Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Asymptotic Approach To Character Change

A few weeks ago I was working on my novella, Bread, and I mentioned to Michelle and Scott that I only had one more scene to write! (Yay for me!) This scene was close to the end, but it wasn't the climactic scene of the story--I had already written that. Instead, it was a scene describing internal character change, the change that led to the climax.

Although this is a bit of an oversimplification, let's just say that I needed to have my character fall in love. This character had already met the man he was to fall in love with, but the chemistry wasn't quite there yet.

I had them couple go on multiple dates.

The seducer tried his best moves.


Even though more scenes were being added to the story, the scene, the scene of change, wasn't taking place. My character got closer and closer to the change, and then, POOF!, he was on the other side, right at the already-written climax, having made the change already.

I tried to write forwards. I tried to write backwards. But, as close as I got to the change, I never figured out a way to show it.

Wait. What did I just say? Oh yeah, show. I wasn't able to show it. One of the rules I had set for myself with Bread was that I was going to show as much as I possibly could and tell as little as I possibly could. (This was a reaction to my past fiction, and to the work of Virginia Woolf, which has a ton of beautiful telling.)

So, there I am, show-show-showing like a madman, but I couldn't show any character change. Weeks passed. Yes, Michelle, yes, Scott, I still only have one more scene to write, now stop pestering me!

I asked myself, "What does character change look like?"

I can imagine it in a movie. It's that scene where the camera zooms in on a character, let's call her Academy Award nominee Gabourey Sidibe for convenience, and we watch her as absolutely nothing happens. Did you catch it? Did you notice the internal change? No? Oh yeah, it's internal.

So, I'm wondering at you all if it's possible to show character change. Have you ever read or written a scene that actually shows it? Or, could it be that the best we can do is approach the change without actually getting to it? Now, naturally we have alternatives. We can tell. That's a personal favorite of mine. Or, we can have the change manifest in some tangible action that reflects the change. And, maybe that's good enough. But, I found myself ever so frustrated that I couldn't catch the exact moment.

Have you managed to show the time of internal character change? Is the suicidal leap the decision, or is it the action immediately after the decision?


  1. I think its the actions, so often as people we are told its our actions that say more than our words, so its only naturally that a characters actions would too.

  2. I'm no expert as I struggle with these questions myself, but it seems to me that change might be more gradual than sudden. Has there been something leading to this moment, something you could draw upon? With my current MC, I have her resentment chipped away until a crisis pretty much finishes the job.

  3. One of my approaches in a situation like this (a main character falling in love) is not to show or tell the moment of falling in love, assuming there even is a discrete moment where that happens. Leave it in the interstices of the story. Instead, I'll use internal monologue to reveal the moment the character realizes he's in love. And that internal monologue will be motivated by some external action or event.

    So, for example, the MC has been courting this woman, or growing close to her, or whatever. And something happens between them and they argue about it, and the MC realizes that while he's mad at her, he's hurting because of the fact he's angry at her. And he wonders, Is this love? Am I in love? And thinks back, and realizes, Yes, this is love. I'm in love!

  4. Summer, I always love it when I can find an action that reflects inward emotion. Most of my efforts are spent on those, actually. But, I wonder if that's not just the result of change. And maybe it doesn't matter.

    Tricia, That's a really good point. I think that in my story each of the scenes my character was in contributed to the change i him. But then I do wonder if there's that nanosecond moment where the change actually occurs. When we fall in love, can we pinpoint the moment when it happens. Or, do we only see it when we look back? If it's gradual, does that mean we can be a little in love? I guess that makes sense now that I write it out!

  5. Jabez,
    That's a really interesting view. I might be wrong on my source, but I think it was Harold Bloom that said Shakespeare mastered the art of having his characters overheard themselves and making that result in change. It seems like you might be describing a similar thing. I think that realization of change is an important thing that happens after the change.

  6. I haven't read the other comments (yet), so . . .

    Is it possible to 'show' an internal change?

    It's not like your character has stopped checking the locks on the door twenty times in an evening. That's easy to 'show'. I think when it's internal, at least for me, there comes a time when you must 'tell' rather than 'show'.

  7. Scott, I totally agree with you. Then, I guess what I'm wondering is, must we have that moment of character change in our stories? Can a story be all showing?

  8. I think for me, internal change, especially for a woman happens during the kiss. (I write romance.) Kisses are the all important impetus that either makes a woman fall, or not.

    You know yourself when you kiss someone, you wonder about all the little intracies involved with falling for that person. It only takes a split second to make the decision whether to dump or persue.

  9. Very thought provoking post. It is not an easy task and one I struggle with as well. I do find that showing through action, or dialogue, or even a thought, can show the change, even if it’s not the precise moment.

  10. It's very much possible! Writing psychological stuff, I deal with internal change quite a bit, and I try as often as I can to show rather than tell.

    It's easiest to do with a third-person POV because then you can essential do what you just said. You can picture it how you would see it in a movie, and then describe that.

    With a first person POV it can be a little more challenging, but I typically work with two techniques:

    1) Mental utterances that are demonstrative rather than expository. "How dare she?" vs. "I was angry!"

    2) Calling on my own empathy to figure out what it feels like when I'm going through such a change. "My eyes softened." "For just a moment, my breath caught in my throat." "I ground my heel so hard into the floor I thought I might end up in the basement."

    Stuff like that...

  11. Oh, and you can also describe changes in perception sometimes. "Suddenly, Bill was no longer backing up when Tom stood too close." "I never make plans for Sunday evenings, but dinner with Dave no longer felt like making plan. It was just . . . right."

    Et cetera.

  12. Davin - If our character's don't change, then what's the point of the story?

    If Boromir in LOTR didn't come to some understanding of what he was becoming, would he have attempted to save Merry & Pippin? Didn't he, in that defining moment after Frodo ran off, realize what was happening and make a choice by going to save Merry & Pippin? And, wasn't that choice, that internal change, 'shown' in his actions?

    Hey, wait, I just 'showed' an internal change! Go figure.

    So, with that in mind, yes, you can have a story in all showing. Sometimes, love isn't saying "I love you", but rather in . . . a look, a touch as the person walks by the person, a smile for no reason at all . . .

    Just some random thoughts.


  13. I thought you were finished with Bread. What's all this about an extra scene? GAH!

    Awkward transition to your post:

    Falling in love? Ugh. That's so difficult to show in writing. I think the best advice I got about this is to show similarities between the characters and how they react to those similarities. When we fall in love, it is usually the similar things that spark our attraction, and as we build on those connections, deeper emotions grow.

    That probably doesn't help you at all, does it? Sorry, I have this same problem in Monarch - showing the internal changes without relying on inner dialogue or the character saying anything about it either through the narrator or to another character. As far as "does there need to be a moment of character change" in a story, I'd say no, not a precise moment. What I love is looking back on a story to realize how the character changed without me even realizing it - mainly because the character didn't realize it either.

    And I've rambled and not really answered your question. I need to go eat something.

  14. Great post.

    My editor and I have been going back and forth about this recently and it has been fascinating.

    Ideally we want to be able to explain everything a character does, the decisions they make, their reactions to events. But it seems to me that we can't always have this linear chain of cause and effect when it comes to people.

    I dont know why I do some of the bloody things I do. Why is it wrong for a character to be the same?

    A toughie for sure.

  15. "What does character change look like?" That is an awesome question, by the way.

    I think that more than actions or dialogue, character change is best felt rather than seen. It is best found in the nuances of the narrative. It is best noticed in the way the MC describes him home now compared to before or how the MC reacts to someone.

    It is less that the miser gives the homeless man some change, and more than he notices the homeless man as a 'bony, sad-faced man whose face wore the passage of time' rather than 'stepping over the human rubbish that littered the New York side walk'. It's in the little things, the subtle things.

    Now how to show this in the before-love, after-love stage, well, think back to your own transition. What did the world become to you after you fell in love? For me, the world seemed like such a nicer, safer place, and all the troubles seemed surmountable.

    At least, that's my preference but I've always been mad keen on the psychological voyeurism inherent in novels.

  16. Anne, I agree with you that it only takes a split second. I guess for me that split second is so fascinating, and I want to make sure I don't miss it!

    Jennifer, maybe getting close to the moment is the best we can do. I think that's what I realized in writing this novella.

    C.N., thanks for your great examples. In the third person, I do wonder if one can describe a still frame in a movie. I guess you're saying it can work. I've probably tried it a few times in the past, but I'm not sure I ever got it right.

    Scott M., I think that's a good example. Maybe it is again as close as we can get. Thanks! It's funny how Lord of the Rings works as examples because so many people have seen it.

    Michelle, first off, I did finish Bread. This was just me talking in past tense. :) That's very interesting that you say the change doesn't need to be "on stage" if you will. I think I'm learning that often it isn't on stage at all. But, sometimes it can be. Both ways can be interesting, huh?

    Mayowa, that's very interesting too! I think right now if you were to read my novella you wouldn't necessarily buy into one of the character's motives. Maybe that is okay, because it does seem real somehow. Wow, I really need to think about this now. I'm flip flopping.

    Shannon, really interesting! I can't believe how many different directions this discussion is going. I think that the way you describe that internal change manifesting in change in view really works well. I know I've done that a couple times.

  17. ((At Michelle's encouragement...))

    Best way I know is have them encounter a similar situation and then react differently to show how the growth/change/trauma/etc has affected them.

  18. For what it's worth, when you're talking about major character development, I rarely have a moment of change either. That's all as behind the scenes in my writing as it is in my life and the lives of most people I know.

    Typically what the reader will see is a subtle shift in attitude or perspective often demonstrated through what precisely @Soarenth said -- differential reaction to virtually identical stimuli.

    It's like an experiment. You control for what happens to the character and you control for how the other characters respond to that, and you test your characters response. As it's different, change is in evidence.

  19. Great question. I probably go for the easier solution (telling) most of the time. But there are times when I want to make a scene particularly powerful, and I want to show the change. And I have no idea.

    In my fantasy wip, I wanted to show the moment my character decides to defy the taboo of her society. I finally had two scenes. Scene A: she is observed from another character's POV struggling with a decision. Scene B: her stream-of-consciousness as she makes the decision. In Scene C, she suffers the consequences of her decision.

    Beta readers reactions were mixed. One liked the decision scene. Another suggested that I could skip right from Scene A to Scene C. But I felt that would be cheating the reader. Maybe in literary fiction, it would work, but I feel like fantasy readers would not want (and I as a fantasy reader would not want) a major scene to take place off stage. In this case, the stage was the thoughts in her mind, and the reader deserved access to them.

  20. Maybe you could represent an internal change with a physical change not even related to the character, like a change in the weather or an earthquake that happens at the moment the character changes.

  21. Tam, that's a good idea; it fits particularly well in a world with magic, where the striking coincidence of mood and weather doesn't have seem unbelievable: Out of a clear sky, lightning struck the tree. 'I'll do it,' she said.

    If I were going to do it in literary fiction, I would try to be more subtle, and adjust the adjectives and details I used to describe the surroundings. I believe this is the technique Davin was questioning in an earlier post.


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