How to Use Rewards and Punishments to Get Your Character to Change

How to Use Rewards and Punishments to Get Your Character to Change

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.

Creating Character Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (affiliate link)

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?

How to Use Rewards and Punishments to Get Your Character to Change

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. thomas h cullen says

    The Representative doesn’t deal in character-change. Therefore a bit about remaining the same is what I’ll talk a bit about.

    For all its patterns and components, you have to recognise life. A same manner of thought, at the always exact same point in time. A same certain behaviour, when always in the exact same certain location, etc etc:

    It was in getting to grips with this, that I was able to actually maintain onto Croyan’s fullest reach of a story – his both literal and mental one.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes it can be interesting to reward and punish a character who remains steadfast – for better or worse.

  2. thomas h cullen says

    In this case, it wasn’t Croyan, but it was for me that there was the reward:

    The reward being Croyan himself!

    His final situation (the literal). His final politics (the mental). For my having endured; for my having been able to persevere throughout time and maintain onto these, and not let reality’s nature of repetition “change” and deter me (as it does too many people)…..when on the page, in final form, Croyan’s very existence himself was the reward.

  3. I am editing my novel after an agent suggested that my secondary character was a cliché best friend, who was all angst and anger but little else. In my mind she’s a full fledged character with insecurities and strong motivations (even if they are the wrong motivations), so in this draft I focused hard on showing that vulnerable side of her. I changed conversations from all yelling and exclamation points to dropping hints about why she feels angry and sad and bitter. I also added context clues in the background that I hope give this character more sympathy for the struggle she overcomes throughout the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It is interesting how properly used rewards and punishments can actually help increase reader affiliation with characters. If characters are acting badly – and getting punished for it – readers are much less likely to be turned off.

    • thomas h cullen says

      A skilful response.

      Must be a worthwhile agent; their having made the effort necessary for a ‘secondary’ character.

  4. spacechampion says

    Seems to me two competing motivations are needed. One to motivate the maintenance of the Lie. One to move the character towards the Truth. The Lie may be motivated by something negative like revenge, ego, or lust, while the Truth may be motivated by something positive like love, accomplishment, or peace of mind. Of course, perhaps a Truth can be motivated by a negative, like revenge, if it’s balanced by another negative motivating the Lie (like revenge against the wrong person). Two positives motivations reinforcing the Lie and the Truth I suppose could work too.

  5. Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham blew my mind Learning about try/fail cycles opened the door to a new world of plotting and how to increase tension at every step

  6. I remember reading about change being instigated by our desire to avoid pain and experience pleasure in one of Tony Robbins’s books. It made perfect sense to me personally, and now that you mention it, K.M. it makes perfect sense in writing as well! Will go and apply right away 😀

  7. In Negative story arcs, it’s immensely satisfying (and sad!) to see the opposite happen: villains do the “right” thing that leads them toward the Truth, but instead of being rewarded for it by getting closer to their goal, they are punished instead!
    I love how punishing the good behavior creates a complex understanding of the Truth. Real world Truth. We have important values like Honor, Faith, Patience, Love, and Mercy, but the characters have to understand that not every good deed is rewarded. In fact, this drives some people closer to the Lie (or to villainy) . The Theme in such a book would be the patience of accepting such a world where Good is sometimes punished and Evil is sometimes rewarded, but that the value of doing Good is for others, and not just for personal fulfillment. In other words, self sacrifice over personal gain.

    (By the way, I’m really enjoying these posts. Do you ever schedule book signings?)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good point. The essence of this technique isn’t to whitewash the reality of real-life rewards/punishments, but rather to create, overall, the story’s orientaiton of Truth.

      I haven’t done a book signing in a long time, but it doesn’t mean I never will again! 🙂

  8. My character StarGirl might end up becoming the person that her people depend on to handle situations that they can’t and might get Vance or Nick in the end.

  9. Mauricio says

    Could this also apply to a flat arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not in the same way. The Flat-Arc character will actually be “punished” by the outside world for using the Truth. His test is having to stand strong against that punishment and *not* change.

  10. Hi,

    In a negative change arc, is the character punished for truth-based actions and rewarded for lie-based actions? And in a flat arch, are the surrounding(not sure if that’s the right word) characters the ones who are being punished and rewarded?

    Thank you! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s slightly less straightforward in a Negative-Change Arc. The character will be rewarded for following the Lie by getting closer and closer to the Thing He Wants, but will be punished with consequences that push him farther and farther from the Thing He Needs. He keeps rationalizing the loss of the Need because the pull of the Want is so strong. Same goes for supporting characters who are following a Negative-Change Arc.


  1. […] are the heart of our story. P.J. Parrish advises listening to your characters, K.M. Weiland shows how to use reward and punishment to get your characters to change, C.S. Lakin discusses how setting and locale shape us and our characters, Julie Musil has 4 tips […]

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