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.

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JennaChristopherson
JennaChristopherson
6 years ago

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
Rob
7 years ago

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
Frank P
7 years ago

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
Kimber
7 years ago

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.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Kimber
7 years ago

@Kimber – Thanks for your comment. I’ve heard those same same objections, too, and certainly there is plenty of cliched literature in our genre! But here are a few things to keep in mind before rejecting traditional structures entirely — 
– Whether something is cliche or fresh is usually all in how it’s handled. Most of the writers I really respect have told me (at one point or another) that their secret is improving upon, rather than rejecting, classic story structure.

– Having a strong transformative arc, with the whole “mastery of a world,” need not mean you start with a plowboy and turn him into a universe-bending wizard. (Which is, I think, the kind of story most fantasy detractors rail against.) These transformative milestones can take a much more true-to-life form, or have a “smaller” story arc, and yet still provide a helpful map for the writer.

-As you note, mentors absolutely should have their own goals, fears, and flaws. Every character should! George RR Martin is a master at this, giving characters who have even just ONE appearance in ONE scene a strong history and goals of their own. But the story usually has to be organized around one character’s arc (even in a multi-plot this is usually the case–but that’s another story for another day …). That person is typically the character whose transformative milestones anchor all the others.
Hope that helps a bit! Good luck, and thanks for stopping by!

BrianDeLeonard
BrianDeLeonard
7 years ago

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!

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  BrianDeLeonard
7 years ago

BrianDeLeonard – Thanks for your kind welcome, and I’m glad the article was a help! I’m doing something similar to you, with a multiplot tale I’m working on. While one character’s journey is the focal point, five characters get to tell their story, and each of them has a strong transformative arc of their own … which means I have to attend to these milestones for each of them, not just one. Plus, they cross and complicate each others’ arcs, which adds more fun — and more work!

I think good films actually can accomplish this too, but that takes a really masterful script writer (or a big-name writer-director with wads of studio cash) because page counts for the rest of us are ever-diminishing. 🙂 
I’d love to hear more about your project and see how your experiments turn out! Sounds very fun!

Carole Lane
Carole Lane
7 years ago

I like this….

RuthMartin1
RuthMartin1
7 years ago

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!

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  RuthMartin1
7 years ago

RuthMartin1 – Thanks for weighing in! It is indeed a privilege to be a screenwriter and shape the story of a film. (I can say that, having done it!) But that being said, most screenwriters have very little power in the film chain of command. It can be very frustrating, too, to see a carefully-woven story tapestry trampled by a director and actors who aren’t in tune with it. When it works out with a thoughtful director and great actors though, it sure is magic watching your words come to life!

Gary Spivey
Gary Spivey
7 years ago

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.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Gary Spivey
7 years ago

Gary Spivey – Hi Gary — Great observation about Star Wars! Personally, I would consider this an area where George Lucas’s storytelling could have been improved upon. (Nobody’s perfect, right?) I think Star Wars was groundbreaking for its time in how it followed Campbell’s mythic journey for its lead characters, but a smaller, nuanced journey for the mentor figures was something Lucas did not explore in depth … and could have. I think we see that more in some later films, and certainly in works of fiction where there is ample room to explore character. Just my personal opinion.

Laura M
Laura M
7 years ago

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.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Laura M
7 years ago

@Laura M – Great point! This section of plot can do so much work toward developing the hero and bonding him/her with the audience. Thanks for sharing!

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Laura M
7 years ago

PS — And to your point about attraction … the hero tends to look better too after Milestone 3. LOL.

Kurt
Kurt
7 years ago

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!

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Kurt
7 years ago

@Kurt- Thanks for sharing your experience! Have you done much study of story
structure yet? Structure — particularly as its taught to screenwriters
— can greatly help all writers know when, where, and how often to place
milestones and mini-milestones of growth. It’s actually more mathematical than you might think. And because the combinations and perspectives on those milestones are endless… well, that’s what makes it a truly creative activity! If you haven’t yet, I recommend you read Save the Cat!, The Coffee-Break Screenwriter, and Robert McKee’s book Story. All are geared toward screenwriters, but contain a clear discussion of the structure of how a story can progress — so that you don’t find your hero growing too fast or too slow. Good luck!

Feotakahari
Feotakahari
7 years ago

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.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Feotakahari
7 years ago

@Feotakahari – Thanks for your comment. I understand how you feel. Actually, though, I’d love to suggest that heroism is not something a character is ever qualified for. It’s something they earn through the struggle toward their goals. 
Under that view, the moral opposite is a character who has already been through a heroic journey and (thus) earned his or her own heroism. That’s fantastic . . . but it doesn’t give writers much to work with emotionally if that character were to become the hero.

Perhaps the challenge you face is with heroes who come across as whiny or unlikable because of their obstacles? It’s certainly a tough balance to strike as a writer. I find that giving the hero a strong does of tenacity helps keep the audience loyal. What about others? What have you found?

Alice Leiper
Reply to  RiseOfTheTiger
7 years ago

RiseOfTheTiger The moral opposite might not have undergone a struggle at all themselves; they might just have a different perspective, and it’s the middle ground that the hero needs, not the opposite side. Thus the moral opposite, who holds the position of the other extreme, is no more qualified than the hero; the hero does something the moral opposite fails to do: learn from the other extreme and reach the middle ground, and that is what makes them suitable as a hero. They change. The moral opposite does not.

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Alice Leiper
7 years ago

Alice Leiper – Great point! You’re right; in most cases the moral opposite does not change. I think in the most satisfying stories, though, the moral opposite does learn and grow in some way. (I thought about noting in the article, that every character can undergo a mini-version of this inner journey, but I just felt there wasn’t time.) 
I agree, in most cases, the moral opposite may have never had to struggle in the way the hero is. S/he also may not grow at all, either. But sometimes s/he does (although in a different area than the hero). Personally, those are my favorite stories! Wracking my brains for a really good example off the top of my head …

RiseOfTheTiger
RiseOfTheTiger
Reply to  Alice Leiper
7 years ago

Alice Leiper – Just thought of an example, although it comes from a fantasy TV show rather than a book. (My origins are in screenwriting; can you tell?) Kahlan Amnell in Legends of the Seeker, the TV version of Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. She is Richard’s moral opposite, clearly, but she struggles in her own way and undergoes change. I haven’t dug into the books enough yet to know if this was a TV-only character decision or if her character was pretty similar in print. But it’s one example of a character who is morally opposite of the hero, and fulfills that story role, yet is not the happy, untroubled, angelic-type figure that is often associated with the moral opposite (especially in fantasy).

Alice Leiper
7 years ago

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

theternalscribe
theternalscribe
7 years ago

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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