We know our characters must change. From the first word to the last, if our main character isn’t different, then we haven’t written a story people will connect with.
But writing believable character change can be hard. Change doesn’t just happen. It’s not enough to simply flip a switch and make our protagonists different from one scene to the next. Our characters need to evolve slowly.
In today’s post, I’m sharing a system of thinking that helps me build characters that experience believable and realistic change.
People Must Change
As the amazing editor Shawn Coyne wrote in his book The Story Grid,
If your Story doesn’t change your lead character irrevocably from beginning to end, no one will deeply care about it.
Before becoming a writer, I worked as a pastor for fifteen years. Clergy get a unique view into people’s lives. We are invited into people’s most painful and personal moments.
I’ve watched couples meet, start dating, get married, have kids, and even get divorced. I’ve counseled professionals through being laid off, searching for new jobs, starting in new fields, and then quitting for something else. I’ve held addicts’ hands as they found sobriety, fell off the wagon, and then sought recovery again.
People change throughout their lives in complicated, slow, messy ways. If we want our characters to connect with our readers, they must change, too.
Characteristics of Change
While each person responds to change differently, there are a few things that are common to change.
It’s always slow. Change is more a marathon than a sprint. We may pick up new habits quickly, but they take time to have real impact on us.
It’s not linear. Going through change is like my teenage daughter picking out an outfit. We try things on, discard them, try new things, discard them, and then finally settle on some combination of the outfit.
It’s rarely chosen. Change is almost always catalyzed by an outside event. We (all people everywhere) hate change. It’s scary and unpredictable, so we will protect the status quo until we can’t anymore. Usually a string of things have to happen to force us to move from where we are.
It’s complete. Once we’ve started the process of change, without a time machine, there’s no going back to the way things were before.
A Model for Change
Capturing something so complex in prose can be intimidating. When I plot how my characters are going to evolve through a story, I use a four-phrase model for change: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.
I’ve stolen these four phases from Bruce Tuckman’s classic theory of group dynamics. In the 1960s, Tuckman studied team behavior for the US Navy. He found that small teams moved through four predictable phases of cohesion. Tuckman proposed that if teams appreciated the existence of the phases, they could optimize their effectiveness and functioning.
To be clear, applying these phases to the evolution of an individual is outside the scope of Tuckman’s work. Still, I find them helpful as a writing tool.
5 Steps to Write Believable Change
To create believable character change, I follow these five steps:
Step One: Establish a Constant Variable
In a scientific experiment, if we want to see how something changes, we must compare it to a constant variable. It’s the same with our characters. We need an unchanging source of influence so we can see how our protagonist is evolving.
At the heart of my most recent book, Mencken and the Monsters, there is a love story between my protagonist, Mencken, and a woman named Rosie. Throughout the book, Mencken is challenged to come to terms with the fact that he must accept the help of a team if he is going to win the battle and save his city. Rosie’s affection for Mencken remains constant so readers can watch how Mencken evolves as the story progresses.
Step Two: Form Your Character
To see how your character changes through the course of the narrative, readers need to know what he/she was like before the evolution began. We need a few scenes of life before the storm. It’s in this introduction that we can establish expectations.
I’ve been reading the Harry Potter series to my middle son. When we started the fourth book, he asked me, “Why does Harry keep going back to the Durselys?” While I told my son it was because that was his home, I knew the narrative answer was that at the beginning of each book readers need the tone to be reset. We need a forming period where we can get to know Harry in the presence of a constant variable (the Durselys), away from the coming storm in the story.
Step Three: Let Your Character Storm
Once expectations have been set, it’s time to shake things up with a storm. Storms begin with an inciting incident that demands our character change. During the storm, our character is going to struggle with who or he/she is going to be in the new reality.
In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, the storm begins when Claire touches the Craigh na Dun stones and is transported back in time to the eighteenth century. This storm forces Claire to redefine who she is as she builds her new life. As readers, we get to struggle along with Claire as she is caught up in the powerful winds of conflict, doubt, and self-discovery.
Step Four: Find Your Character’s New Norm
It’s in the midst of the storm that our character starts to find his/her new normal. The Norming phase of change is tenuous. It’s a time of experimentation, when our characters start to become comfortable in their new reality.
In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Shadow, the book’s protagonist, begins to norm in the sleepy town of Lakeside. For the first half of the book, Shadow is thrown for a loop with the revelation that super natural beings are walking the earth. Gaiman creates a powerful storm for Shadow that puts him through one mysterious experience after another, but in Lakeside, Shadow begins to accept his role in this new reality.
Step Five: Give Your Evolved Character the Chance to Perform
This is the moment readers love. It’s the moment they’ve been reading for. Having been through the storm of a new world forming, and having normed to the new reality, our hero emerges as a new creature, ready to take on the challenge and settle the conflict.
It’s important that we give our protagonists time to perform so readers can revel in the fully evolved character. This is where our constant variable from the beginning becomes critical. Our character's interaction with the variable at the end of change should be radically different than his/her’s interaction with the variable at the beginning.
After the climactic battle in Mencken and the Monsters, I included a final scene in which readers can see Mencken interacting with his new team. While the scene isn’t necessary for the plot, I put it in to drive home how Mencken was no longer the loner he was at the start of the narrative.
Believable Character Change Is Essential
We know we need our characters to change, but change is complicated and can be hard to write. Taking our characters through the process of forming, norming, storming, and performing will help ensure that we slow down change enough to make it believable.
What tricks do you use to write dynamic change in your characters? Let me know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to write a scene in which a main character interacts with a constant variable. Tell us whether this is a character who is forming or performing, and then help us get to know him/her through the scene. When you're done, share your practice in the comments, and don't forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers.