Character Change: The Inner Journey, Part 1

Other names for the character’s inner journey include character arc, character change, character transformation, ritual pain, and range of change.

CHARACTER ARC: WHAT IS IT?

“Character change, also known as character arc, character development, or character range of change, refers to the development of a character over the course of the story,” says John Truby.

The “transformational arc of character,” says Dara Marks, is “how a character grows and changes within the context of the external conflict that is unfolding.”

“The character’s arc,” says Karl Iglesias, is “how he changes emotionally from beginning to end.”

For Christopher Vogler, the inner journey “tests the hero in the arena of emotions and character, where the hero must learn some lesson or develop some missing aspect of personality.”

“Character arc is learning,” says Larry Brooks. “It begins with the introduction of inner demons, and it concludes with showing how those inner demons have been conquered.”

“The character arc is a description of what happens to the inside of the character over the course of the story,” says James Scott Bell. “He begins as one sort of person in the beginning; things happen to and around him, gradually moving him in an ‘arc’ that ends when the story is over. Your lead character should be a different person at the other end of the arc.”

For Brian McDonald, changing is more like ritual pain.  “Ritual pain means painfully killing off one aspect of a character’s personality to make room for something new.”

“Character arc means finding not just the physical courage to achieve the outer motivation, but the emotional courage as well,” says Michael Hauge. “The character’s transformation from someone stuck in his inner conflict to someone who has found the courage to overcome it is his arc.”

WHAT, EXACTLY, IS CHANGING?

The change “is often about fulfilling an inner need or conquering a self-defeating flaw that works against achieving a goal,” says Mr. Iglesias. “This change can be physical, behavioral, mental, or emotional.  Traditionally, it involves healing a psychological wound, realizing that some wrongful thinking or behavior has hurt others, fulfilling one’s potential, or learning an important life lesson that improves the character’s life.”

“It is gaining strength and insight. Acquiring that which is lacking. Shedding that which is hindering. Leaving the past behind. Forgiving. Making a better decision when it counts,” says Mr. Brooks.

“It’s an arc from fear to courage, from inner conflict to true self-worth,” says Mr. Hauge.

“True character change involves a challenging and changing of basic beliefs, leading to new moral action by the hero,” says Mr. Truby. “Your hero’s development depends on what beliefs he starts with, how he challenges them, and how they have changed by the end of the story.”

Still not sure what should change in your character?

“The dramatic arcs of the main characters are formally defined by the Moral Premise,” says Stanley D. Williams. “In the first half of the story, the main characters actions are based on vices and in the second half of the story they’re based on virtues–for a happy ending; reverse this for a down ending.”

A RANGE OF CHANGE

“Some story arcs and changes in behavior are very slight or shallow, which is not to imply the arc is insignificant,” says Mr. Williams. “Other arcs show major changes and depth.”

Some points on the Character Change Continuum, from most change to least, include:

1. The Transforming Character.

Transformations “usually involve a core epiphany–sometimes referred to as a Change-or-Die Moment, or a Crisis of Insight–in which the character, due to the shattering struggles she has endured, recognizes an error or a mistake or a limitation in her previous conception of herself or her life, and that recognition provides her the insight necessary to forge a new path,” says David Corbett. “One who is transformed normally removes a layer of denial, subterfuge, or deceit that has kept something within her hidden or stunted…. A character that transforms does so through insight.”  And his “shattering changes must be earned.”

2. The Growing Character.

“Growth arises in those stories in which the protagonist, through conflict, gains in confidence, strength, courage, selflessness, or some other virtue or collection of virtues, without necessarily addressing a previous error, mistake, or limitation of character,” says Mr. Corbett.  “A protagonist who grows usually strengthens something that already exists within her…. A character that grows relies increasingly on her will.”

3. The Steadfast Character.

For Mr. Corbett, “Though it might be said that the motives or behavior of [steadfast] characters don’t appreciably change, their emotions, insights, or attitude toward life does by story’s end. If not, that refusal to embrace the opportunity for change is felt by the reader or audience (and perhaps by the character herself), and the emotional jolt or deflation of that refusal is the dramatic payoff.”

How much change should your character have?

“A simple rule of thumb in fiction is this,” says Mr. Truby, “the smaller the range, the less interesting the story; the bigger the range, the more interesting but the riskier the story, because characters don’t change much in the limited time they appear in most stories.”

Mr. Williams agrees:  “The longer the chronological story-time, the greater depth you can portray. A story that takes place in one day will typically not show a great change in a character’s physical and psychological behavior.”

Also, if your story is more about just showing those external obstacles who’s boss, then you might not need a whole lot of internal change, even if you’ve got the time for it.  Andy Weir’s The Martian goes this route.

HOW DO YOU FORCE A CHANGE?

First, “Don’t think of your main character as a fixed, complete person whom you then tell a story about,” says Mr. Truby. “You must think of your hero as a range of change, a range of possibilities, from the very beginning. You have to determine the range of change of the hero at the start of the writing process, or change will be impossible for the hero at the end of the story.”

Next, you want to come up with the obstacles that will force your character to change.  Mr. McDonald (of the ritual pain) has a suggestion:  “Find that thing that your character would rather die than do and make them do it.”

To find this I’d-Rather-Die Thing, first define who your flawed character is and what he wants.  Then decide what the personal hell of that kind of character might be.

As Mr. Bell says, “We all have a core self…. And we will do what we can to protect this core because, by and large, people resist change. So we surround that core with layers that are in harmony with our essential self. Working from the core outward, these layers include: [(0) core self-image;] (1) beliefs; (2) values; (3) dominant attitudes; and (4) opinions,” with the outer layers being easier to change than the inner, but all of the layers affecting the others to varying degrees.

Our job is to find the personal hell that will poke and prod and violate those opinions, attitudes, values, and beliefs, until the flawed core changes.

WAIT, HOW DO YOU SHOW AN INNER JOURNEY?

One way is through a subplot.  As Ms. Marks says, “Internal change is demonstrated in relationship to something in the outer world.”  Let’s walk through it:

So, Character’s inner journey is to overcome his Flaw.

But Character didn’t just suddenly develop this Flaw when the story started.  He’s had this Flaw a long time.  And he’s got relationships that continue to be problematic because of this Flaw.  These relationships can be with anyone or anything, playing out in the front story or totally relegated to the backstory.  However you want to play it, one (or more) of these problematic Relationships is great inner-journey-revealing fodder for a subplot.

First, we use the Relationship to show how the Flaw is negatively affecting Character’s life even before the main Conflict starts.

Then, when the Conflict starts and Character tries to resolve it with his Flaw and fails, we compare and contrast the Relationship to the Conflict to show Character (and reader) that the same Flaw that’s hurting the Relationship is the same Flaw that’s keeping him from achieving his goal.

Then, as Character realizes that maybe his Flawed approach to life isn’t working for him anymore and he starts to change, we use the Relationship to show the beginnings of change by way of an improvement in the Relationship.

Last, it is often through the improvement of the Relationship that Character finally realizes how to resolve the Conflict.  Which he accomplishes, often with the help of the Relationship.

DON’T FORGET YOUR CLONES

Some clones are best used as static examples or warnings for the hero, but other times it’s most effective to make clones dynamic, which means that they, too, should change… which means that they, too, should have their own kind of arc that takes a perspective on your thematic premise.

This includes the antagonist.  If you have a dynamic antagonist, he, too, should express the thematic premise and should have his own arc.  Mr. Williams offers two options for what the antagonist’s arc might look like:

  • At first [vice] leads to [defeat]; and then [greater vice] leads to [greater defeat].
  • At first [distorted virtue] leads to [distorted success]; but then [vice] leads to [defeat].

But of course, feel free to use any variation of the theme.

DO YOU HAVE TO HAVE AN INNER JOURNEY?

Mr. Iglesias puts it most mildly:  “Although it’s not an absolute requirement (characters in detective and spy thrillers seldom change), it’s recommended that your main character go through some sort of transformation.”

But most of the other masters basically say that if there’s no change to the character, then why bother?

***

Well, that’s it for me for today, but we’re not done yet.

UP NEXT, IN PART 2

A map for the inner journey.  See you tomorrow!

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