On Characters #3: Change

4 01 2010

Every year, I sit down either on January 1 or shortly after to make a list of resolutions/goals for the year.  Most years, I’m rather ambitious and hope to complete some radical changes in myself.  And yet at the end of each year, I realize that I accomplish some goals while pretty much ignoring the goals that require me to change from being me.  When I looked over my lengthy list of goals from last year, I realized something: the only things I’ve accomplished over the year are the goals I listed that were measurable.  For instance, one goal was to get a real job.  I got a real job this year.  However, another goal was to spend at least 30 minutes a day practicing the piano.  There was no real measure, and I dropped the habit shortly into 2009 when my work schedule got hectic.  This year, I learned from my mistakes and only wrote down measurable goals; for example, instead of saying “practice the piano daily,” I said, “Learn one new song on the piano.”  For my playing skills, that will take the majority of the year, especially since I tend to pick difficult songs to learn.

What does all this self-reflection have to do with writing and creating characters?  Too often, I come across characters in books (and movies/TV shows, for that matter) that experience an enlightening moment and change “from the inside out.”  While I do think people change on small scales, I am a skeptic when it comes to people’s ability to completely change themselves.  I know I’ve yet to become a new person and eradicate my flaws that I point out to myself year after year.  I yell at myself for being a procrastinator, yet the next time I have a deadline looming, I know I’ll still wait until the last possible minute before I get any real work done.  Why?  Because I know me.

Do your characters know themselves?  I think it takes a special type of reflection to get inside your characters’ heads and let yourself see their good and bad parts and accept them for who they are.  Then, when your characters go through “life-changing” moments, I think it’s imperative that authors further reflect and ask themselves, “What changes are reasonable to expect after such a moment in a human’s life?”  Characters who are “bad” to begin with shouldn’t immediately switch over to being “good” after seeing the error of their ways.  How likely is it that one dream will change the way Ebeneezer Scrooge views the world on a daily basis?  Sure, for one Christmas his heart might be changed.  But what about the next Christmas?  And the one after that?  I think people like to fall into the trap of thinking that massive change is something that is reasonable and attainable, but I guess I’m more of a realist who wants to see characters coming to terms with themselves and making the changes they can while still keeping what makes them them.

So the next time you find yourself writing a scene that will change one of your characters, take the time to ask yourself how that character can actually change.  Take the time to reflect on the possibilities while being realistic and true to the character.  Don’t rip off your character (and readers) by simply letting him/her wake up one day a brand new person.  Even the simple changes are journeys rather than instantaneous.

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