The surest way to stir emotion in readers can be summed up in one word: change.
Change is a universal experience. We’ve all gone through it. We cannot avoid it. The passages of life guarantee it. Change is necessary, difficult, wrenching and individual. When a character in a story changes we each recall the emotional earthquakes of our own lives. We feel for characters, or so we say. We’re really feeling for ourselves.
Changes can be small or big. In my post Stirring Higher Emotions, I described a method for turning a character toward virtue, the shift with the greatest reader impact. Change can also be momentary, though, as when in a scene a point-of-view character gains insight, makes an intuitive leap, asks the right question, reverses course or steps out of the box of our expectations and acts differently or looks at things in a new way.
Every change, big or small, knocks us readers off balance which in terms of emotional craft is good. Shake us out of our fog and our hearts open. We’re free to feel. What does change mean, then? How does it happen? How can it be built in a manuscript for maximum effect?
In general, what changes in people is belief, behavior, or both. The emotional impact of change lies less in the change itself and more in resistance to it. The effect of change can be amplified by involving other characters, who either validate the old beliefs and behaviors or who open paths to new ones. Change happens both inside and observably. Showing is good. Done right, telling can be too. Why not both?
A character who needs to change is rooted on one side of a polarity: me or you, yin or yang, Jeckyll or Hyde, helpless or reckless, righteous or resigned. Such a character is stuck for good reasons. Wrong belief and damaging behavior become traps because they work. Until they don’t.
Even then they hang on because to change means giving up what is familiar and simple. The old ways boost confidence, compensate for weakness and, sometimes, make one acceptable to a group. Adopting new ways requires becoming vulnerable, facing complexity, accepting ambiguity as well as feeling alone, unsure and at risk. No wonder people backslide.
[pullquote]Change feels good. It’s a relief, liberating, and empowering. It’s a turn away from self-pity and toward understanding of self and others. It brings maturity, perspective, and elevates one to a higher consciousness.[/pullquote]
Once accomplished, though, change feels good. It’s a relief, liberating, and empowering. It’s a turn away from self-pity and toward understanding of self and others. It brings maturity, perspective, and elevates one to a higher consciousness. Change is akin to religious surrender, mystical detachment, meditation, mindfulness, and the state of self-observation achieved in psychotherapy. Turmoil is let go. Peace is found.
Now, how do we turn this into a set of tools for fiction? Here are some questions to help pin down the unique change a given character needs to undergo, what makes it difficult, who helps or hinders, the trigger for the change and the rewards.
Define the Change:
Choose a character. This person is hurting himself or herself in a way that no one else is, what is it? Choose three other characters. How would each differently describe this flawed thinking or unhelpful behavior? Who, by contrast, sees it as strength? How is this everyone’s issue, a timeless dichotomy, or a wholly contemporary malaise? Who expresses that? Put this character’s belief and/or behavior at one end of a spectrum…what’s at the other end?
What’s good about being stuck in the old way of thinking or being? How has it benefited, if not profited, your character? What makes it a rule for living? Who in history lived by the same rule and was better off? How does your character know the old belief and way of being works? What does it simplify? Who approves? How does it make your character feel good? What does it mask? Demonstrate the rewards.
More: Why is it too soon to change? Why is it better to wait? Why is it too much work? How is your character simply incapable of changing? What power or authority would he or she lose? Who would shun this character if he or she changed? How would it be humiliating? Who would be harmed? Who needs to be protected?
Finally: What past resentment is this character clinging onto? At whom is he or she still angry? How does your character fool himself or herself into thinking that he or she no longer cares? How is that right—yet utterly wrong to someone else who sees your character clearly?
Add a Wise Mentor:
Who sees your character’s good side when others might not? Who is able to put himself or herself in your character’s shoes? Who accepts your character as he or she is, does not judge, and respects their choices? Who has not forgotten why your character was important to them? Who stands by even when things fall apart?
Trigger the Change with Adverse Consequences:
Why does this character feel guilty about his or her old way of thinking or acting? How does he or she struggle with it? Show an attempt at making a change and how that fails. What’s the most dramatic way for your character return to the old ways? How does backsliding bite? Who is disgusted? Who turns away? What’s the biggest cost of failing to change? Make that happen.
What’s the most symbolic way in which your character can show that he or she has changed? What does he or she now understand that he or she did not understand before? What does he or she now see about self? What is he or she now capable of doing that previously was impossible? What’s the best thing about letting go of strife? How does the world look different? How are other people new? What timeless principle is proven? How does it feel to be at peace?
Phew. No wonder change is hard—and hard to write effectively. But when change happens we readers are grateful. We feel better. We are moved. And even more than the satisfaction of a plot resolution, wouldn’t you like your readers to feel just that at the end of your novel?
Of course. Now you know a way to bring that about.
How will your protagonist change? What makes it necessary? What makes it hard? What makes it happen? Who helps? What will we take away?