Change And Growth
Making Characters Change
Copyright © 1994, 1996, 1998, Dorian Scott Cole
What interests us?
Suppose a friend hands you a script about a war between ants and humans. In battle after battle the humans step on them, spray them with insecticide, flood them, burn them, and ultimately triumph over them. The humans have superior intelligence, strength, and size. Would the outcome of any of the battles, or the ultimate outcome ever be in any doubt? No, the humans would only do what they normally do any other day. Would they learn anything or change in any way? No, they aren't required to discover anything about themselves or to stretch themselves or to become different. Would the story be interesting to anyone? Probably no more interesting than watching grain being fed into a grinding mill. (Actually there are at least two stories about ants - one old in which the ants fill a moat in order to get to the humans, and one new story in 1998 - Antz - there are no absolutes).
If nothing new is required of a character, no interest is created. A character must grow in knowledge, in strength or in capacity. The man who can't forgive his wife, learns to forgive. The woman who steals to buy expensive clothes, sees the error of her ways and changes. The detective on the weekly series outwits the culprit; and when he continuously fails to grow in ability, the series fails. Even predictable archetypal characters, whom we know are paragons of virtue and always win, are challenged to the max by their opponents, show us something new and lead other characters to change.
Suppose you have written a story about a King who had won the throne by conquest. He was an excellent swordsman who defeated the previous King's enemies and became next in line for the throne, but he knows only the power of armed force. He now faces three problems. First, the King is opposed by a ruthless villain, a mediocre sword fighter. He easily defeats him at the climax. Second, the King can't bring himself to trust his wife. It was a political marriage bringing two political factions together. In the story you have him suddenly start trusting her just in time for the climactic battle. Third, the Church is demanding he behead his favorite comrades in arms for plundering and raping a nearby village. You have him settle this by having him arrange their escape. Three subplots, but none requiring any change or discovery on the part of the King. What to do?
A mediocre sword fighter opposing the King is not going to make the King stretch. But suppose the King has lost his skill, because of an injured arm, and must trick the ruthless villain into using a different form of battle. What if he provides the villain with an army - secretly the Kingís own men - who are to turn on the villain at the last moment. A tactic more fitting a King. Of course, the villain catches on and brainwashes the new men. The King notices their change in manner and ponders why until he realizes what is going on. He exposes the villainís lies about him and regains his men. The King has grown by becoming more knowledgeable and shrewd. He has changed from using the power of the sword to the power of the mind.
The King can't trust his own wife - what a worry! But he can't just suddenly start trusting her because he's in a crisis. Trust is built over a period of time, so he must test her several times before he gets to the point of trusting her with life and kingdom. Three times he must hold her to the fire and see what she does. Or some incident must happen that makes him trust her. Of course, the King catches her secretly talking to the villain (she's warning him to stay away from her King or die, but the King can't hear this), and she seems to be a flirt with the palace officials, which gets back to the King. But through the three tests, the King grows in trust of his wife.
The Church - God, of all opponents! - wants the Kingís best comrades dead. You had him use deception to free them. Suppose instead, his wife opposes this idea, saying he will lose face, which makes him furious. He rants and raves, and decides to forgive them, but she fights with him. He goes to see them and they convincingly declare their innocence and beg the King's help. He has scarcely said hello to them since becoming King - has forgotten his roots - and at first he doesn't know what to believe. Then days later he remembers heroic acts by his comrades that convince him they could not have done it. At this point he trusts no one, so he plans to investigate the crime himself, planning to pose as a beggar mooching a meal.
He dresses as a beggar but talks like a King and a soldier, so then he must mingle with the beggars to learn how to be a beggar. Being a beggar makes him more compassionate for his people. Finally he learns that three other men did the crime disguised as the Kingís comrades. Of course, they are working for the villain, who believes his moves will divide the King's army. So the King tells the Church of his menís innocence and requests they remain quiet until after the confrontation with the villain. The King grows in skill and compassion from his experience as a beggar and realizes being a King takes more than military might. He also grows in knowledge and appreciation of his comrades and appoints them to higher positions.
Make sure your protagonist, or a main character, is challenged by something which will require him to learn something, or find a reason to change, or acquire new abilities or discover inner resources. Through the course of the story, characters who change or who grow in capacity should do so step at a time, not all of a sudden like knowledge just rained on them from the heavens.