Last week’s lesson was about how Character Change makes a story more satisfying, and I evoked the good name of James Bond to make my point. Audiences and readers, now more than ever, want characters who grow and evolve. But figuring out your character’s change is just one step; you also need to develop how that change occurs.
Today’s lesson: Character Change can’t come out of nowhere!
So I was reading this book and the middle section (what we screenwriters refer to as Act II) was a bit boring. However, I soldiered onward because it was a book club read and I needed to finish it. Near the end of Act II, the main character learned something about herself and had an epiphany: “So that’s what’s wrong with me! Now that I’m aware of this flaw, I can overcome it in order to achieve my goal!” For those familiar with Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT beat sheet, this is a classic Dark Night of the Soul + B-Story moment. For the uninitiated, what that means is at the end of Act II, the main character is beaten, down in the dumps, left for dead, or any other version of hopeless defeat. She’ll never achieve her goal now! But then, usually because of something the B-Story character has imparted upon her (read this post for more on that), she realizes what she’s been doing wrong all this time and heads into Act III (the Finale) armed with the knowledge to change herself and triumph!
Hence the three steps of Creating Character Change:
- Change comes from a personal flaw set up in Act I.
- That flaw must prevent the character from achieving their goal in Act II.
- Overcoming that flaw helps the character triumph in Act III.
But in the book I was reading, the character’s end-of-Act-II epiphany fell flat because, though the author had figured out step one and three, she hadn’t done step two.
If step two is overlooked, the character’s change comes out of nowhere and is wholly unsatisfying. Flaws must create trouble for characters and impede their goals. For example, if the character’s flaw is “blindly following authority and not thinking for herself” then throughout Act II there must be numerous moments when following orders actually makes things worse for the character.
This is why I was so bored in the middle of that book. Though the author had touched on the character’s flaw so its existence wasn’t a total surprise, the flaw never held the character back. And that meant there was no conflict. The character moved from plot point to plot point with relative ease, instead of being thwarted by her flaw.
So don’t forget Step 2. It’s common to miss it because we’re often concentrating on how the antagonist and the external forces fight against our protagonist, and not how the protagonist is inadvertently fighting herself. But if you want readers to really connect with your character, give her a flaw she doesn’t even recognize at first, have it dog her for the whole story, then give her a chance to overcome it in the end. Because, really, that’s what character growth (of both fictional people and readers) is all about.
More in the Reading For Writers 101 series…
- Character Change, part 1
- What Book Jackets Teach About A Story’s “Hook”
- Books I Did Not Finish… 3+ Reasons Why
Next Up from Heather… I go into more detail about Act II (aka the “Mushy Middle”).
For more posts by Heather, click here!