How do you get your character to change? As simple as this question may seem, it’s also a super practical and important question that deserves an equally practical answer.
At this point in our journey through character arcs, I hope you’re as stoked as I am about the potential of well-structured inner journeys for your characters—whether they’re positive change, flat, or negative change arcs. So you join in the general cheer—hip hooray for character arcs!—and roll up your sleeves to implement an awesome change arc in your story.
But… then you run up against that gaping quandary: How do you get your character to change?
The Only Way to Create Organic Change in Your Character’s Arc
The first thing you do is run over your character-arc checklist. Yep, he’s got a Lie that’s making him miserable (or at least less-than-fulfilled in some aspect). Yep, the ending features a terrific new Truth that’s going to make his life or his world so much better. Just as importantly, you understand how your plot’s structural beats are each going to need to influence your character’s arc.
But how do you make your character change? How do you get him from Point A (the Lie) to Point B (the Truth) in a way that makes sense from the inside out? It’s not enough to put a character though all the proper motions of a change. To make it really work, the character has to feel that change. He has to be personally motivated to change.
And how do you accomplish that? Let’s just say I hope you’ve got a nice juicy carrot and a not-so-nice hard stick handy.
Using Rewards and Punishments to Get Your Character to Change
People are motivated by pain and pleasure. We move away from pain and toward pleasure. We move away from what we don’t want and toward what we do want. As any parent knows, this means rewards and punishments are highly successful motivational tools. And what are our characters except wayward, recalcitrant children who need to be shown a better way?
In Character Arcs, Jordan McCollum explained insightfully:
When the character’s positive choice brings her closer to the post-arc state, the best “reward” in storytelling terms would be to bring her closer to her external goal. When a negative choice backfires, the biggest “punishment” is to take her farther away from her external goal. We slowly force the character to see that her pre-arc beliefs and behaviors will no longer work, and she must try something new.
Every story is defined by what the character wants. This external goal (the Thing He Wants Most) starts out as the story’s manifestation of ultimate pleasure (even if the story’s true source of “pleasure” is really the Thing He Needs Most). Naturally, the character is headed straight toward this font of bliss.
But his Lie keeps getting in his way, especially in the first half of the book, prior to the Moment of Truth at the Midpoint. Every time he makes a Lie-based move, out comes the author’s omnipotent stick to give him a good whack on the backside. Unless the character is a total dope, he’s eventually going to get tired of getting spanked and try a new tack—a Truth-based tack.
Only when the character begins to act in harmony with the Truth will he stop being punished and instead begin to be rewarded. This is where you pull out that carrot! The more in sync the character is with the Truth, the greater his reward—the greater his progress toward the Thing He Wants and (more importantly) the Thing He Needs. In Plot vs. Character, Jeff Gerke reminds us:
The key is to have a firm grip on two things: what your hero’s old way will eventually do to her if left unchecked and what bright future the new way is trying to get her to receive.
How “Yes, But…” Disasters Act as Rewards
Properly structured scenes are split into two segments: action and reaction. The action half will be structured into three parts of its own: goal, conflict, outcome. That outcome is almost always going to be disastrous or partially disastrous. We call these partial disasters “yes, but…” disasters. They are disasters in which the character’s main scene goal is obstructed, but only partially. He comes out of the scene with half a victory.
In the first half of your story, your character’s Lie-based actions are going to be leading him to a lot of full-on disasters. These disasters are punishments. Every time he aims for his goal in the wrong way, he gets slapped for it. He enters the conflict and comes up wanting every time. But every one of these disasters should be teaching him something: his Lie isn’t giving him the right tools to get what he wants.
As he begins to search for new ways to avoid disasters and reach his goal, he starts growing into the Truth and gaining more effective tools. As a result, in the second half of the story, he’s going to be scoring more and more “yes, but…” disasters. He’s still not capable of fully defeating the antagonist and winning the conflict (once he does that, the story is over), but he’s getting closer. And the closer he gets, the more he will be rewarded by better results.
Figuring out how to get your character to change is a decision that must be made on the macro level of your entire story: the structure of the plot and how it influences all of the character arc’s catalytic moments.
But your ability to get the character to change is also dependent on the micro-level decisions you make in every single scene in your story: punishments for Lie-based actions, rewards for Truth-based actions.
In every scene, take the time to identify your character’s guiding principle and make sure he’s being appropriately punished and rewarded. The result? You’ll end up with a powerful character arc based on realistic motivations and flawless cause and effect.
Tell me your opinion: What rewards and punishments are you using to get your character to change?
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