The students I’ve worked with this year are now on summer vacation. Some of them have probably even taken a look at their yearbook since then. I’m willing to bet at least a few of them see something like this written in there:
Nice sentiment. Horrible message.
As I think about yearbooks and all the years since high school, there’s one concept I keep coming back to: transformation.
Yeah, like that, but more literary.
Most story types include transformation of one kind or another.
It’s a common feature of YA novels and “chick lit” books. There’s even a scarily specific German term for a coming-of-age story “bildungsroman” (which I somehow still remember from AP Lit 8 years ago….) Even stories not ostensibly about transformation usually include at least some elements of it.
So, what do I mean by character change?
This is really just a change of clothes. The more impressive & disturbing trick would be to wave the wand and make her stepmother nice.
The changes need to make sense for the character and the context. The caterpillar isn’t going to turn into a puppy (without magic anyway).
Mishandled, the character may come across as too much of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu. (“Oh, really, they just picked up a sword yesterday and now they’re beating people who’ve trained for years/ should probably be good at this?”)
Hallmarks of Authentic Change
- People don’t change all at once (which is why montages are so popular in movies)
- Change is hard work! A character needs to put in the work for it to feel earned.
- Gradual (if it isn’t gradual, did they make a deal with the Devil/something evil?)
- Think: two steps forward, one step back
- Triggered by something
Fortunately, there are lots of authors that handle character change well.
While I have many issues with Game of Thrones/ A Song of Ice and Fire–particularly in its attitude towards violence against women–the characters in the story do change (often into corpses).
Tyrion Lannister goes from being a rich man who doesn’t have to care about anything but his own whims to a man who’s been in war, built a place for himself, lost everything, and found the wherewithal to start again.
In fact, most of the characters have undergone profound changes along the way. That’s one nice thing about sagas: you have a long time to create authentic change.
A story doesn’t have to be as long as that book series/ TV show to show transformation, of course. Some authors can do it convincingly in a slim volume:
Seeing two sisters grow up and go on different paths as the world falls apart around them during World War II made for an interesting story. This one is a coming-of-age novel and, while I didn’t connect with all of the characters, they definitely changed.
What if you’re not trying to tell a story spanning decades?
I just finished reading this one a few days ago. It covered one extraordinary year in the life of these three half-sisters and their vineyards in Champagne. The changes they undergo are hard-won, imperfect, and satisfying to see.
What if you’re the writer and not the reader? What are some triggers you can use to inspire change?
- Move to a new place
- The book above was one I read a decade or more ago. I remember it being really, really funny.
- Character arrives who challenges them/ their position
- House of Daughters was a good example of this happening to three different people at the same time.
- A Song of Ice and Fire for one.
- Death/Decline of a relative, mentor, or someone who inspired them
- This kicks off a lot of stories, including the infernal devices series by Cassandra Clare
- Loss (home, job, significant other, friend, pet)
- Too many to share. Lots of “chick lit” starts this way.
- Falling in love
- The central premise of most romance novels. There’s also the “love providing courage to change” idea in Ella Enchanted
- Starting a new school/ position that exposes you to new ideas
- Lots and lots of YA
- Challenging preconceptions
- Character or situational.
Now that you’ve put them in a situation ripe for transformation, what kinds of change can that inspire?
One option: turning a sweet, humble gardener into a badass about to take on a giant spider (or a room full of goblins). Thanks J.R.R. Tolkein for making us wish we had a Sam in our lives!
Types of Change
- Character developing a spine
- Nothing makes me long to throw a book across a room/ shake someone fictional more than a doormat main character who stays a doormat for the entire book
- Overcoming fears
- Bilbo is a good example of this in The Hobbit
- Taking charge/ claiming power
- Game of Thrones again
- Learning new skills
- That Jedi Academy book series I loved as a kid is one example. Of course, if they aren’t becoming a jedi, it can be anything from learning a language to becoming the boss of a company
- Learning to care/ building a family
- House of Daughters
- Changing mindset
- many coming of age stories
- Character losing their way
- Good for setting up a redemptive arc and/or creating a villain
Not an exhaustive list by any means, but a way to start the conversation and another lens to use to look at a story. Whether it’s a change in yourself, your character, or your reading material you’re after, I hope this list helps!
Nothing really stays the same. Children grow up, people move on, and caterpillars turn into butterflies. Happily, change can be good 🙂
…sorry, I couldn’t pass it up.
What do you think? Is there a character whose arc you love? Do you have an author in mind who does this especially well? What ways have you found to create transformations (in your stories or your own life)?