Oooh, another “rant” where I get to burble. “Limyaael,” someone might say, “if sudden epiphanies are unrealistic and badly-handled, and static characters are silly, and declarations by fiat don’t work, then what exactly do you think well-written change looks like?”
I see this process as separate from, though possible to combine with, what I would call the “stair” method of change, where most bits of change get presented in discrete scenes of introspection, infodump, other characters explaining the changes to the character who undergoes them, and epiphany. I dislike this because it makes it seem as if change never happens except when consciously forced into the narrative, and that it’s impossible to show it happening in a conversation or action scene whose main focus is something else. Also, the stair method of change involves much more telling than showing, and I think you already know how I feel about that.
1) Bring in change from the first moment of the character’s introduction.
A common character model is someone who’s about to change when the story gets going (start far back from the change and you often have to infodump too much character background in there), then moves through events that alter him along a character arc, and then stops transforming at the end. It works, but it’s not the best model.
Much better to consider the story as a discrete part of the character’s biography—yes, even if he dies at the end, because either he doesn’t know he’s going to die or he’s telling the story after his death from a perspective that lets him see it as a whole, rather than one book in a series. A living person begins to change from the day of his birth. That means that he’ll already be changing when you introduce him on the page, and he’ll change throughout however many days or weeks or months or years you follow him, and the change will end only because of death or because that story ends. I love the books best that can convince me character change doesn’t halt when the last page turns; we just don’t get to see any more of it.
So introduce subtle alterations from the beginning, steps along the character arc not just in the second chapter but in the first, and the sense of a living being not just after he’s been introduced but from the very first word you devote to him. The story begins before it begins and ends after it ends (again, there are exceptions, but they’re rare). The constantly changing character doesn’t wind up, fly through a single routine, and then alight in a slightly different place than before. He’s already flying, and if he doesn’t die, then his flight doesn’t end and doesn’t stop varying.
2) Don’t always show the character being aware of the change.
This has lately started snapping me out of a story every time I encounter it, which is one reason I include it. This is the explanation of what a change means, such as, “He tucked an arm around her and pulled her against him, reflecting as he did so that he would never have done this six months ago, when he would have let her die rather than share body warmth with her in a snowstorm.”
People aren’t always aware of changes in their own attitudes and beliefs. I recently found an essay I wrote five years ago, and was startled that I had believed as I did. I didn’t keep a careful record of how and why I changed my mind. Looking back on them, I can see the alterations. But that’s time and hindsight’s advantage. Every time I had a thought that contradicted what I originally believed, I did not think, “Wow, I sure believed differently [insert x number of months here], and this is how!”
Perhaps some of these explanations are necessary some of the time; I don’t know. But I would think the best place for such reflection would be near the end of the story (see point 9). And if your character is self-deceiving or caught up in great events, which many fantasy protagonists are, I would expect self-analyses to be wrong quite a lot of the time, and not much time to make them at all.
3) Be aware of “one step forward, two steps back” kinds of change.
So the character has just seen the last dragon die, and is solemn and subdued for one night. That doesn’t mean that she won’t go back to being an immature little shit the next morning.
Another problem with the stair method of character change is that it seems to cement any alteration. Once the character notices that she’s seen another perspective, she won’t flip back to her original one, ever. And of course, since that new perspective is always the truth, she doesn’t have to. She can just keep pressing forward, certain in the knowledge that she’s right.
Oh, come on. Have you never changed your mind because of new information, then changed it back because of more new information? Have you never hesitated, or been caught in the middle, even after learning to see “the other side?” Has no one ever made you respect their point of view but not convinced you of it? Have you never known the reasons for your own behavior and yet not been able to help yourself?
Fictional characters seem not very prone to that kind of thing, much as they aren’t prone to minor mistakes. A gradual process of change would show ripples and hesitations and going back and shades of decision, not just “I have changed my mind completely. I now say that this is the truth, and I will always think so.”
4) Show the characters resisting change and having a chance at resistance as well as welcoming it with open arms.
A self-aware character given to self-analysis may know very well that he has changed (though I still find it annoying when every analysis documents the exact amount of time it’s been since he lost the original belief and exactly what method he lost it through). He may also be startled and indignant that he’s changed, because his thoughts are, say, becoming more self-involved instead of compassionate, or he’s thinking more about the heroine than their mission, or he’s lost faith in his commander and doesn’t know why. So he decides to make an effort to go back to the old him.
This is the point at which I can usually hear the author snickering. “He can’t go back! Of course he’s turning evil!” or “Of course he’s going to fall in love!” or “Of course he’s going to go on to become a rebel and the new leader!”
Really, why? If a character is determined to change his behavior back, it’s not as though the loss of compassion or the expression of love or the decision to strike out on one’s own are irresistible. (I would think a character much more likely to change when he’s not really aware of where he’s tending and can’t put on the brakes). The character can correct his thoughts, can deliberately stop treating the heroine with so much personal attention, can logically argue himself out of some immediate conclusions, and can refuse to rebel because that requires different, involved action, while just obeying the commander requires doing what he’s done all along.
A character might have to change for your plot to work. That doesn’t mean that he has to like it, and that doesn’t mean that his fight is foredoomed and you have to signal that through the narrative. If he fights to stay the same, show a fair presentation of his fight, not just him doing everything in accordance with the new change and then thinking, “Darn! I didn’t mean to do that!”
5) Alter the character’s vocabulary—slowly and without acknowledgment.
Because while it’s really neat to have the character think of another character as “the annoying little girl” in chapter 2, “the little girl” in chapter 5, “the girl” in chapter 7, “the woman” in chapter 10, and “the strong young woman” in chapter 12, it’s really annoying to have the author decorate it with blazing neon signs such as the character thinking, “I never thought of her that way before.”
This can be done with any character via dialogue. If you have a perceptive viewpoint character, he may notice a change like the absence of a biting tone from another character’s voice, although he also does not need to spend an entire paragraph dissecting and analyzing what that means. And if you have a changing viewpoint character, you get to change not only his dialogue, but his inner thoughts and his narrative voice. Why should the character who’s telling the story sound like an omniscient narrator or Generic Romantic Hero when he describes his perceptions of the same person in Chapter 1 and Chapter 23? That second person may have “eyes like a pair of gutted salmon” in Chapter 1 and “eyes like torches” in Chapter 23, and it doesn’t have to be a bit of omniscient cleverness, but comparisons that the viewpoint character would naturally make. (This is called “free indirect style” in some cases).
I’ve seen this done clumsily, but there the weaknesses are part of the stair method of showing character change, where, again, the author suddenly starts using the different words—and has the character acknowledge the difference every. Single. Time. Building up sentence-level changes over the whole book without saying, “Hey, you over there, I’m building up sentence-level changes over the whole book!” is the better bet.
6) Mention changes in gestures—slowly and without acknowledgment.
A lot of the reasoning behind this one is in point 5, as this one is really just a variation of that one, so I’ll give a few examples. The character who hunches at the beginning of the book may slowly straighten over its course, and walk tall and with his head held high by the end. The character who smiles and chatters at everything may slowly start guarding his smile and his tongue. The beaten-down woman who learns strength may always gaze at the floor in the beginning and meet everyone’s stare by the end.
A good, gradual process will show not just Point A and Point B, but Point A 1.111, Point A 1.112, Point A 1.113, and so on. This is part of showing a living character, and not just chunks of change.
7) Take away the times when the character would otherwise pause to introspect and reflect.
These scenes are the building blocks of the stair method. The character finally gets the chance to sit down after running from his enemies for days, and the first thing he does is go over everything that’s happened, set his emotions in order about it, and churn up all the realizations that the author wants the reader to have and which the reader may not have come to on his own. Among those will be realizations about character change, again often of the “Wow, I certainly have changed in [insert number of days, weeks, or months here]!” variety.
Bunch of problems with this:
- If it requires good writing skills to keep interior monologues interesting, it requires excellent writing skills to keep interior monologues about plot developments that the reader has already witnessed interesting. Authors don’t seem to lack those so much as not bother employing them. “Hey, it’s exposition. It doesn’t have to sound good, just get the story across.”
- It usually belabors the obvious, and belaboring the obvious= boring, trite, and trivial.
- The thought processes tend to be too logical for a time when the character has just come out of high trauma or high emotion.
- Not every character would arrange his thoughts in such an orderly way, but almost every character has a scene like this.
- There are unacknowledged changes under the changes. Not only has the introspecting character changed his point of view on whether or not another character is a good person, but he has changed his point of view on whether they’re worth noticing in the first place, whether or not they’re truthful, and, often, how attractive they are. One does not necessarily follow the other, and if the introspecter is the kind of person who will go through and examine his every reaction, then the author is skipping over many minute changes that he might legitimately have wondered about to focus on those she deems more important to the plot.
- These scenes go on for pages and pages, often at times when the character needs to pay attention to something else, such as when he’s on sentry duty or listening to another character’s conversation.
- Brooding and angst, the frequent products of introspection, are difficult to make attractive.
- The character doesn’t often put his feelings in order, which was supposedly the point of the whole damn scene; he chases his thoughts in circles, which will repeat in the next interior monologue.
I think it’s much more effective to have the character promise himself some thinking time, then have it get interrupted by another character or enemies or the need to run or a sudden and totally unexpected new piece of information. Then he can demonstrate his changes through actions and gestures and words while doing something interesting, and the reader is content to know that he would have outlined things in his mind if he could have; he just didn’t have the time.
8) Don’t always fulfill the changes according to other characters’ predictions.
Sometimes the minor characters speak for the author directly when they say things like, “It’s all right to fall in love again.” More often, it’s the kind of foreshadowing that makes point 4 necessary to mention; the minor characters snicker and laugh when the protagonist tries to take control of her destiny, smugly sure that she’ll end up in the embrace or the position of power that the author wants her in at the end of the story. Then they get to say, “I told you so,” and I see why they aren’t the protagonists. (Ursula K. LeGuin: “No character who says ‘I told you so’ is, or ever will be, a hero.”)
Here, I think it’s much more interesting to focus on the changes of the other characters in the story, rather than make them all fanatically devoted to watching the protagonist’s inner life like a daytime soap opera. They might be convinced the protagonist’s going to fall in love because they just fell in love, for example, and they could be wrong. Or they could be convinced that the protagonist will become queen because they think she’s suited for it, while she knows she’s too immature for the power and refuses the crown. It is not unheard of for people to make projections about the feelings of others and be wrong—except in fiction, it seems.
Introduce uncertainty, and you get that sense of a real, living, changing person back, not just a pawn of the plot.
9) Do a reflection towards the very end.
If you do want to have a scene where the protagonist reflects on everything and ties up all her emotions in pretty white bows—and it still won’t work for everybody—then the end is the best place for it. The character will probably be out of danger and have the time to think. The calm pace of her musing may suit a denouement, and provide the reader a chance to say farewell to familiar characters and situations one more time before she puts the book down. And if enough time has passed since the start of the book, I think the protagonist would be much more able to look back and trace the progress of her journey at the place where she’s come to rest for the moment, whether or not she works out every kink in the road.
Of course, write this poorly and it comes off as a big explaino scene with the author driving home points that she should have made clear in the story itself. But it’s not a requirement. Its inclusion will depend on whether the author does want to sum up changes and emphasize points that she’s afraid readers might not have gotten. And if she’s sure that readers have gotten them, and she has someone it doesn’t suit anyway, and she wants to retain the rushing pace right to the end of the book—well, there is no law that says every fantasy has to include a long interior monologue.
One big advantage of the “stair” method of change over the gradual one is that it’s absolutely clear. Most readers aren’t going to have any doubt about what the author’s doing, and it answers questions that they may have carried along for half the book. But since I end up skimming those scenes anyway, and the gradual process seems so much more challenging, exciting, and complicated to me, I’m still not a great fan of it.