Building CHaracters – Escalation Part Two

Thank you, Jeff Gerke, for the excellent book Plot vs. Character. For the past umpteen posts I’ve been highlighting portions of the book in an effort to understand how to build an awesome character. I’m in the middle of chapter 10, which covers the Escalation portion of the character’s inner journey.

I’ll admit I’m hard-pressed to paraphrase Jeff in this last half of the chapter because he says it so well. Check it out:

“Nobody likes change. We get set in our ways. We like the comfortable and the familiar. Yet we’re barraged by pleas to change. Don’t be happy with your old car; buy this new one. Don’t eat at home; eat out. Don’t eat at that restaurant, eat at this one… Call now! Don’t wait! Offer ends soon…Your character is just like you and me. They don’t like to change. They may be aware that things are not ideal in their lives, but they haven’t found a better solution than the one they’re going with now, so they’re going to stick with it.”

For characters to change, they need to be convinced that the status quo isn’t good anymore. That’s what the escalation phase is about: convince your lead character that she can’t afford to NOT change.

“People resist change until the cost of staying the same becomes too great,” Jeff says. They won’t change until it hurts too much to not change. Awkwardly said, but true. Jeff offers a detailed example if you need more. 

Bottom line: Bring on the pain. Make it hurt too much to stay the same. 

Along the way, you’ll throw little moments of truth at your character, beginning with the inciting incident. A new way is presented, a suggestion that things can be different. The protagonist has the option of choosing this new path. But the old way is more comfy, and she’s not ready for it, so the new way is pushed aside. 

Scrooge did not change his miserly ways when Marley’s ghost appeared.

By escalating the tension, by heaping new challenges and moments of truth on your protagonist, you get her to the place where she tries harder and harder to resist the new way and stick with the old. Every time, she come to believe, just a little bit more, that maybe the old way isn’t going to work anymore. She gets desperate, but you break her. You bring her to the point where she’s finally willing to listen to the alternative. 

This is what happens with Scrooge and the three ghosts. It isn’t until the last ghost, when presented with a cold and empty death, that Scrooge finally admits that his old misery ways have hurt him and those around him, and he’s in desperate need of change.

In my next post, I’ll discuss The Final State, or where you want your character to end up.


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