This month’s Writer’s Digest contains an article by David Corbett called “The Science of Character Change.” I shared some of the goodness from the article in my last post, and I want to continue the discussion here. In summary, every character should begin (in the novel) in a state of ignorance or deceit, a place that he’s devised for himself that helps him avoid pain and gain happiness. Think of Rick in Casablanca, surrounded by beautiful women, plentiful drinks, and an attitude that keeps him from getting hurt–he has every reason to be happy, yet he’s not.
Corbett says, “By recognizing his true longing, he will realize the impoverished state of his prior life, to which he can never contentedly return. This defines the stakes, and they are ultimate. He’s been wrapped in a lie… once he recognizes this, there is no turning back that doesn’t include one form of self-destruction or another.”
It’s not enough for your character to realize that something must change. That revelation must be so powerful that returning to normal life as it was before is impossible. Again, think of Rick in Casablanca. He can’t go back to the apathetic, cynical guy he was before. He’s been confronted with true love, honor, patriotism, all the things he should have embraced before but let them slide because of a past hurt.
Another important part of this journey is that the character, while living in his delusion, was hurting people around him. He might be totally unaware of the pain he’d caused others, but once he recognizes the consequences, he can’t go back. It’s another layer of motivation for not returning to the previous way of life.
The journey from the “deceptive” normal life to the epiphany at the end is the true meat of the novel. Yes, there will be an external plot, but it’s the character’s inner journey that will grab a reader’s heart strings and make the story powerful and memorable. During this journey, the character will struggle to maintain the status quo, to continue living the lie he’s so carefully constructed, but time and again it will fail. And the cost of each failure will increase each time.
“When exploring how your character is hiding from her true longing, ask yourself: Who is she hurting? The most compelling answer lies in characters who care deeply about her, and who therefore have the insight, power and desire to help the character change. It’s the fraying, deterioration or destruction of those relationships that will force the character to recognize the error in her thinking and its disastrous consequences.”
Try this exercise: Who is your protagonist hurting by the most by living the lie? How can that character help the protagonist see that change is necessary? For Rick in Casablanca, only Ilsa could make him see reality for what it was and feel remorse for his attitude and life-style. Sam the piano player didn’t mean enough to Rick to facilitate those changes. Nor did the nazis, or Lazlo, Renault, or the bar patrons.
Questions? Comments? Frustrations? Leave them in the comments section.