Using Plot to Reveal Character Transformation

JourneyIf there’s one thing no writer wants to be accused of, it’s writing flat characters.

As readers, we love watching characters transform over the course of their exploits. As writers, we aspire to create those characters. And the transformation need not always be positive; some of the most compelling characters in literature grow darker and more twisted as their stories progress.

Whatever the character’s transformation may be, writers often wrestle with the question, “How can I demonstrate it believably throughout my story?” It’s one thing to say a character is changing; it’s another thing to show that change.

When I first began writing, I was baffled and frustrated by this challenge. I wanted my characters to grow, but my early attempts to show that growth went something like this:

For several hundred pages, my obscure, unlikely hero ran around her world, battling foes and acquiring potions. Then somehow, in the last hundred pages, she “magically” became a better person in the exact way she needed. Victories fell into her path. Eventually the villain tripped over his own cape and poof! My obscure, unlikely hero became Citizen #1 in her world.

Flat characters, anyone?

Over time, however, I realized that outer action (plot) and inner transformation (character) are not separate elements. They are two sides of the same coin. Plot reveals character transformation, while character transformation infuses plot with deeper meaning.

Once I understood that my character’s actions were the best reflection of her growth, I was able to begin charting change believably.

Now, I rely on five major plot milestones to help me do this. With a bit of planning, specific character actions at each milestone reveal corresponding moments of inner transformation. I can then “connect the dots” between them with other smaller moments of change. Together they create a believable, cohesive arc of character transformation.

Milestone 1: Introducing the heroic flaw
(Location: Act One)

In Benjamin Clayborne’s recent article, he examined popular fantasy characters who exhibit major personal flaws. As he points out, a “heroic flaw” (or key internal weakness) is a crucial aspect of creating dynamic characters. If your character is going to transform, he needs somewhere to grow from.

Why not start at the beginning? Near the opening of the story, often in the character’s introductory scene, I establish a heroic flaw of some kind. This trait need not always be negative, such as greed or anger. It could be a positive characteristic such as innocence that is out of balance in the hero’s life.

Whatever the flaw, it drives a set of habits and behaviors that will prevent the character from achieving her specific plot goals. So at this milestone, be sure she clearly does something that reveals her flaw at work. You might also consider having another character comment on the aftermath of that action.

Milestone 2: Meeting the moral opposite
(Location: Early Act Two)

Every character needs a goal—both outward and inward. Your character’s outer goal is plot-oriented (ie: save the princess, drop the ring in Mt. Doom, etc.). Her inner goal is overcoming the flaw that threatens that success, even if she’s not aware of it yet.

By now, your hero is well into his adventure. He has entered a new and different dimension, world, or lifestyle he’s never experienced before. It’s time to introduce a character who is strong in exactly the way he is weak. This character is often called “the moral opposite,” and s/he will guide your character to overcome his inner flaw.

I like to introduce the moral opposite in a situation where s/he performs an action that immediately demonstrates strengths against the hero’s flaw. Conflict naturally ensues. From this point on, your hero’s habits will be challenged continually, kicking her inner transformation into high gear.

Milestone 3: Training for new strengths
(Location: Act Two)

This is the meat of your transformation, and it’s really more a stretch of road than a milestone. Now, your flawed character has entered a relationship with his moral opposite. He will not be able to maintain his old flawed habits for long.

It’s time to put your character through inward training. Orchestrate plot events that force her to operate like her moral opposite. If her flaw is habitual lying, events should force her to behave transparently. If she is naïve, she will begin exercising discernment. Make each outer challenge count toward inner growth.

With each successive event, your character gets closer to his plot goal and also demonstrates more inner growth. Give him a few fails first. Celebrate his small successes. As he meets each outer challenge, his new inner strengths will become habit.

Milestone 4: Dropping the big setback
(Location: Late Act Two)

No journey of human growth is complete without an epic fail. So don’t let your character get complacent in his new found strength. Right before Act Three, let him fail in a big way—not just in his plot goal, but by regressing into old habits driven by his flaw.

Up until now, your character has been doing well. She fought big battles, and through them, began to change her flawed habits. Perhaps she even gained new followers or prestige. Now, pull the rug out. Tempt her to react to some terrible event exactly as she would have at Milestone 1.

Your character will fall prey to that temptation. She will lose what she has been working so hard for, and she will lose it through her old flaw. When she fails at the level of her inner goal, as well as her outer one, it’s so much more crushing.

Milestone 5: The Climactic Choice
(Location: Act Three)

After your character’s failure, he rises from the ash heap for one last attempt at victory. This is your chance to make Milestones 1 & 2 pay  dividends! Your plot culminates by confronting your hero with a choice that could clinch everything he’s worked for.

Not surprisingly, that choice comes with another, bigger temptation to succumb to her flaw. This situation is often a mirror of the events surrounding Milestone 1. For your character to truly transform, she must make a final choice to abandon her flaw (from Milestone 1) and act in the ways that the moral opposite taught her (from Milestones 2 and 3). Milestone 4 taught her what happens if she doesn’t do this.

So when your character makes that final choice—against his greatest temptation yet—he simultaneously achieves the outer plot goal and confirms his inner transformation. And that’s the ultimate moment where plot and character work together!

Your character has achieved a dynamic change through smaller, believable milestones.

How about you? What tricks and tips have you developed for revealing your character’s transformation?

Lisa Walker England writes a weekly illustrated fantasy serial, blogs about the art of storytelling, and develops sequential multimedia properties with two artist friends.

Lisa Walker England

Lisa Walker England is a serial fiction writer, film writer and graphic novelist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She loves mixing high fantasy with elements of clock- or steampunk, as well as designing transmedia experiences that allow an audience to enter her worlds as characters of their own. Connect with her at http://lisawalkerengland.com.
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JennaChristopherson
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JennaChristopherson

I have printed this for my use in revising a book or two of my own. I am grateful to you for posting this. Thank you. I love all the comments on this post as well, they gave me some information to think about as well. Wonderful!

Rob
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Rob

I think getting that character flaw right out there in the beginning also helps to create sympathy with the reader. Everyone has flaws, and if the MC has them too, it becomes easier to relate to and empathize with him.  I like how you broke down the four stages when it comes to character development.

Frank P
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Frank P

The plot and the character’s change have to bounce off each other if you want the story to make sense and the readers to care about the character at all. Your life – your story – causes you to change. How you change affects the path of your life. That’s real.

Kimber
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Kimber

I have heard quite a few people having an issue with the farmboy-turned hero who just happens to meet the master of his craft thing, and I’m afraid those people would see the same thing in your article here. It’s not true! Well, it can be, but I tend to think that is the worst type of cliche fantasy fiction. Always have to remember that the moral opposite is a person too, with goals, fears and flaws of their own, and not just a mentor archetype.

Brian DeLeonard
Member
Brian DeLeonard

I’m a few weeks behind in responding.  Welcome to the article team and thank you for sharing your understanding of the characters’ journey with us.
The fun thing about a novel over script writing is that we can break up the formula a lot more. We could have a series of moral opposites, or try to develop several flaws in a character at once.
I just quickly sketched out this journey for my two main characters.  They share the same flaw – a desire for family life – and have a similar inner journey overall.  But at the end, I’m hoping to find a way for them to diverge in their “climactic choice,” using the character arc to create a new flaw and a new sense of tension about what will come between them in the sequel.
This perspective has been a big help.  Thanks!

Carole Lane
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Carole Lane

I like this….

RuthMartin1
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RuthMartin1

I truly admire writers who have the abilities to create characters with great depth! I have not achieved that level of writing yet. I do best with writing informational type articles – not so much fictional 🙂 It is a bit like what you see in a good movie – someone had to write the script for the actors. So it is actually the person behind the scenes writing out the acts/plays/scenarios that is the real power!

Gary Spivey
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Gary Spivey

Outstanding article on improving character development!  I’m wondering though if *every* character needs an arc that permits them to grow.  For instance, think about Star Wars — it is easy to see many of the principles you are speaking about with regard to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, but what about their all-powerful mentors such as Obi-Wan and Yoda?  Obi-Wan and Yoda certainly had goals (to develop Luke and help defeat the evil Empire), but each of these characters may have reached a pinnacle where growth was no longer necessary.  It’s hard to think of their flaws as well.

Laura M
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Laura M

Many readers tend to negate our hero’s training story, namely milestone 3. Some even call them “fillers”. But not many understand the fact that it is the accounting of these trainings that makes them connect emotionally to the character’s development. I find that after knowing all the gruelling details of the character’s training, I’ll be more attracted to him lol.

Kurt
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Kurt

I usually have the a lot of trouble with my character development.  They always grow too quickly to be understood, or grow too slow to be able to face new challenges. It takes so much modification to ensure that it develops at the right pace for the story!

Feotakahari
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Feotakahari

I think I’ve figured out why I find this type of plot so unsatisfying–I tend to sympathize too much with the moral opposite. Here’s this character who’s already fully qualified to be the hero, and he gets shafted in favor of some immature kid.

Alice Leiper
Member
Alice Leiper

That’s a fantastic breakdown of character growth and making it work naturally with the external story arc. Thanks.

theternalscribe
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theternalscribe

Excellent post.  My current novel, Forever After, involves a vampire hunter becoming vampire.  She undergoes both a psychological and emotional as well as physical transformation.  This was a very hard thing for me to write because I first had to understand the fanatical mindset she started out in and find a way of rectifying it with what she would eventually become.  But in the end, she became my favorite character in the novel and her struggle really cemented the middle of the novel.
Danielle Forrest
http://theeternalscribe.weebly.com

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