This is a follow up to my earlier post, If I Exorcise My Devils Then My Angels Will Leave Too. In that post I talked about the concept of personal growth as a story arc and why I think it’s been over- and badly used.
Now I want to talk about how personality changes in characters can be used well in a story, or at least start some discussion on the topic.
First off, why are you doing it? Why go to the trouble of creating a character who will alter over the course of the story? Is it important to the plot that the character react one way to a situation at one time and another way to a similar situation at another time? Could the narrative be accomplished by having the character have more information about the situation in the second instance and thus react differently due to that while remaining consistent in terms of personality?
Because it makes the character more interesting? No, it doesn’t. It makes the character confusing and difficult to relate to. And–which will lead into my next point–often makes the character initially unlikable.
Second, is the character as written in first instance an attractive character? Don’t tell me I have to look at the overall character arc because if the character isn’t worth reading about in the first few pages, I’m not going to read the overall character arc. There are too many books out there about people that I want to spend time with.
You can write a decent character who has a personality flaw, but don’t open up with the flaw. Let me see some reason to like the character first. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. If being flawed is the defining characteristic of the character, then I’m not going to want to read the story.
Next, how much time do you have? People don’t change overnight, and they don’t suddenly have the strength or fortitude to do what must be done just because the fate of the world depends on it. In fact, higher stress is likely to make them retreat into their accustomed habits of behavior more strongly.
Batman was not created on the night that the Wayne family was attacked in the alley. Batman was created over the long years of a boy being cooped up in an old mansion, surrounded by the relics of his lost parents, with no one but a creepy butler for company. If Bruce Wayne had been sent to live with a healthy foster family and had seen a grief counselor a few times there would have been no Batman.
If you have a novel that takes place over a long period of time, and the hero is defeated by the villain in the beginning and then they meet again ten years later, I’ll buy that the hero has overcome the weakness that led to his first defeat. A week later? A month later? Not so much.
Lastly, is the new personality trait consistent with the character’s personality in the beginning of the story? I touched on this point in my last post and I want to expand on that here.
A character who changes for the better should do so by developing flaws into strengths, not by replacing one aspect of their personality with a completely different (and sometimes contradictory) trait.
Every flaw is a distorted virtue and every virtue is a flaw brought under control.
Let me give some examples.
Suppose you have a character who is a coward. Why? Well, he’s got a vivid imagination, and he worries about things, imagining the worst possible scenario and talking himself into panicking. Now, if we open with him exhibiting a positive trait related to his imagination–entertaining a child with an improvised story, or coming up with an exciting plot for a play–we have someone that the reader has a reason to admire and get to know better. Later on, after we’ve established the character, we have a situation that involves danger and the readers gets to see how the character’s imagination works against him in that instance. Then, later on, we can have him triumph through exhibiting prudence–using that same tendency to imagine the worst to plan for the worst, to be more prepared than the adversary, turning his flaw into a virtue.
Another example? A character who is wrathful. She lets her anger control her because she is compassionate and the fate of the victims of crime moves her to rage. We introduce her showing that compassion and let the reader admire that quality. Later we can show how her empathy for victims drives her to excessive force against the criminals. And as the story progresses she harnesses that anger into justice, trusting to the law to do what is right and ensuring that it is followed exactly.
Give me someone to admire and let me watch them develop their strengths, rather than someone to feel sorry for that I hope will get better eventually.