I did an appearance at a school not long ago that sparked the topic of today’s post. At the conclusion of my presentation, I invited questions. A young man immediately raised his hand with a burning question: “In the first book,” he said, “Lou is completely different by the end than she was at the beginning. Did you mean for that to happen?” I smiled and said, “You bet.” I went on to explain how crucial character growth was to storytelling.
After that appearance, I realized I take this particular aspect of writing for granted, and that’s a mistake. I don’t pay close enough attention to the changes my characters go through. I sat down later that evening and identified the basic elements that go into a character arc.
Clearly defined character traits – You can’t change a character that isn’t clearly defined. Consistency is the best way to establish a character’s initial nature. For example, if your character has trouble committing to anything, you have to establish that character trait by presenting him with numerous opportunities to demonstrate that particular flaw.
Subtle foreshadowing – Foreshadowing gets a bad rap because when it’s done poorly, it can ruin a story. But if foreshadowing is subtle, it can entice and draw a reader in. When it comes to contributing to character change, foreshadowing can give the reader a hint that a character has a desire to change. Maybe our commitment-phobic character meets a lonely elderly character who is living the life he is destined to lead if he doesn’t change.
A gradual pace – A character cannot be one way on page one and completely different on page two. If that’s the case, there’s no reason to go on with the story. The change must present itself gradually over the course of the story in order to allow the reader to be invested in the need to change. The reader should want the character to change as much as the character needs to change to fulfill the promise of the story. They need to anticipate it. Anticipation comes from making them strategically wait.
The change must link with your overall plot – Change for the sake of change doesn’t work in fiction. The plot of your story has to contribute to your characters’ changes. You know you have a character that is afraid of commitment, so how will you get him to embrace it? You devise a plot that makes it imperative for him to commit. Maybe he needs to get married in order to inherit a large sum of money. In his search for a phony marriage, he unwittingly learns what true love is and commits to the girl of his dreams. On the other hand, you couldn’t have him marry for the money and never learn to commit. There’s no payoff in that strategy.
Defining the change your primary characters will go through before you write can help you develop your plot. It can help you write a preliminary synopsis and write at a faster pace with a clear vision of where your story is headed. Give your characters a clear path for change and you will make your readers care about the people in story. And if they care, they keep reading.
Richard Ridley is an award-winning author and paid CreateSpace contributor.