The plot of a story is the various events that occur over the course of the story. A character’s journey is how those events affect a character. A plot is a combination of 1 or more character journeys, often using a character hierarchy, focusing on specific characters. Many stories contain pieces of a character’s journey, with other portions happening before, after, or “off camera”.
Most people have multiple versions of themselves. There’s who I wish to be, who I think I am, and who others think I am. There’s also the idea that most people have different sides that they show to different people; the version of “me” that I reveal to strangers, friends, and/or family, and a version that I keep to myself.
Taken another way, most people have layers:
1. The core concept of who I am
2. Strongly held beliefs, convictions
3. Moral values, priorities
4. Perspective, attitude, how I regard the world
5. General opinions, open to debate (in contrast with strongly held beliefs)
Characters change because something challenges or problematizes one or more of these layers, forcing the character to question and rebuild those layers.
Keep in mind that anything challenging morals will also be engaging perspectives and opinions.
Everyone has flaws and blind spots, the parts of ourselves that we either deny or justify with rationalizations. To quote Ian McKellen’s character from The Prisoner, “We save the best lies for ourselves.”
In “Write About Inner Demons Without Boring the Reader into a Coma”, Kristen Lamb discusses how every character has an inner struggle, a problem that they don’t recognize as a problem, and a good conflict forces the protagonist to confront this “inner demon”. The conflict resolves when the character either achieves some catharsis and begins to change, or refuses/fails to change, and perpetuates their fate.
Why do characters change?
This is both a philosophical and mechanical question. Consider what ideas you’re trying to express, and what type of story you’re trying to write. There is no universal answer, only the right answer for your story.
1. Characters Don’t Change
Some characters don’t change. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t change. He has so much knowledge, so many past experiences, that he knows how to handle most situations that life will throw at him. These are veteran characters who know who they are; who’ve found their personal answers to the universal questions of purpose, meaning, and identity.
Unchanging characters are often used in supporting roles as mentors to the protagonist. Unchanging characters are also used as protagonists in idea or plot focused stories. The absence of a character arc helps to shift the focus to other aspects. Many action movies, including numerous James Bond films, feature an unchanging Bond, who simply exists to resolve the plot.
2. Being Changed by Others
Some characters are shaped by the world around them. They do not have control of their fate. Instead they simply adapt to circumstances. Many characters start out as reactive characters, enduring the forces of the world, but over time they grow into a character who wields more control. This is a common pattern in uplifting stories.
In contrast, most tragedies feature characters who either remain “changed by others”, or lose agency and become victims of change, instead of agents of change. In Romeo & Juliet, the protagonists gradually lose control, as outside forces continue to exert greater influence on them.
If you’re writing a character who is being changed by the world, give them reasons to tolerate/accept the change, and reasons why they would resist/avoid the change. Is it a story about a character who is lazy, or someone who aggressively works to avoid changing?
3. Choosing to Change
Sometimes change is an act of will. The character recognizes the gap between who they are and who they wish to be, and works to change themselves. These are characters with a strong sense of will, determination, and focus.
A character choosing to change is either actively working towards the change, or just deciding to start changing now. If they’re just starting, why now? What has already changed in their life that prompted them to actively start working towards the goal of changing themselves?
Perspective & Motive