How to Change a Character

There are two ways to get rid of a bad character.  One way is to destroy every mention of them within your manuscript and smite them ’til you can’t smite no more.  Another way is to change them.

The second option is so much more fun.

As Robyn Hoode pointed out in one of her many comments, one way to make characters interesting is to develop them.  Though this process takes a long time, it does work if done correctly.  In this post, I’m going to call “Making bad characters into good ones” character development.  If that isn’t your definition, assume it is for the moment while I expound, then tell me why it isn’t in the comments.

The character most open to character development, in my opinion, is the jerk.  Jerks are overly interested in petty things– such as themselves– and don’t really care about anything else.  Usually, jerks are introduced by a scene which shows exactly what they’re interested in and exactly how little they care about the things around them.  Right from the start, the reader hates the jerk just because he’s a jerk.  But, inexplicably, the readers are stuck with the jerk for the entire story.  If he stays the same, the readers won’t hate him because he’s easy to hate, but because he’s a horrible character.  He’s stagnant.  In that case, take the first suggestion at the beginning of the post– that character is doing nothing for your story.  But if the jerk starts to change, little by little, the reader will be as interested in him as in the hero.

Creating a sympathetic character out of nothing is hard, however.  You’ve already established him as a jerk.  How do you turn that around and get him going in the opposite way?

The trick is to find the polar opposite of the character’s most hate-worthy flaw, and apply that opposite until the character has changed.  For instance, you have a jerk.  He’s interested in petty things.  Now, directly contradict that.  Get him interested in something bigger– way bigger.

If you’ll pardon a mathematical interlude, think of it as an equation.  Something bad is negative, and something good is positive.  In order for the equation to end positively, the positive must outweigh the negative.  Negative two plus positive four equals positive two.

This rule is true on any scale of this process, but it gets harder and harder as the character’s flaw gets bigger and harder to contradict.  Traitors are traitorous.  They don’t keep promises or guard your back or tell the truth.  In order to change a traitor, then, you must make him keep a promise, guard the main character’s back, and tell the truth.  Not only that, though– you have to contradict and outdo the original flaw.  Not only does the traitor fight alongside the hero in the final battle, but he destroys the only enemy warrior on the battlefield that could defeat the hero.  He doesn’t just pay his debt– he gets the hero in debt instead.

As I said, this gets harder and harder as you get bigger and bigger.  The villain, for instance.  He’s a power-hungry liar who kills innocents and generally does evil.  That makes him nearly irredeemable.  In order for him to change, he has to give up his power, tell the truth, save people, and generally do good.  But not only that; he has to go above and beyond the call of duty.  Perhaps sacrifice is in order.  (Sacrifice is a huge sympathy-winner.)

Do this too quickly, however, and your credibility is gone.  People don’t change overnight.  Since the villain character arc I just outlined is so massive, pulling that twist ending would only work with loads of foreshadowing.

Let’s imagine the scene, shall we?  Our hero braves stormy oceans, dry deserts, and thick jungles, until he finally finds the villain’s lair hidden in a mountainside.  He barges in, slaying minions left and right, fighting his way to the inner sanctum.  There he finds the malicious villain sitting on his throne.  Seeing him, the villain throws himself to the floor, tearfully crying, “I hate myself!  I’ve decided to become a philanthropist.  But first, let me dismantle the Death Ray I just set to destroy Paris.  Whoops, pressed the wrong button.  Alas, I am killed by my own contraption!  At my funeral, make sure you wax eloquent about my heroic efforts in the last moments, and don’t forget the irony of fate!”

If I were the reader, I’d hate this author.  That trick is more evil than anything this villain ever did.

If you decide to contradict the flaw on the same scale as the flaw itself, you only equalize things.  For instance, the army of the dead I mentioned yesterday.  They broke a promise to fight in a war, which counts as their flaw.  Later, they keep a promise to fight in a war.  Now, this does not make us love them– but it keeps us from hating them and looking them as traitors.  They feel– as do we– a sense of fulfillment, but we don’t view them as heroes.  By contradicting the flaw, they’ve gotten themselves to level ground, but they are still far from heroic.

Dustfinger, from the Inkheart Trilogy, is a perfect example of this process done multiple times.  He betrays Mo and Maggie to Capricorn, then gets trapped in turn and helps them get away in the end (I think I have that right, but I may be mistaken).  In the second book, however, he is selfish at times and selfless at others, continually getting people into trouble and saving them spectacularly later.  Through all this, he grows as a character, falling a little, then shooting up higher than he was before.

From the Phil Phorce, there’s Quirk– and this is where this post began.  He’s a self-centered jerk, but in episode three, in the basement of the Castle Under the Cloud, after he’s been attacked by My Little Ponies (yes, I realize how weird this sounds), he makes a choice– blame the Phils and save himself, or stand by the Phils and blame himself.  He chooses the second option and, as I said before, shows that he is interested in something much, much larger than himself.

What do you think?  Does this make sense considering your favorite examples of character development?  Or do you have a different definition of character development?

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61 thoughts on “How to Change a Character

  1. I have a character I’m not happy with. He’s a drunk and a belligerent one at that. At one point in my story though he stops drinking and becomes the nice guy he always was. Problem is, when we enter the story he was already a drunk. So I’ve got this guy that you love to hate for all the wrong reasons, then he goes and changes overnight. I can’t figure out what to do with him… As you say, maybe give him more of a voice – develop him more. I can’t get rid of him, he’s too important.

  2. I definitely agree with what you’re saying here, but wanted to point out that sometimes the character themself doesn’t have to change–just the reader’s perception of the character.

  3. *claps* This is wonderful.
    Could Jack Sparrow be another example? I don’t know that he really stays changed, but he does end up making the decision to do right thing, even after all the work he’s put into it for himself.
    The thing about the villian suddenly changing, though humorous to read as an example, was truly terrible, I agree. Not satisfying at all. But I can think of someone who did this well– Rick Riordan in the end of the Percy Jackson series.
    Hey, if nothing else from the weirdness of the Quirk example, you might get more readers of Phil Phorce. 🙂
    Character developement is more than a factor to make things interesting. In a book series (excluding Nancy Drew and Tintin, etc.), it’s almost necessary. Real people don’t stay the same. And character developement involves the character changing– not always from bad to good, either. For series like Percy Jackson, it’s the character growing up, too, and making grown up decisions. For my WIP series, my MC will have to grow up and one day be the leader, instead of his cousin. In LOTR, this was Merry and Pippin’s character developement– they grew up.
    Character developement might also be the character coming to terms with a hard fact– your life can’t and will never be normal after all that. It will require sacrifice from you before the evil is gone. You can’t get the girl and still be the good guy (or Jedi– just think what would’ve happened in Star Wars had Anakin come to terms with this!).
    All right, I’m done. For now…

    1. Told you I wasn’t completely finished.
      I had a thought– is it still called charcater developement when it’s in reverse– the good guy becomes the bad guy (see Star Wars example in last comment)?

      1. That would still be character development, but it’s degenerative development. Usually, the character will begin good and slowly, very slowly, descend into madness/evil. The reader should know about it the entire time, which will create suspense for that character. I know of a few horror novels that are only horror because of that concept.

      2. They gave us little hints that Anakin was heading that way.
        I thought you didn’t read horror.

    2. Very good multiple definitions of character development. I still think my rule is a little more reliable, but all your ways are plausible, I grant you.

      Jack Sparrow falls under the jerk category, I think. And I agree about the PJ+O ending.

      1. Dustfinger was who made me think of Jack.
        Isn’t it interesting when the semi-villian is the one who saves the world? I can think of another book in which this happens… can you guess?

      2. Sam too. Sam probably would have saved Frodo the trouble of deciding if he had been able to cast the Ring into the fire, but no– we had to give the honor to Gollum.

      3. No, indeed. It is excellent literature written by the Father of Modern Fantasy and wonderful films that are almost as good.

      4. True. But it wasn’t intentional poetry. Not that I am much of a poet… except for spontaneous haiku.

        Gollum is not pink
        Disregard heroism
        Sam is much better.

        … And some haiku are better than others.

      5. How do you say it? A pronunciation guide would be lovely.

        You’re going to listen to a guy who has been dead for almost 400 years and came up with the word “somersault”? A guy who’s world famous for plays about two teens committing suicide over each other, a guy who talks to a skull, and witches that get a could-be king into a lot of trouble? Thus inspiring several adaptions and versions including (but not limited to) Twilight and The Lion King? (Hmm… am I not convincing enough?)
        (I am entirely kidding, of course)

        Free verse!

      6. Yep. Technically, a syllable isn’t a syllable unless there’s a vowel included in it. Thus, the last syllable of “syllable” is a syllable because it has an e, though silent. Heroism has three syllables– he-ro-ism.

      7. *shakes head and thinks of how she was taught about syllables in… sometime between 1st-3rd grade. Apparently incorrectly, too.*

        Free verse!

      8. Heroics. Between quotation marks to indicate sarcasm.

        Gollum is not pink
        Disregard his “heroics”
        Sam is much better.

        I think that helped the haiku.

      9. The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Mark Twain.

  4. Excellent post, Liam! Stagnant characters are no fun at all, but sometimes the temptation to up the ante on someone’s positive development gets a little tempting. We want the reader to like the character, and eventually there will come a point where, if they don’t sympathise with them, they will put the book down. We need to work fast enough to keep that happening while still keeping the change at a realistic pace.

    Also, slight side point – making the redemptive process difficult, or at least somewhat painful and challenging, for the character, can often be a good way of starting to build up some sympathy with the reader. They’ll feel a little sorry for them, perhaps, but the fact that they keep going will eventually help win the reader round too.

  5. Excellent post, Liam. That’ll def–

    *15 minutes later*

    Sorry. I was multitasking and accidentally spilled water all over my desk, chair, attorney general notes, a prison blueprint I’ve been working on, several of my favorite books, and myself. I had to run like a madman to get some towels, and when I finally got back to my computer….I lost my train of thought.

  6. I have a character developement problem and I haven’t even started the book. First, I noticed that in all your examples (with possibly the exception of Quirk), these jerks are not the main characters. Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the MC was the jerk and it was done well? Second, my MC is the jerk. I need a reason for his jerkiness without turning this into a book about bullying or self-esteem. A reason that makes the readers care. And because he’s the main character, they need to care fast. Is emotional hurt a good reason? Or can you think of a better one?

    1. I used the jerk as an example only– that isn’t the only flaw a character can have. And jerks can be anyone within the story. I suggest you stop thinking about jerks and just think about flaws. For instance, Woody from Toy Story could be considered a jerk, but he’s rather nice in other situations. He’s jealous and slightly megalomaniacal, though, and that works for the character development.

      Often, a flaw springs from another character’s flaw. For instance, if a side character just coming on is extremely cold toward everyone, the main character will be cold toward them, and that works as a flaw. Both of them will be resolved at about the same time as the characters get to know each other.

      1. Thanks. And I guess Woody can be a jerk. I had never thought of him like that.
        For the cold example, how about Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice?

      2. Precisely. Darcy is cold, and Elizabeth is cold in response. But even when the facts say Darcy is different than she thinks, Elizabeth isn’t quite willing to change– that’s her flaw. It was Darcy’s flaw that brought it out, however, which doesn’t make us think that Elizabeth is a horrible person who always jumps to the wrong conclusions.

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