5 Steps to Write Characters that Change

by Jeff Elkins | 34 comments

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.

5 Steps to Write Character Change

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.

PRACTICE

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.

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."

34 Comments

  1. Stella

    What about characters whose defining trait is that they DON’T change? They start out heroic and despite pressures to change, they stay heroic through to the end of the story.

    Harry Potter’s the best example. He has this ‘saving-people thing’ which gets him in trouble in Order of the Phoenix, when Voldemort plants fake memories of his godfather being attacked so that he can lure Harry into a trap. But it’s Harry’s very willingness to sacrifice himself for others which lets him triumph in Deathly Hallows. He walks into the Forbidden Forest to give himself up to the Death Eaters, and so Voldemort inadvertently destroys the Horcrux that was in Harry.

    I’ve been puzzling over this for a while. How does this work? Almost a reverse character arc – characters whose development is that they DON’T change even though everyone else is telling them they should.

    Reply
    • Carrie Lynn Lewis

      Stella,

      I’m not a Harry Potter fan, but I do see a parallel in the Captain America movies.

      In the first movie, Steve Rodgers is established as a character who is “good for the sake of being good” (Chris Evans’ words).

      That characteristic is challenged again and again throughout that movie and every succeeding movie.

      The secret appears to be increasing the intensity of the challenges to the basic goodness of the character. Will they remain good against escalating odds or will there come a point when they cave?

      Through all of that, they do ultimately change in some way. It can’t help but happen.

    • Stella

      Thanks! I hadn’t thought of Steve Rogers but I can see the parallels. I enjoyed the Captain America movies (Captain America over Iron Man any day!) and will keep him in mind from now on. Thanks for your thoughts, they really help!

    • crystal johnson

      Same with Superman

    • Bruce Carroll

      I was going to say I think the changes in Superman stories are not in the character of Superman himself. Then I remembered Superman died once. He came back as several competing Supermen and also got married. Yes, Superman has been through a lot of changes.

    • crystal johnson

      I was looking at the changes from living on the farm not knowing who he is and where he’s from, to becoming the sentient being of hope.

    • Jeff Elkins

      I think I can argue that Harry changes a lot through the books. He goes from fairly helpless and afraid in the first book to mature and at time militant in the final book of the series. Additionally, his self-confidence builds as well. With Superman, it depends on the story arch. This is one of the reasons, I think, people struggle to connect with Superman movies.

      A lot of times these super hero stories follow a more “dark night of the soul” transformation. The character begins as good and pure, then his/her self understanding is challenged, then in the end of the story they are reaffirmed as being good and pure. When these stories are at their best, the ending version of the character is more evolved and aware (less naive) about his/her place in the world.

      Captain America (mentioned below) is a great modern example of this. While he always comes out as the knight in shinning armor, with each story something about him changes. He distances himself from others at the end of his first movie. He loses faith in institutions at the end of his second movie. He is willing to become a maverick at the end of his third movie. If we back up and look at the story arch in total, the character that started the fight in WWII is very different than the character that ends the civil war. Still the good guy, but he has been through a serious transformation.

    • Stella

      Thanks Jeff. Your comments always leave me enlightened. I guess the characters change in their secondary traits, but their defining characteristic (Harry’s selflessness, Captain America’s ideals) remain the same. Bruce Banner would probably be a more typical example of character development. He goes from self-imposed hermitdom in the first Avengers movie to openly and voluntarily using his powers at the end of the first movie, only to go back into hiding at the end of Age of Ultron. Whereas with Cap his development is a lot more subtle. Bruce’s defining characteristic is his relationship with The Hulk, and he goes back and forth on this like a pendulum.

  2. Mintress

    I honestly don’t know how to change my character. I know how I want them to change, but I can’t seem to get it across. I feel like trying these steps might help a little, but I am still stumped about it.

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      Here is another trick I will do to create evolving characters. Maybe it will help. Draw a T chart. On the left side, right down characteristics of your character at the beginning of your story. What is she/he like? What does she/he do for fun? What is her/his job? What are her/his relationships with other characters like. On the right side of the T, write down the end result. Forget the story line for a minute. Just write how some of the things might change. For example, maybe on the right your character is a prince, then on the left he is a king. Maybe on the right he is kind, then on the left he is guarded. Maybe on the right he is best friends with another character, but then on the left their relationship is strained. Some things will stay the same. Maybe on both sides of the T your character is always compassionate. Now pull out the places your character changes on your T and ask, “How does someone go from being a prince to a king? What would cause a kind person to become guarded?”

      Start using the changes in your character to build “storms” into your plot.

      Hope that exercise helps.

    • Mintress

      Thank you for this! I feel like this will help me a lot.

  3. Christine

    This is more musing than a proper exercise, but your article has sparked some thoughts and I’ll jot them down.

    There are many layers of change, both outward and inward, that come into play as we go through life. I’m sure we want our protagonists to change is because we all want to change in some positive way. Though a person resists change, something inside us identifies it as growth and gain, things we want. And watching the story’s MC learning life’s lessons helps us; as they say, “Learn from the mistakes of others so you don’t have to make them all yourself.”

    Life gives us infinite possibility for growth and change. One of the first and biggest is the revelation that the world doesn’t revolve around us. This is where we leave the teen mindset behind and maturity begins. Interacting with others, we realize we actually can’t be the WHEEL that makes everything else turn, but if we are content to be one of the cogs we can find a satisfying place and help make the whole thing run well. (Teamwork)

    Also, people usually change when they recognize the truth about themselves and their own faults. I feel everyone else is against me, until one day I see how self-centered I’ve been. I wonder why others don’t pitch in and help until one day I catch myself criticizing someone who’s made the effort — and I wasn’t satisfied with what they’d done. (A lot of parents & children go through this one.) A person who never gets this “good look in the mirror” is apt to spend his whole life blaming others for his actions or inability to cope.

    Pain teaches us. I know one fellow who was violent with a number of his girlfriends. And they left him. Took years and a number of painful breakups, but it finally hit home that if he’d continue lashing out in anger, he’d always be left alone. Another friend had to realize that she could never satisfy her abusive spouse’s demands, that he’d always be getting drunk, blaming her, and she’d always get beaten. That she had to get out or die. Change in that case was being willing to face the truth, to stand up for herself and take action.

    Sometimes the “change” we go through is just to learn patience, how to wait and trust others to come through, that I’m not the only person int he world that really cares about this issue. So many options! Now, how to spin out the circumstances that illustrate some of these changes!

    In real life I always appreciate it when people are willing to share personal examples of learning and change. It gives me hope for this old world, that people aren’t bound to go on messing up, being miserable, and wasting their lives.

    Reply
    • Bruce Carroll

      This helped me understand changing characters much more than the article did (no offence to Mr. Elkins). You gave solid, real-life examples not only of change, but of the growing DESIRE for change. I can grasp that much better than norm, form, storm…dorm? Chloroform? (I never could remember rhyming mnemonics.)

    • Christine

      I’m glad my real-life examples helped you.

      One thing I’ve pondered since I read this article is how Wuthering Heights ever became such a “classic love story” when in fact the whole tale is one of obsession, jealously, greed, cruelty, and bitterness. The only change in the MC, Heathcliffe, is degeneration. He continues all through the book as a vengeful, wretched man making others suffer. When he dies in the end we all heave a sigh of relief.

      If we all look for and hope for change, why has this tale been such a hit over the years? Can anyone explain that one?

    • Bruce Carroll

      It is the same mystery that surrounds Romeo and Juliet. Two teenagers, who’ve only known each other for two days, obsess over each other, get married and end up killing themselves over the loss of the other. One friend of mine insists the only reason it can be considered a great love story is that ALL romances should last only four days.

  4. 709writer

    Sean’s voice was low as he shoved the pistol’s barrel into Shadow’s forehead.

    “Don’t!” Julia shouted as she bolted into the clearing.

    The soldier spun around on his heel, yanking Shadow with him. “Get over here,” Sean yelled from across the clearing.

    Her feet moved forward on instinct for a step. But then she stopped.

    “Let him go,” she said, her hands clenched into fists, and she lifted her chin. This time would be different.

    Sean stared at her. He made no move to release Shadow or lower the gun from her friend’s head.

    She drew a long breath. Releasing it, she extended her hands out in front of her. Psychic energy flowed through her body and concentrated in her palms and on her fingertips.

    Sean loosened his grip on Shadow and her friend sagged to the earth. She could sense Shadow still breathing, and her insides relaxed.

    The soldier’s mouth hardened as he and Julia stared at each other. Even though her stomach tied itself into a knot, she didn’t look away.

    Sean pushed his pistol into its holster. He approached her.

    As he closed the distance between them, her throat constricted so tight she could only sip a breath. He was twice her size. And from the glint in his eyes, he wanted something more than just to knock her around. Something sick and ugly.

    She didn’t move from her position in the grass. Shadow needed her. This time, she wouldn’t cower and plead, squeeze her eyes shut and imagine she was somewhere else.

    She would stop Sean.

    “Leave us alone,” she said.

    Sean continued striding toward her. A smirk lifted his mouth. “You honestly think you’ve got a chance?” He stopped about two yards away, his eyes boring into her. “You’re a weak, worthless brat. And I’m going to teach you respect.”

    Julia’s jaw clenched and her fists tightened.

    A dark glint lit Sean’s eyes. “Get on the ground and keep your mouth shut, and I’ll let your friend live. Fight me and scream, and not only will I rape you right out here in the woods, but I’ll put a bullet in Shadow’s head.”

    “What’s wrong with you?” Julia shouted, tears filling her vision. “Only a monster hurts people the way you do. You’re just a bully!” She trembled, but her voice gained strength. “And if you think I’m going to be quiet while you hurt me – or my family – again, forget it.”

    With a grunt, she shoved her hand to the side, slamming a wall of psychic energy into Sean and sending him pinwheeling into a tree headfirst.

    Any feedback/comments welcome. What do you call it in a character arc when someone starts out a certain way (say cheerful, adventurous, likes excitement and risks), then those things get dampened by a frightening experiences (torture, etc), then those attributes slowly come back? Julia starts out adventurous and upbeat, gets kidnapped and tortured and becomes hesitant to take certain risks and trust others, then over time, she relaxes and becomes more like her old self, if that makes sense?

    Anywho, let me know what you guys think about the piece and the character arc I mentioned. : )

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      Loved this piece. “Her throat constricted so tight she could only sip a breath.” Absolutely fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

    • 709writer

      Thank you Jeff! : )

    • Reagan Colbert

      Definitely kept me reading.. You seem to have perfectly described a character who has experienced something traumatizing, and they struggle to live past it. Like inside her spirit died, and she has to learn to ‘live’ again, live past her experience. Even if she succeeds in living past it, she will always have that scar, and it has in some way left her changed. It’s a victory then for her to live despite it, like she has beaten it.
      Definitely a complicated and intriguing character arc.

    • 709writer

      Thank you Reagan, I appreciate the positive feedback!

    • Tina

      I call a character like that, who changes, but hopefully does not quite come full circle: a partially changed character. Still grown, but with reservations.
      They can’t really change totally back, can they?
      Unity of opposites (a principle in dramaturgy, showing the dramatic arc of a plot, that leads to a satisfying, cathartic conclusion) must still show more “opposite” than starting point, in to get the unity and the closure …
      Otherwise, it would seem more like life itself: a recidivism more often found in real life… the work would be open-ended, and the sequel, if any, would be forced to explore the character again ….

    • 709writer

      Thank you for the feedback and analysis – I’m glad what I was asking made sense! “Partially changed character” does seem to fit.

  5. Reagan Colbert

    *The scene I wrote for this practice is for the third novella in my series, my WIP. The protagonist: a former Roman soldier. The constant variable (my interpretation of it) is the constant massacring of believers, and the hatred Rome has for them. He has evolved from one side of the conflict to the other.

    “It had not changed.
    If it had, it had only gotten worse. The bloodshed he had always despised had continued in his three-year absence, and being in the streets of Jerusalem once more only sickened him. To know the unspeakable deaths which had taken place in these streets, to stand where men had stood as they were massacred by a madman, was nearly unbearable.
    It could have been in one of these places, on one of these streets he now stood upon, where Justus had given his very life for the disciples.
    His teeth clenched, Marcus stopped his tracks. What had first been grief was now anger, one unlike any he had felt. He was accustomed to so many feelings: guilt, grief, fear. But never rage. Not until now.
    He had heard of Saul, but never had he known the extent of the harm he had caused. Never had he fathomed just how sick a man could be, to order the deaths of men, women, even children. The one death that had occurred at Marcus’ hands – the death of the Son of God – had left a scar on his soul that no one but that Man Himself could have repaired. How long and how deep of a scar must have formed in this man’s soul, if he even had one.
    For all the times Marcus had wished to not have a soul, he was now more grateful than ever for it. If not for it, he might still be a soldier – chained to his duties, forced to execute men, too afraid to desert. He could not begin to imagine what life must be like for Saul, what feelings could possibly pass through the mind of such a man.
    A man Marcus was sure did not have one ounce of a soul at all.”

    Reply
  6. TerriblyTerrific

    I agree with the article. Thank you. Just like in real life, we all change. No different from our stories. A journey.

    Reply
  7. Bruce Carroll

    Well, I gave it a shot. I suppose the “constant variable” is the article itself. As for the character, I hope he is forming, since I’d hate to be in this position if I am performing.

    While I am aware of the changes which my protagonist experiences through the course of my novel, I don’t have it down to hope, rope, pope…er, what was that mnemonic again? She lives life one way at the beginning of the novel. Things happen that require her to change, both in thought and action. By the end of the novel, she is much like Alice, who would tell us who she is beginning with this morning, seeing no point in going back to yesterday because she was a different person then.

    Okay, below is my practice.

    ~ ~ ~

    For the seventh time that evening, Bruce crumpled up the draft he had printed off. “Arrraggh!” He was in serious danger of pulling out what remained of his already thinning hair in frustration.

    “This is so mechanical!” he said aloud, though he was alone in his home office. “What is a ‘constant variable,’ anyway? If it’s constant, it doesn’t vary, right?”

    He clicked back on the practice exercise and scrolled up a bit to the photo of the friendly-looking man with the goatee. “Right, Mr. Elkins?”

    It was clear – to Bruce, if to no one else – that this exercise was getting him nowhere. He felt as if all of literature had been reduced to a single equation; an equation with a “constant variable,” at that.

    He opened a new page on MS Word and began typing again.

    Math had never been her strong point. Now that Akiko was blind, she found it….

    She found it what? Constant? Surely mathematics didn’t change. Was that something with which to compare his protagonist? So the reader could see how she changes over the course of this still mostly-unwritten novel? That didn’t seem like a compelling story. He cleared the page without saving it and started again.

    Akiko’s foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. Olsen, never varied in their affection for her.

    “Nice job telling instead of showing, Bruce,” he muttered. He stared at the words on the laptop screen for a long moment. “Okay, what’s to show? They cook her fancy meals? Take her roller-skating? Give her wads of cash to spend at the mall with her friends? Is any of that constant? Or is it variable?”

    Discouraged, disheartened, and discontent with what he had been writing, he switched off his laptop, stood, and walked out the front door into the night. He didn’t even bother putting on his shoes.

    The air was still warm from the hot day that had passed, but the grass felt cool between his toes. He looked up at the sky. A few clouds were evident only by the starless patches they created, but the moon was full and shining as it had been for thousands – no, millions – of years. He would finish his novel, but not tonight. He would try again in the morning, when the story of Akiko would be fresh in his mind and mingled with his dreams, and when the task of writing would seem more of a joy than a chore. Yes, tomorrow would be for writing. Tonight, he had the moon.

    Reply
    • Reagan Colbert

      This is a really cool spin on the practice. I love how you did it, showing (not telling, actually) the inner struggle of a writer. It’s different and great! 🙂

    • Bruce Carroll

      Aw, shucks, Reagan. I actually did have fun writing it. Clearly, the article did help me, but I still find the specifics unfamiliar and alien to my methods. Of course, the bottom line for any writer is, USE WHATEVER TECHNIQUE WORKS!

  8. Alyssa Elwood

    I don’t really have a piece of writing to contribute to this exercise, but I reflected over a piece I worked on last week. I have just the basics of the story plotted out, and a few paragraphs for the beginning. Without knowing it, I followed the process for change! That is really exciting for me! Good to know I am on the right track!

    Reply
  9. NatalieHawaii

    Knowing your character’s flaws, their deep wound and motivation helps in forming your character’s transformational journey, i.e. character arc. However, I do believe that Antagonist is the most important dynamo of your story. Without worthy antagonist and his goal, which creates major stakes for your protagonist, she has no reason to change and move forward, learning whatever is missing in her life —> a lesson that helps her realize that old ways no longer work, thus creating the need to change.

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why Dynamic Characters Don’t Need to Change | Creative Writing - […] dynamic character is popularly defined as one who goes through substantial internal change over the course of a story.…
  2. Writing Sequels: 5 Sequel-Writing Secrets From Jessica Jones - […] Character evolution is critical to telling a good story. We have to remember that if our character is the…
  3. How Characters Change in Stories (And How to Write Believable Change) - […] Keep your change realistic and in line with your protagonist’s personality. And be sure to check out this article…
  4. How Characters Change in Stories (And How to Write Believable Change) – Writing Jobs Online - […] Keep your change realistic and in line with your protagonist’s personality. And be sure to check out this article…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

A Shadow Stained in Blood
- Ichabod Ebenezer
The Girl Who Broke the Dark
- Evelyn Puerto
Surviving Death
- Sarah Gribble
13
Share to...