It has been said that there are only a few types of stories—the “boy meets girl,” “the hero journey,” etc. One of the most popular types is “the man who learned better.” It’s a story about character growth and change, and indeed some would argue that in every kind of fiction, character growth is an essential element.
Recently, I read an article that suggested that it may not be possible to write a story that succeeds without having your character grow in some way. The researcher suggested that when a character has an epiphany, when he or she has an intellectual and emotional breakthrough, the reader’s brain releases dopamine, which helps in the learning process, so that the insight can be stored in long-term memory.
In studying stories now for thirty years, I’m pretty well convinced that this is correct.
So how do you show character change? You’ve probably seen real examples of people who’ve changed. Forty-five years ago I knew a young man who was so deep into drugs that everyone who knew him had written him off. Then almost overnight, he joined a church, cleaned up his life, and astonished literally hundreds of people. His brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and many friends and neighbors all converted too, and my old friend is still one of the best people I know.
So it does happen, but how do you show it? How do you make it convincing in a tale?
One of my favorite stories for this season is Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” In it, Ebenezer Scrooge has a change of heart and becomes something of a new man. So how did it work?
First, Scrooge is shown as being staunch in his convictions. When asked to donate money to charity, his response is both logical and firm. He says something like, “Bah, Humbug! Are there not enough workhouses? Are there not enough debtor’s prisons?” In fact, Scrooge is rather eloquent in his arguments, and I think that is a key. If someone is firm in their convictions, they have most likely constructed the most logical and eloquent argument that they can in order to support their beliefs. Just as importantly, Scrooge argues his points both repeatedly and eloquently.
By Scrooge’s arguments, we learn what kind of man he is. But more importantly, he reinforces his belief with actions—by withholding his money from those in need.
You see, it isn’t enough to just give lip-service to an idea. One must show through his actions what kind of person he is, and must do it repeatedly. So we see Scrooge refuse to donate to the local orphanage that day, refuse to help the widows in a nearby town, and later he refuses to give his employee a day off, and even shows how miserly he is by refusing to let his employee heat up the office at work—something that would benefit not just his employee and customers, but Scrooge himself.
The key here is repeated action. We can only establish a habit by showing it three times. We see this in the opening pages of “A Christmas Carol.”
But in order for Scrooge to change, we have to prepare him for that change of heart. Dickens does this by having three ghosts come to teach him in a single night, showing him his Christmas in the past, showing him the world around him as it is now, and showing him how bleak his future is destined to be.
Do you notice that Dickens is using repetition once again in order to establish his argument against Scrooge’s position? Thus Scrooge takes three journeys, ones that let him see the world through the eyes of other people and even from his own childish eyes from before the time when he became hardened in his greed.
At some point, the protagonist must be thrown into a crisis, must become convinced of the error of his ways. In Scrooge’s case, he learns from the Ghost of Christmas Future that all of his wealth will avail him nothing, that all he will earn in life is the scorn and pity of others, and that no one will mourn his passing. In that moment, he gains a sort of awakening, and sees the world a bit more clearly. He literally begs the ghost for an opportunity to become a better man—but the ghost disappears and gives no answer.
This causes Scrooge to have a profound change of heart. When he wakes up on Christmas morning, he can hardly believe his own good fortune: he’s alive, and he has time to make things right.
You’ll notice that he hasn’t become hardened in his convictions. He doesn’t begin spouting lucid arguments for spreading kindness, doesn’t explain why we should be generous with others. Instead he takes immediate actions. He hires a boy to go buy a goose for the local orphanage. He rushes into the street and meets his uncle, promising to set up a foundation to help the poor, and then races down to the home of his employee to share Christmas dinner with his family and arrange to purchase the services of a doctor.
Do you see how, just as Scrooge affirmed his own greed three times, he also showed that he had changed three times? This is extremely important.
Just as important, as an author you need to establish that the change really happened by providing independent confirmation that it is true. This phase of the story is called “Validation.” When someone in authority tells the reader “Scrooge is a changed man,” then it becomes true in the reader’s mind. This validation could come in a number of ways. In later days, the town might have raised a statue in Scrooge's honor. His employee might have named a new son after Ebenezer, or Scrooge’s uncle might have raised a toast in honor of “the new and better Ebenezer.” But in this case, the narrator of the story confirms that the change became permanent, thus offering validation.
So what are the steps to showing that your character has changed? Here they are:
- Establish the character’s beliefs verbally on three occasions. Let him argue his beliefs.
- Show through his actions that he is confirmed in his belief.
- Show how the character’s mind changes through his (usually repeated) experiences so that he becomes convinced for the need to change course.
- Let the protagonist seek forgiveness from others. Let him beg for a chance to prove himself.
- Show through the character’s words and repeated actions that he really has changed.
- Validate that the change is permanent by showing characters in authority remark upon it or change their own actions in regard to the protagonist.
Michael Nielsen is launching the first ever daily adventure vlog--which is helpful for writers too! As a writer himself, Michael found that he was struggling rendering his characters' long journeys across land with realistic details, so now he is starting a vlog to chronicle his own long outdoor journeys--on trails that last weeks and months. He is only $400 away from reaching his Kickstarter goal, but he must reach it in five days. Visit his page and help him out.
His vlogs will also help writers get their details right. His Kickstarter has a bunch of great rewards, including one that lets you be in the vlog (which can be priceless for an author). Whether you donate $1 or $20 or $100 or more, he'll appreciate it. If you want to follow the vlog when it starts, you can subscribe on Youtube.
I'm delighted to announce that the audiobook The X-Files: The Truth is Out There has won the VoiceArts Award of best narration of an anthology. You can pick up the anthology, which includes a story from me in it, right here.