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When Characters are Affected by Events

June 2, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 2, 2017

Most of us know that major characters (and sometimes secondary one) often grow as a result of the effect of the events that befall them or that they take part in. A character arc shows character growth or change in response to what’s happening to and around the character.

Most major characters are different in some way at the end of a story. Exceptions for series characters such as detectives who remain fairly constant from book to book.

A character might learn something new about the world and thus undergo a shift in his own worldview. Or a character might learn something new, something heinous, about someone she respects, and thus her view of that person changes. Or maybe she discovers that her nemesis has a heart after all, and she must adjust her opinion of her longtime enemy.

Maybe the character doesn’t change his mind but changes his behavior.

A character might not have made a stand on an issue, either not caring enough to have developed a stand or not wanting to publicly declare his opinion. But you can write the story so that the character must take a stand, must declare his opinion, even if it costs him. So the character might or might not actually be changing in his beliefs, but he does become able to share those beliefs, to put his money where his mouth is. To stand up and take sides.

A character could change in still other ways. She may have held a strong position all along but find it changing due to circumstances or through coming to know and trust new associates who hold a different position or to reaching a new understanding about issues, an understanding she couldn’t have had before going through the adventures you wrote for her.

We can see why a person would change; we’re showing characters at the most momentous period in their lives, when they have to adapt, when they have to dig deep to pull out skills and resources and stamina they didn’t know they possessed. When they have to try something different in order to succeed.

Tragedy changes people. A character is likely to change in some way when a family member is killed or the character himself is targeted by killers or the mafia or international spies.

Fear changes people. We put our characters into jeopardy—sometimes multiple times—in a story. We make them suffer. We push and pull and tear them apart so that they can grow, so that they can come to realize who they are inside.

Love changes people. When a character who never knew love finds love, he behaves in ways that surprise not only his friends, but himself.

Loss changes us. We grieve or rage or go silent or become reckless. We sometimes don’t recognize who we are when our support systems are wiped out.

As writers, we put characters into a crucible and pour on the pressure and crank up the heat. We make characters face issues that they’ve never faced before, and we don’t allow them an escape. How could they not be changed?

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Today I want to remind you to show changes in your character, to show growth and new depths.

Change can be gradual, but it can also come suddenly. A character’s realization that another character isn’t who the first character thought he was can be very sudden, maybe coming at the understanding that the second character hadn’t done what the first character always thought he’d done.

A character can change when he gains information. When he gains experience. When he loves. When he loses love.

You’re putting your main characters through their own personal hell—how would that affect them?

Would they be more understanding? Gentler or more patient? Maybe one character would be enraged. Another might become a loner.

A character might become more spiritual or religious. Still others might become generous—with time, with money, with skills.

When you write your characters into their adventures, take time to imagine how those adventures will influence them. And then be sure to include moments in the story where character changes are evident.

As I said, changes can happen slowly—taking the length of the story—or almost instantly. A character may undergo several changes over the course of a story. You’ve put the pressure on, so it’s likely that they will change. Don’t hesitate to show that change.

Make sure that characters have a reason to change in the first place, but when they do, make sure that they change or grow. When major problems touch them and those close to them, don’t allow them to always shake off the problem; make sure that they’re shaken up. And force them into new behaviors that they’d never have expected of themselves before that moment. Show that the events of a story are important—life changing—by showing how characters are changed by those events.

When you choose to highlight a certain time in a character’s life, you’re probably picking the most important period, the most memorable moments of that character’s life. Show us how those moments and the events that transpired in them influenced your character. If the character is unmoved, it’s likely that the events weren’t the most critical of his life. And if that’s the case, why are you showcasing those events rather than events that make a lasting impact on the character?

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I was watching The Chronicles of Narnia the other day, and the change in Edmund really struck me. It was the same kind of change that Frodo experienced at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Both characters were deeply changed by what they went through.

Edmund was embarrassed, chagrined by what he’d done, but the result was that he was humbled and from that time on, he chose to change his attitude and behavior. The audience could tell that the change went deep.

Frodo was so changed by his experiences that he never really recovered. Yes, he and the fellowship had been victorious, but the cost to him was high. His experiences took all his drive, sapped all his strength and the desire to continue on.

When you put your main characters through their adventures, how are they changed? Do you show those changes? Are the changes deep enough, drastic enough?

Do the changes fit the character, who he was before the adventure as well as the person he ended up being once the adventure was over?

If you haven’t done so, consider your characters and the pressure that you pile on top of them. And make sure that you show how that pressure changes them. Whether for the positive or the negative, events change humans. And traumatic events—especially if the person undergoing the event is the one who caused some of his own problems—can leave deep marks. Use your stories to reveal who your characters become inside the crucible.

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Tags:     Posted in: Beyond the Basics, Craft & Style

13 Responses to “When Characters are Affected by Events”

  1. EVC says:

    Once again more brilliant advice from you Beth. Thank you.

  2. And sometimes a character’s change can become the essence of the story as it did in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

  3. Hi, Beth! Thanks for your amazing website! I discovered it a couple of months ago and have been working my way through all the extremely useful posts. I’d been working on my current novel steadily for about a year (although it had existed in an earlier version for much longer) and discovering your blog has given it a new lease on life. In particular, some of your posts on point of view and conflict have helped me look at my scenes through a new lens, and I think it is much better as a result. Thanks again.

    • Leslie, I love hearing that the blog has been helpful; thanks for letting me know. I wish you great success with your current manuscript. Here’s to finishing it and introducing your characters and their story to the world.

  4. Phil Huston says:

    I’ve taken your character advice a couple of times. Not that I can’t beat them up myself. One stuck with me. You had me force a force a character out of passivity. You had me put one in an unlikely situation. Another in the company of people he had no intention of meeting (that one is still on the fence). I’ve had them react completely opposite of how even I anticipated them behaving. All at your behest through this site. One thing. Even if I write 400 or 5,000 words, build a series of scenes from inception to climax and drop them in the cutting room floor folder, it is always worth it to push ourselves and our characters out of where and who we think they are. The writing aftertaste of putting them through whatever lingers and we think about them in differently. So thanks for that. I never would have written a fight scene without reading one of your push the character posts.

    And that serialized character thing? Plots are interchangeable when the characters are stereotypes wading through action. The difference between “Gunsmoke” and “Star Trek” is costumes. The characters are plug n play.

    • Steve Lowe says:

      Gene Roddenberry’s working title for Star Trek – when he was selling it to the studio – was: ‘Wagon train to the stars’. Which shows that he was envisioning it as a metaphor of the exploration of the U.S. (Wild) West by settlers from the East. Of course, although the characters in the crew remained essentially the same throughout the series, there’s no doubt they were original creations (Archetypes) to begin with; especially Spock – which maybe explains his lasting popularity (even down to the modern movie franchise).

      Cheers,
      Steve

      • Phil Huston says:

        Whoa, now podnuh. Half-breeds and hybrids (non pc character description) have been around in literature forever. We even had one for President. And “Wagon Train” as euphemism, on his side of the pond in TV parlance isn’t so much Manifest Destiny, but down to “travelling weekly adventure.” Like “Route 66.” Unlike Bonanza where they took the wagon into the same town every week to meet a new crop of aliens, fight with them and be thrown in jail. “Star Trek” and “Wagon Train” and their interchangeable crews hitched their sights on a star and ran into some deep poop every week in new territory. With Spock. Or the half breed Scout. Both sullen and wise and to themselves until they had to pull a rabbit out of their hats with a mind meld or a divining rod!

        • Steve Lowe says:

          Well howdy likewise, podnuh!

          As far as Star Trek is concerned, I think it was Roddenberry’s explicit aim to represent the US expansion into the uncharted 19th c. west in a metaphorical/allegorical form. The overarching premise of the original series was to explore strange new worlds, and then, if possible, incorporate them into the ‘Union’ of the United Federation of Planets. One territory or state (or planet) at a time. The ‘Manifest destiny’ of that exploration of the galaxy was explicit in Kirk’s ‘Mission statement’ at the start of each episode. It just wasn’t ‘Go west, young man,’ but ‘Go everywhere’.

          Though in Start Trek, there was always the ‘Prime directive’: that the Federation should never interfere in the development of any race or culture which had not – itself – already developed ‘warp drive’. And the parallel with the American west would be a case of the Union not interfering in the lives of any Native Americans who were still living in what was effectively – from an archaeological/historical perspective – what we Europeans might call, the ‘Iron Age’. But then, such a categorization would, of course, include most 19th c. Native American tribes. And we all know what happened to them in the course of American history. I think Roddenberry was trying to tell the America of the 60s that there would have been a better way to have founded the U.S. than the way it had been conducted in reality. Thus Star Trek is a metaphor of an idealized version of Manifest Destiny.

          Star Trek was basically a metaphor about everything in the American experience. Why, the Cold War itself was mirrored in the standoff between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon ‘Empire’ (with the Chinese represented as the Romulans).

          I take your point about the parallel between Scout & Spock, but I think Spock always had greater depth as a character (or else, how come so many women fell in love with him?) Uhura was certainly an archetype on 60s T.V. and a metaphor for both the struggle over race-relations & feminism in the U.S. There was, of course, the famous kiss between her & Kirk in the episode Plato’s Stepchildren. Chekov’s inclusion was of course a vision of how the Cold War (on Earth) might be peacefully resolved.

          Roddenberry always used metaphor to get contentious contemporary storylines past the T.V. censors. The DS9 episode Rejoined (one of my favourites) showed a lesbian kiss – but just dressed up as something else. Because one of the two was meant to be a man reincarnated into a female body (though yet again, that could be taken as a further metaphor for Transgenderism).

          The whole idea of ‘metaphor’ was even carried to its logical (some might say ‘ridiculous’) conclusion in the TNG episode Darmok. Here, Picard is denied the benefit of the ‘universal translator’ and so forced to try to communicate with an alien using *literal* metaphors/allegories!

          I don’t know, but maybe the allegories in Star Trek are more obvious to those outside the U.S. sometimes (which would certainly explain its universal appeal :-)

          Cheers,
          Steve