being is to represent a specific type, and to change him causes panic among fans (look at the various versions of Superman in the movies since the 1970’s.
    On the other hand, most of us do not write about such characters. We focus on more human types, people with frailties, faults, and dark sides.
    For me, a character who doesn’t change over the length of a novel is not writing about. While supporting characters might not change (or change much), the protagonist must go through to crucible inorder to survive.
    There are many basic story formats. My two favorites (and I like them combinded) are “The Journey” and “Coming if Age”. Lord of the Rings is an excellent example of the two formats coming together. In LOFR every character goes through the furnace and comes out a different person (or a dead one), and it is through that growth that we (the reader) take our joy, our enlightenment, our satisfaction. We can live with the characters, measure our own responses, wants and needs against theirs, and wonder if we would have grown the same way given the chance.
    EXCELLENT Topic. Sorry if I rattled on a bit.

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    1. Maybe that explains why I don’t care too much for super hero movies. I like when the events of a story force a character to make a dramatic change in himself. Coming of Age is one of my favorite story types. Thanks, Rik!

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      1. I was just watching the last X-Men movie last night, and they really should have called it Magneto. He was the character who changed (a lot). When other characters did change, it was in reaction to him.

        I have a character who is coming from a really bad place (she’s killed a lot of people), and she gradually changes, in reaction to things that happen and decisions she makes (the idea for this progression was suggested by a comment by a therapist friend of mine, in fact). There is almost no conversation about it, but it’s clear if you watch her actions. As you say, declarations of intent are one thing, but it’s what you do that counts.

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        1. I loved that movie, mostly because of how developed Magneto was as a character. That was one of the rare exceptions to my dislike of superhero movies.

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