If 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.