Let’s talk more about characters, because, well, they’re kind of important. You aren’t writing a story about a rock sitting in a forest or a rocking chair that’s slowly decomposing in the rain, are you? (Seriously, are you?)
In my last post about characters I talked about core traits, the need for a driving desire, and unique mannerisms. All of these things are extremely important when trying to create a memorable character. But once we’ve gotten a handle on those things, is there anything else that’s just as important? Is there another part of characterization that will make your character, and thus your story, memorable?
Yes (shocking!), there is, and it’s arguably the single most important part of your entire story (bar none – there, I said it, no take-backs). When a book, movie, or TV series is SO CLOSE to being good, but just doesn’t give you that satisfying conclusion, it is almost always this one thing that is missing.
And that thing is Change.
How does your character change and grow over the course of the story?
It sounds SO simple. Like literally the most simple thing in the world. Dave this is so obvious why would you waste my time? I feel betrayed. Writing is EASY. Delete this blog immediately. Look: He starts off mean, then becomes nice. She starts weak, then becomes a hero. He sucks at basketball, then beats Lebron in a 1 on 1 game.
When I say Change, I mean difficult, internal, profound change that is specific and brings your character through the end of the story to continue his/her life on a higher plane of existence (or lower if it’s a tragedy). Weak-to-strong or mean-to-nice is too general to have any real impact on an audience. And by the way, if you read my last post on character and you’re thinking about it, this kind of Change is totally separate from the accomplishment of your character’s Desire.
So let’s get into it. We’ll start at the beginning and look at a couple of examples later.
First, our character needs a weakness. It can also be called a flaw. We sometimes find that we’ve written a couple stories where our protagonist doesn’t have one – they’re the hero, aren’t they? They should be brave and strong and funny – that’s how they become likable. Except it isn’t. That’s how they become boring. You know what the audience loves? The audience loves characters who struggle to overcome adversity, who want to better themselves but just can’t seem to do it (until, of course, they do), who deal with the repercussions of their mistakes. Because guess who that reminds the audience of? Themselves! It’s how you establish empathy.
Our characters NEED a major weakness. Let’s look at a couple general weaknesses, because ‘Weak’ or ‘Stupid’ or ‘Bad at basketball’ doesn’t cut it. What about someone who doubts themself? That’s a good start. They doubt themself because of past failures, or a rough upbringing, and over the course of the book this self-doubt hurts them because they don’t step forward when they should.
Speaking of self, what about a character who is a little self-centered? Someone who subconsciously thinks they are more important than everyone else. Every time they make a decision that puts themself first they feel bad about it afterward, but they can’t seem to stop. If the bullets start flying, would they put themself in danger to save someone else? What about a large group of people? Probably not. Or at least, not yet.
Finally, what if our character’s weakness is that they’re fixated on a particular event in the past? Something traumatic happened, and they can’t get over it. Moreover, they make all of their decisions based on this past event, trying to make up for it, rather than considering their present situation. This leads to more wrong choices, and more pain.
Our weakness can be almost anything, but there is one kind of weakness that is better than the rest – one that hurts our character (and we see it hurt them), but also hurts the people around them (which can be anyone from friends/family, to a whole city (local politician?), to the whole world (world leader, superhero?)).
Throughout the book our heroes face obstacles that directly challenge and play on this weakness, learning by observing these events and having to go through them.
In the end the final conflict plays directly on this weakness, and our hero almost loses everything because of it. But using what they have learned they must overcome this weakness (this is shown through their actions) and win.
Let’s look quickly at a couple of movie examples (stories are stories, and these movies are more widely viewed than a lot of books I could choose).
To start, I’ll use two that I recently watched in a single night, which made their differences readily apparent: Robin Hood (2018) vs. Wreck it Ralph 2 (2018). The fact that these are both in completely different genres is actually helpful, because it shows how important this concept is to all stories.
Robin Hood: Sir Robin of Loxley doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses to begin. He loves a woman, then is drafted to become a soldier in the crusades. Perhaps his weakness is that as a noble he is unsympathetic to the plight of the common people? What he learns across the movie is more about skills than it is anything about himself or anything internal, though like all hero characters he has to grow to believe in himself more. In the end, he overcomes the final obstacle by creating a clever plan that works out.
Conclusion – Unsatisfying. Rotten Tomatoes Score: 15%
Wreck it Ralph 2: What becomes clear across the first 30 minutes of this movie is that Ralph is very attached to Vanellope. In fact, he becomes so attached to her that he reacts poorly as she goes about discovering who she is and who she wants to be. When Vanellope wants to move to a new home (a new game) because it’s where she feels she belongs, Ralph’s affection and attachment toward her cause him to try to destroy this new home so she cannot go there and will stay with him instead. He even convinces himself he’s doing it for her benefit. Yadda yadda things go wrong and a monster attacks Vanellope. What’s funny about this one is that the writers are actually heavy handed enough to call the opponent Ralph faces in the end his ‘Weakness’. Ralph uses a computer virus that exploits and enhances the weakness of its target to try to destroy this new game, and when it accidentally targets him, his attachment to Vanellope (his weakness) becomes a literal physical monster that kidnaps her. In order to defeat this final opponent Ralph must overcome his weakness and grow as a person, because the opponent plays perfectly upon his flaw (because it is his flaw in this case). He realizes (through what he learned in the movie) that he needs to let Vanellope go so she can be happy, because that is what a real friend would do, and is able to convince the monster of the same, thus saving her and setting up a happy ending where he has learned to be a better person. As writers we would see right through this, but the average viewer has no idea just how close to the playbook the movie’s creators stayed (and they nailed it!).
Conclusion – Very satisfying. Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
We can look at tons of books and movies and judge them through this lens. In movies that do well, the character grows to overcome the final obstacle. In movies that don’t do well, the character barely changes or changes only superficially – it’s also possible that the writers tried to accomplish this character growth, but it felt forced and didn’t link well enough to the final obstacle.
Another great movie example is Suicide Squad (not satisfying) vs. Wonder Woman (very satisfying), but since this post is already way too long, I’ll let everyone go watch those and note the differences themselves.
To simplify things: Weakness -> Learn -> Change/Grow to overcome the final confrontation.
It’s hard. We have to dig deep, and then deeper, and then refine it, and then refine it again, and keep going until we reach something solid and profound that makes sense, as opposed to something we just threw in there to have “That Change thing Dave talked about once” in our story. The first weakness and change we think of is often not the best one for our character or story.
Having a character’s weakness and change connect to our plot is important (so important that I keep repeating myself, I’m sorry).
How does the final conflict play against the character’s weakness in the harshest way possible, almost like the antagonist knew what that weakness was? (And they did, didn’t they, since the real antagonist is you, the writer, and you did know the character’s weakness you cheating jerkface). Then, how does the character use what they’ve learned throughout the story to overcome that weakness, and in doing so manage to overcome the final obstacle/conflict, because that is the only way they could possibly win. Now THAT is satisfying.
Want to take it to the next level? (1) Have the weakness be something profound that is relevant in today’s society. (2) Give your antagonist a weakness and have him/her grow and change as well (this is a good example of how a character can have a negative evolution and end up on a lower plane of existence by the end of the book).
Whew! That was a long post. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations, you’re awesome. I hope you got something out of it, even if this is a concept you’re already very familiar with.
I’d love to know what you think. Does this make sense? Do you think it’s important in books/movies/TV? Any good examples of a book/movie/show where the writers accomplished or failed at this? Anything to add?