How To Write Fictional Character Change

Creating characters that readers can connect with and believe is the cornerstone of fiction writing. Whether they’re growing up, maturing, or changing their ways, it’s a well-worn trope that has been used to great effect for centuries. There are many ways to write fictional character change, each with its own set of benefits and challenges. But writing fictional character change is also one of the most difficult things you’ll do as a storytelling writer. The best characters are the ones with whom readers can empathize. And if readers can relate to your characters, then they’ll be able to relate to the changes your characters go through as the narrative develops. Try using these strategies to create fictional character change that your readers will remember.


Define their background

Rather than writing about how an action affects a character, it’s more powerful to write about how an event affected a character. In order to write the relationships, hardships, and objectives of your fictional characters, you need to understand their background stories. On many occasions, you are also asked to define the personalities and inclinations of your characters. You may want to define and also decide on the weaknesses you want to highlight or cover. In addition to describing the activities of fictional characters, you can also define and talk about their behavior when they make important decisions. All these things provide strong insights to help create more appealing and engaging characters.

Do you remember the characters that you have connected with from any of your favorite books? Chances are they are the ones you can relate to. Readers are naturally drawn to experiences that they can relate to, as opposed to stories in which only extraordinary things happen. They are also most affected or touched by what they can relate to a lot of the time. Spend ample time defining the experiences that would leave the most impact on your characters to ensure that you make the best use of your character development time. You can use a character tool like CharacterHub to help with this brainstorming process.

Flesh out emotional layers

Think about a rougher draft of a story that you’ve written. How much change can we see from beginning to end? It’s quite possible that your version lacks what might be called “emotional layers.” By this, we mean those moments when you perfectly reveal the emotions your protagonist is going through. It’s this emotional journey that will allow your reader to truly sympathize with your character. Without it, your protagonist’s change seems either illogical, or superficial. In addition to putting a human face on your character growth, emotional layers underscore the stakes of your story. By making it clear how much your character’s happiness is riding on this decision or that twist, you’ll allow your reader to become doubly invested in the book.

In order to clarify your protagonist’s emotional water level, take them through a series of small emotional ups and downs. This is because life is messy, and it doesn’t let us have a clear emotional trajectory. People don’t enter a phase of life, realize they’ve been unhappy for five years, and they suddenly change. Instead, people notice that they’re unhappy, and deal with it by reacting out of fear, or self-awareness, or by neglect. The details of each reaction won’t be clear, but it’s through a small, mundane series of reactions that you’ll be able to illuminate the real nature of your character’s journey.

Keep your viewpoint consistent

Regardless of where you place your story or what your character is doing, how your story progresses, and by extension how your characters change, hinges entirely on your narrative viewpoint. An omniscient narrator can go wherever he or she likes, but if we aren’t invited along, we have no way to know what changes inside your characters. Point of view is what allows a character to make a journey from ignorance to awareness. If you want your readers to go on that journey with you, choose a narrative point of view and stick to it.

Define the goal

If your character is going to grow or learn something over the course of the story, you’ll need to define what it is — and be able to explain how that will transform them. It can be helpful to make a goal statement that captures exactly what your character will learn at each milestone in the story. It’s also a good idea to define what constitutes your first, second, and third acts. Remember, each of the acts in your story should push your protagonist through the stages of change to a major life change. If your character doesn’t change substantially between the beginning and end of the story, then there’s probably no need for a sequel.

If your character’s goal is to change, they will need to be presented with an obstacle. This can be internal, external, or both. This obstacle should reflect their current attitude, and it works best when it’s an ethical dilemma — when the tension between what the character thinks, and what the character feels, creates a problem. These kinds of moral dilemmas most often come in the form of “no-win” situations, where a character has to choose between terrible options. The ultimate goal of your character’s growth arcs is to show how that character goes about achieving their goal, and how they develop along the way.

Need is the drive

Consider what the driving force behind all character change is in your story. Character change is always motivated by need. All actions your characters take are ultimately aimed at filling some kind of hole in their life — some emotional, mental or extrinsic goal they think will make them happy. The stronger the need, the bigger the change, the more intense the arc from beginning to end. In most fiction, the character either creates or discovers the need for personal change. Given that most fantasies are character-driven stories with a cast that potentially includes dozens of characters, it’s often a struggle to come up with ways to develop and grow each character in your story.

Where does your character start? If you haven’t figured it out already when you created your character’s backstory, think about it now. A lot of fantasy writers give their characters a relatively flat beginning. You know who they are, what their strengths and flaws are, and why they got into their current adventure. That’s a solid start, but it doesn’t mean you can ignore the logic behind their actions and choices. For example, let’s say your character is a dim-witted rogue who isn’t very quick on the uptake. Why? Is it because of character flaw, is it because he didn’t do well at school, or is it a physical condition that prevents thinking quickly? Having a real reason for his actions will be essential if he has to change or develop later.

Get your character to that goal

If the character doesn’t change, why would the reader? A secret is the easiest way to fill that need. However, even if you have multiple problems and obstacles that need to be overcome, whatever they are – illness, love, an alcoholic mother – you can’t simply camp out on them. There must be progression. However, do make sure that by the time you get to the fourth problem, it is not thinly veiled repetition. Change presents from a different angle, with a new solution. The entire outcome of the novel should change.

Use character flaws to color your novel. One of the most effective ways to show character change during the course of a novel is to tap into human fallibility. Every single one of us has flaws of some kind.  Rather than picking a character quirk randomly, use your protagonist’s flaws as a way to pull the plot along. A character flaw can tug at the plot by placing the protagonist in a situation in which the flaw is triggered so that their actions will need to change. Character development is a subtle art, but one you’re after the reader should see a marked difference in the way the character acts as opposed to what they started as. Other than that, maybe end with some sort of lesson or warning and/or closure.

Make changes fit tone and style

Changes should fit with a story’s tone. Does a raucous farce require a drastic change for a silly misunderstanding to be hilarious? No, it’s best to use a gentle deflection of a misunderstanding. If we’ve written a poignant novel or poem, and we want to create a line-of-breakage moment that foreshadows a character wide turn-around, it might fit to approach the change subtly. The character will respond very carefully, understand, but question his own actions, or investigate the misunderstanding and recognize the seriousness of the error more clearly.

The change should fit a character’s style. Find a character that intrigues you, and think about their speech and their habits. Does the character take in the whole world at once? Does the character intervene aggressively, or quietly? Does the character outline their world in detail, or sketch their whole world in a few strokes? Does the character wrap up conversations quickly, or can they go on and on? All these observations may seem arbitrary, especially if you haven’t met the character yet, but make an effort to trace a human on the page. 

Let theme guide your character development

No matter if you’re writing a short story, a novella, or a novel, you can develop your character by showing their arc through the theme of your story. A good theme allows you to change your character without altering their core identity. For instance, if you’re writing a story about a woman who learns how to see the beauty in the world through a woman she meets in a nursing home, then your character will grow, develop, and change after becoming a caretaker of the women. To emphasize that the change occurs because of the theme, not because of the new plot or situation, add a smaller plot around the theme to keep development subtle.

Theme can shine through using original character development or through a predictable stage. Character development through originality is best shown by writing the character’s inaugural scene. If you don’t know how to write a character’s inaugural scene, try first to write your character’s final scene — envision how you want to have your character exit the story. Because that’s the end and you’re so close to it, it will be more difficult. Later go back to your first scene of choice then write it. This becomes a fun challenge that can show you how to write up and coming or pivoting scenes within the story.

Ultimately, choosing a tactic to tackle change in your fictional world depends on the individual story you’re writing. Romantic stories often focus a lot of time and energy on happy endings, feeling complete whether your characters fall in love or come up against obstacles that help them learn a lesson and grow. But other stories might benefit from a deeper exploration of change, even if that means a failure to completely resolve your narrative questions or neatly tie up every plot point. Making a final decision between character change methods involves weighing how much your readers need to see that your characters have changed throughout the story. Figure which strategies will give your characters’ growth the most weight in your plot, and you’ll be well on your way to writing a story that your readers will love and remember.

Other Posts You Might Like:

Join the Commaful Storytelling Community

Commaful takes everything you love about stories and makes it a bite-sized, on-the-go experience. Fanfiction? Poetry? Short stories? You’ll find it all!