Changes: Writing Story Characters Who Grow

Most of us novelists are keen to uncover story secrets, to better connect with our readers. Right now I’m reading Story Genius by Lisa Cron, and it’s opening my eyes to a better sense of how I could achieve that elusive magic.

Writing tip for Today: How can we write characters who
change and grow?

How Change Works

According to Cron, the reason a story hits the bull’s eye with readers isn’t about what they do or don’t do. Plotting is like dressing an ugly dog–the dress may make her look a little better, but it’s still an ugly dog. Those kinds of changes aren’t lasting. Readers aren’t only seeking entertainment (although many stories do entertain). They are looking to find in your story the power to change how they view the world—and therefore what readers do when they go out into the world.

The eternal argument between plotters and pantsters, Cron
argues, is really beside the point. What all novelists really need is a character
who is reluctant to change but who must grapple with a “problem they can’t
avoid and how they change in the process.”

To understand this about your character, you’ll need to
understand her/his past. We are all products of things that have happened to us
and our beliefs, likes and dislikes are shaped by past events. Understanding your
character’s past and motivations can lead you straight into the dreaded back
story conundrum: How can you write a story forward and still avoid becoming
mired in back story?

Not How but Why

The answer to the back story blues lies with why you include any back story at all. If you dump it all into the first chapter, readers will likely stop reading. The secret to introducing back story is by using the forward story to illustrate the back story. Do this by following a few guidelines.

First, save back story for weaving in and around dialogue and action. Use the Cold Mashed Potatoes rule to avoid clumping and losing your readers’ perception of time. Use the Rule of Three to keep from going on too long. Most importantly, instead of explaining, (RUE), write the character’s attitudes and ways of thinking right into the story.

As you embellish your scenes with these tidbits of
backstory, keep in mind the why of the character’s behavior. If your
protagonist was abandoned as a child, that fear will certainly carry over into
adulthood. It may become the overarching WHY of the character’s life. It’s this
WHY that zaps readers in the gut and compels them to read your story.

Spiral Stories

As you write, think of your story as a spiral—everything is
connected to everything else. Discard the idea that a character’s inner and
outer lives are separated. We are integrated in life, and your character should
be too.

Document the “moment where your protagonist’s world view
shifted and her misbelief took root in her brain.” Although it’s not easy, you’ll
likely think of times in your own life that parallel the character’s
predicament. Finding these pivotal times makes for the best “write what you
know,” because it is what you know emotionally.

Story Genius has lots more to offer, and I highly recommend it as a resource. The best storytellers understand that their character must battle misperceptions and be forced to deal with a problem they cannot avoid in order to change and grow in ways that satisfy readers. For many writers, this may mean getting in touch with their own unresolved emotions as they construct a story. In my opinion, if you really want to write a story that grabs the gut, start getting in touch with those emotions today. It might even change you.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Changes: Writing Story Characters Who Grow

  1. Hi Linda: Your lastest articles (Why Emotion Matters and Characters Who Grow) have been absolutely “spot on.”
    On a personal level:
    Pain from Personal Experience can be key in adding depth and realism to a character, but it can also take a toll. I struggled for 2 years on writing a particular novel due to the subject matter and the amount of personal insight required from my own past experiences. The ordeal was so overwhelming that I did not want to write the novel. As you might guess, the characters haunted me (even in my dreams), demanding me to write the story. I ended up seeking pastoral counseling from three sources before I finally found the peace to actually write the novel.

    • Patrick,
      If it were easy, everybody would be a writer. Seriously, I’ve worked with writers who had bumpy rides in that personal pain area. It is much easier to stuff it, ignore it or lie to oneself. Growth and change require self-examination, as does good writing. I’m glad you worked through it.
      Keep Writing,

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