“I still don’t know what I was waiting for…” Changes – David Bowie
The cornerstone of a good story is a compelling protagonist who must overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve a worthy goal or find the solution to a troubling problem. To make it a great story, the protagonist must undergo personal change in the process (comic book superheroes and detectives a la Sherlock Holmes are notable exceptions to this rule). Meaningful personal change is the price protagonists must pay to achieve their aim. It is proof to the reader that the protagonist is worthy (or in the case of anti-heroes, evidence that their fall from grace was merited).
To be heroic, a story character must offer the reader some form of self-sacrifice, and what is personal change if not a sacrifice of a part of one’s self? We are attracted to stories where characters change because we understand – as anyone who’s ever tried to give up smoking can attest – that change is hard. In part, as readers we want to vicariously experience the transformation of the protagonist, as frightening or exhilarating the journey may be, to affirm that we too will be capable of personal change in our own lives.
But how can story-tellers avoid the pitfall of making their character’s transformation seem artificial, contrived? What is it that makes us believe unflinchingly that Rick, a dispassionate tavern owner in wartime Morocco, who at the beginning of the story coolly asserts, “I stick my neck out for nobody”, would risk his life and give up the companionship of the woman he loves in a selfless act for a cause he earlier refuted? Why do we have no trouble accepting that Michael Corleone, a young, idealistic war veteran who abhors the nature of his family’s business would become a mass-murdering mafia boss?
The key is to understand the nature of the progression of personal change and the fundamental element that is essential for the process to unfold: motivation. First let’s glance at the six stages of personal change as described by the seminal work of Prochaska and Di Clemente. Then I’ll relate these stages to the character arc in a typical three act story structure.
Pre-contemplation: the individual is not even considering the possibility of change. Ignorance is bliss.
Contemplation: A sense of ambivalence sets in. The individual is sitting on the fence.
Preparation: The individual is testing the waters, planning to act.
Action: The individual has started a new activity or stopped an old one.
Maintenance: The individual is committed to sustaining the new behavior.
Relapse and Recycle: The individual backslides, has a fall from grace and resumes the old behavior. He may struggle and then get back on track.
Now let’s see how these six stages can be incorporated into the three act story, but for our purposes I’ll reverse the order of the last two steps (the reason for doing this will soon become apparent).
At the beginning of Act 1, the protagonist is in the pre-contemplation stage. He is in a comfort zone which, even if not ideal, on balance does not justify the expenditure of energy from his point of view. The reader should detect that something’s rotten in the state of Denmark but our protagonist may be blissfully unaware. Any attempt to convince him he has a problem that requires correction will be countered with denial and resistance.
In my novel, The Art of Forgetting, Dr. Lloyd Copeland sees no reason to change his lifestyle of shunning emotional attachments and engaging in endless one-night stands with the medical students he supervises. The reader clearly sees something’s wrong with this guy, but Lloyd is in a state of denial.
The inciting incident of the story thrusts the protagonist into the contemplation stage. The hero starts to appreciate there is a problem but is not yet ready to act. If we use the language outlined by Christopher Vogel in The Hero’s Journey, our protagonist is refusing the call. Still in Act 1, the hero enters the preparation stage and begins to test the waters. He may have a “meeting with the mentor” in which the shield of resistance is lowered. His ambivalence with regard to the state of his affairs is growing.
In essence, the inciting incident has thrust him out of his comfort zone. A gulch has opened between his current state of being and a new desire. The cost/benefit balance has shifted to a point where the risk of taking action is dwarfed by the cost of staying mired in the status quo.
The action stage marks the beginning of Act 2. The protagonist takes an initial step to restore balance in her life but it is a half-hearted attempt. She is dumbfounded when her first move is met by an unexpected reaction that only widens the gulch that separates her from her aim. She takes further steps that continue to fall short because she has yet to understand and accept that the only way to attain her goal is to undergo profound, meaningful change and this has yet to happen. She may be willing to change, but is she ready and able to commit to change?
Now this is where we’ll reverse the last two stages as it makes more sense for our character arc. The failures and setbacks our protagonist experiences will frustrate and discourage her. She may relapse into old habits. The alcoholic will feel the temptation of the bottle. The hero hits rock bottom but understands that a point of no return has been crossed and she can never go back to her previous life. She is beaten down but not defeated. Furthermore, she is armed with new insights into her problems and has a better understanding of herself. She gets back on track and by the end of Act two, she is not just willing to change: she is now ready and able. The meaningful change she has undergone allows her to overcome the ultimate obstacle in the story climax.
Act 3 represents the maintenance phase of change. A new steady state has been reached. The hero has indelibly changed and the reader cannot envision the hero returning to her old ways. After all, nothing makes us lose interest in and respect for story characters faster than having them repeat the same mistakes over and over.
As is true with any writing advice, the steps I’ve outlined should not be used in a formulaic way. And there’s quite a bit more work to do with character development than connecting the dots of the 6 stages of change. But I hope this provides some guidance in outlining the minimal elements required to pull off believable change in your characters.