Changing Characters… Again

I like reading about thieves.  I enjoy all their faults: their conceit, their disregard for personal property, and their general dishonesty.  Though there are other things that make me like such characters– perhaps they do have honor among thieves, or are willing to help those poorer than they, or their attitude toward life– I believe that their potential for change makes me love them more than anything else.  I don’t see what they are, but what they could become.

Or not.  It depends: are you in a philosophical mood?

But one thing that always is true for thieves is their plots.  They never fail to embark on great journeys and quests that turn their characters around.

I’ve posted about character development before– how you must outweigh the bad with the good that comes later– but that had more to do with character development on a whim than character development through the plot.

It is said that journeys change you.  With the Hero With A Thousand Faces monomyth, the hero always changes through the ordeal and ends the story better for it.  But it isn’t just the hero deciding, “I must return home better than I started; here, wizened old beggar, you may have my walking stick.  I can sign it if you want.”  The journey changes him.

Pixar has this down to a science.  Woody, solitary leader of Andy’s toys, has his leadership challenged when Buzz Lightyear arrives on the scene.  His flaw: he likes power.  The plot: someone else suddenly gains power.  The development: he realizes he can occasionally submit to the newcomer without losing respect.  It sounds pathetic when you say it like that, but it’s true.  Buzz Lightyear is the antagonist.

You don’t change your protagonist, your plot changes your protagonist.  Example story: Never trusted in his life, a thief is called by accident to be the primary guard of the kingdom’s greatest treasure and defend it against the king’s worst enemies.  Main character: the thief.  His flaw: he is dishonorable– he considers his honor to be worthless.  The plot: someone else thinks his honor has worth, and trusts him.  The development: he realizes that if someone thinks his honor valuable, it is valuable.

It sounds formulaic.  It is.  This sums up Tangled, in fact.  It sums up Ratatouille.  It’s wrapped up in the single question, “You trust me?”

Perhaps it feels repulsive to you.  It might.  My point is, the plot should do the developing, not the author.  The plot should be specifically tailored to the main character.

For me, it’s hard.  I don’t have main characters before I start novels.  I have, “What if someone had a highly contagious disease and then was forced to shake hands with everyone around him?”  Or something like that.  (I’ve never written that one, so you can have it.)  I just start with some sort of conflict and figure out what character I want from there.  I never create the character and make the plot later.  It doesn’t work for me.

However, this could be a spectacular way to choose your main character.  The Writing Excuses people say that your narrator should be the person with the highest emotional stakes in that scene.  What about in the story?  If you need someone to guard the kingdom’s precious treasure, why choose someone who is ready and able?  Choose a thief, for whom the task is unthinkable.

The idea here is to take your main character’s greatest flaw and use the plot to directly challenge it.  The story ends when the flaw has resolved.

Of course, some of us love flaws.  That thief’s attitude toward the world might be incorrect in your opinion, but it makes him lovable all the same.  If that attitude suddenly changed, where would we be?  Everything we loved about him would be gone in a puff of smoke.  We don’t want a perfect character, after all– we want a delightfully imperfect one.  You have to be careful not to change the qualities the reader likes best.  Take Iron Man, for instance.  He’s pretty horrible at the beginning, but some of his flaws (conceit and independence) endear us to him, and others don’t (willingness to blow the world to smithereens).  However, as the movie progresses, his greatest flaw (blowing the world up) disappears and he becomes something better.  He’s still conceited and independent, as we see in the later movies, but those are the things we like about him.

Try to condense your main character into the four things I gave for Toy Story: the pitch, the flaw, the plot, and the development.  If you can’t find it, perhaps you need to dig deeper– or your characters aren’t developing through the story.

The Phil Phorce, episode four: When Percival finally gets the powerful position he’s always wanted, he finds himself in a situation he can’t control.  The flaw: arrogance.  The plot: he doesn’t have the knowledge or abilities he needs to lead.  The development: he backs down and allows someone else to be the hero.


55 thoughts on “Changing Characters… Again

  1. It was the total opposite with my novel. I had the main character years before the plot came into play. Sad thing is, she still needs development. My other characters are wonderfully flawed, but I’m still working on hers… Problem is, she seems to be kind of fearless. Actually….I can turn that into her flaw, can’t I?
    Oh wow. Now I have just solved the biggest problem with my novel so far that I’ve been mulling over for almost a month now. Or more.

    But I have to agree, often it is the flaws that make characters so loveable. Iron Man is my favorite of the Avengers because he’s so cocky and self-important. Eugene (if I’m spelling his name right) from Tangled is also a favorite of mine.

      1. Don’t do it. Finish the first draft (if this is the first draft). If you’re as early on as you said, you have plenty of time to bring out the flaws and develop them. Even if not, just throw in some brackets saying [Flaw should have been introduced in chapter three] and work as if it had been.

  2. Oh man…my MC is ridiculously underdeveloped. I never realized it until now. She started out good but I think the rush of NaNoWriMo took away my focus on stuff like that. Blahhh…

  3. Hmm, a very good point Liam. The trouble is, if you want your character to develop, you’ve also got to be careful not to develop them into a wholly perfect person. Also, although the nincompoops are the ones everyone loves best in the end, I feel development arcs like that can often be damaging to the more straightforward protagonist. Competent, easygoing, and generally nice people can often be left looking a bit shallow by this sort of thing, as building a plot around their weaknesses just makes them look a bit pathetic, whereas with other characters the idea of development is more prevalent.

    Of course, this isn’t the situation all the time – it’s just something I’ve noticed.

    1. Yes. I agree. You want your character to be flawed all the way through the story– it isn’t just Superman’s journey from “Slightly-Flawed” to “Perfect”. So when you actually have a genuinely likable hero, you don’t want to make them into a Mary Sue by solving all their personal problems.

      1. (Sorry – nincompoops, there we go, we’ll go with that)

        Indeed. That said, if you’ve crafted the character well, even that sort will have challenges to overcome – perhaps more a character building and pushing themselves further than fixing up flaws, but it’ll be exciting development nevertheless.

  4. Oooooooooooooooooh. Yeah. Heheheheheh. *coughs* I…may or may not have been working on this yesterday and today…and one thing I’ve only learned in the past few months is how to NOT have a perfect main character, change is the story, etc. But now I’m trying to figure out my new main characters’ flaws. I think my FMC’s is her “independence.” She won’t rely on anyone else. Kind of like Percival, I guess, but it’s not out of arrogance. Reasons that make up backstory, I’ll just say. As for the MMC…I really don’t know yet. Darn. I mean, he’s got a problem with himself that needs to change–he doesn’t really care about anyone else–but I don’t know if that counts as a weakness

    Okay, sorry. That was me brainstorming. Here.

    1. Stick her in a crowd of people with vastly different character traits. (For instance, nice, mean, arrogant, insulting, complimentary, whatever.) Make everyone else as likable as you can without hiding their flaws, and then have her interact. See who she automatically connects with, and examine her character to see if she has any of those qualities.

      That’s an exercise I just thought up, so apologies if it doesn’t work.

  5. After reading this, I realize how much I need to rewrite some of my characters. They have character flaws, but those flaws are barely challenged at all until the sequel, which, sadly, seems infinitely more interesting than the first novel in the series I’m working on.

    1. Sequels always seem more interesting because the characters are already together and you can give them cool adventures. In the first book they find themselves and each other– in the sequel, they have fun. But don’t let it be that way!

      1. I’ll try my best not to! Characters can’t have fun if you kill off all of them, right?

        *begins revising story so that everyone dies*

  6. Good points there! (Though I never feel philosophical enough to think deep thoughts about Toy Story or Tangled. I’m too busy finding GIFs of them.) I try to get my characters through to the end…alive (rarely works). But this is a good exercise I’ll definitely keep in mind when I’m wondering if my munchkins are progressing enough.

  7. Good post. Ideas often come to me the other way; the main character (or, really the ghost of a main character) shows his/her face with a smidgeon of plot, and I have to work out the rest.

    This gave me something new to think about. I’m not so great when it comes to character flaws or development, so this may help. Gracias!

  8. I agree with Charley on perfect characters.
    And if your character is pretty great at the end of the book, if you write a sequel there’s nothing to do.
    I don’t like static characters (hem, Wreck-it Ralph) , but I also don’t like characters with a predictable arc. I like to be surprised at the end of a book by how much has changed.

    1. Why do you think Ralph is static? (no spoliers if possible– I don’t believe The Head Phil has seen Wreck-it Ralph). I don’t believe Ralph is static.

      1. Personally, the only development I saw was that he liked chocolate in the end of the film, and maybe that he made a friend, but I don’t know if that counts. I feel like in the beginning there aren’t any real flaws to work on, other than uncontentment.

    2. I haven’t seen Wreck-it Ralph yet, so I’ll ignore you.

      Toy Story again: the sequels were just as good or better than the first, even though the most obvious flaws were developed to completion. In fact, Toy Story 3 was a decision between different loyalties– not much of a flaw at all. I think if you work hard enough, you can find a way to do a character-developing sequel. But you’re right, you can’t have a perfect character.

      1. I agree, to some extent.
        And, yes, the Toy Story sequels were consistently successful in development. However, I’d like to point out that each movie focused on different flaws. Also, a new cast of characters was added in each film. A new cast of flaws.
        And, I’d like to point out that a developed character doesn’t mean a happy one. A sequel could develop a characters happiness, rather than correcting flaws.

      2. But the protagonist was always the same, and therefore nothing much changed. It doesn’t matter if there are all new side characters– it’s the protagonist we care about. But you’re right, it’s a different flaw every time.

        If you’re trying to develop happiness, I suggest calling it depression.

      3. Yes, because different companions bring out different sides of a main character’s personality. This is true in real life, too.

        Calling what depression? The flaw? I don’t think I agree that depression is a flaw.

      4. Okay, yes. But pessimism isn’t quite the same thing as unhappiness. Optimists can be sad and pessimists can be happy.

      5. Sure, functionally you can use unhappiness as a flaw, but I don’t see a character and think, “I wish he’d be more happy”, as opposed to, “I wish he’d be more patient”.
        Sometimes happiness can be used as a flaw, in my opinion. I’d hate a character that laughs at a funeral.

      6. That isn’t happiness– it’s insensitivity. You see, it isn’t so much happiness or unhappiness that is a flaw as much as what you make it look like.

      7. That’s true; I guess happiness or unhappiness is the result of a flaw or trait, not the flaw or trait itself.

  9. Ahem, just my humble opinion, but I would have preferred if Iron Man had retained his willingness to blow up everything and lost his snarkiness. Perhaps there will be a time to make the planet explode, but Iron Man’s snark does not endear him to me.

    1. I think curing his love of explosions was the right thing for the first movie, but you’re right– snarkiness is irritating at times. Since it’s such a big character trait and definition, though, I think it would be unwise to change it, as I said. I agree with you, though.

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