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(not a duplicate of Character Development - How much is too much? because that one is more about "overreaction" to smaller events.)


TL;DR: How much can a character change without becoming unrecognizable? How can you indicate character growth (causes/effects) efficiently?
I was listening to Worm and "We've Got Worm" (a long web-serial turned into a fan audio project, and a podcast discussing the writing choices in Worm, and I was struck by something.

Often the hosts of the "We've Got Worm" podcast praise a character for "growing so much" either behind the scenes, or especially our main character.

Now the main character's main transition, from mousy pale high school sophomore who is bullied to confident leader who often over-escalates her responses to things is extreme, yet it makes sense given step-by-step what has happened to her. (Gaining Powers, gaining friends, disasters strike but she tries to help, repeat disasters/help a few more times.) She's still "recognizable" the whole time.

Because Worm is a web-serial running over 1.5 million words (and I'm at arc 15, about one-third through, in this re-listen), the author has time to step us through all of these changes.

But in my writing -- I don't have that length! In a novel of a "normal" length (60,000-120,000 words?), how can you indicate character growth without taking an entire 10,000 word interlude about them?

And how do you limit it so each character still acts "in character" even if it's a bolder or shyer version of their prior self, and isn't just acting differently because Plot Demands Someone Do X?

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    This is going to be so hard to choose an answer -- so many great ones already!! – April Mar 22 at 15:43
  • FWIW, people enjoy my stories better when the character does not start out as a rank amateur. I had thought a lot of growth was good, but in the end the readers seem to like the character starting out fairly proficient and growing in a few smallish but discernible ways. – DPT Mar 22 at 16:05
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    It might be important to remember that character changes are frequently sudden, but they often require long periods of build-up. Ex: person is tormented for a long time; eventually they snap. The snap is sudden, but the change took a long time to set up. People occasionally complain about sudden changes because they weren't paying attention to what was happening with the character. – Spitemaster Mar 22 at 17:13
  • "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. A dramatic (or even traumatic) event or events that you survive and learn from can change your future behaviour. What you gain is courage even if your underlying character has not changed at all. – chasly from UK Mar 23 at 10:00
  • I think Game of Thrones and Avatar: the Last Airbender are really nice example of character evolution. (I wont say who. No spoil :) – aloisdg Mar 23 at 12:18
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Breaking character is not a function of the beginning or destination of the character's journey / progression. Breaking character is not even some out-of-the-way stopover in the middle. Breaking character is any implausible discontinuity between steps.

Consider Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader. Which one, you ask? Plucky young boy with promise? Lovesick Jedi with questions? Tortured antihero, teetering on the edge of absolute corruption? Main antagonist and right-hand-man of the greatest evil in the known universe? Redeemed and dying savior of his son, who is the last and first Jedi?

None of these personas was outside the character. Complaints focus rather on whether specific transitions / characterizations were well done. (And some of the characterizations were NOT well done.)

It's less where you take your character, and more whether you can persuade the audience that you can get there from here

That said - too sharp a change in a character, however plausible you make it, may shift you into a different kind of STORY, and you might lose the audience which, say, signed on to the Die Hard series for semi-realistic underdog action stories, not Invincible Action Hero stories.

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    (Full disclosure: I have not actually seen any Die Hard movie in its entirety - I'm mostly referencing other people's commentary on that shift.) – Jedediah Mar 22 at 14:11
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    I like the Anakin to Vader comparison -- I think the prequels floundered because without episodes 2 & 3, Anakin of ep 1 makes NO sense as a connection to the classic trilogy. (actually, Starkid's youtube musical "Ani" was the one thing that really made me believe that inside Vader was still podracing Anakin!) – April Mar 22 at 14:28
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    Excellent. I saw this question and instantly thought of Star Wars as a way to illustrate. Not just Anakin/Vader, but also Luke - we see him go through some pretty big transitions as well, some more believable than others. – dwizum Mar 22 at 16:33
  • @April They brought up in Episode 1 that starting Jedi training late, once a child has already started to emotionally mature, can have some serious negative consequences. It doesn't necessarily mean the person will fall to the Dark Side (Luke was able to overcome his negative emotions despite the Emperor's temptation and only being able to have proper training with Yoda for a short period of time even later in life than Anakin started), but, well, we all know how it turned out for Anakin. – JAB Mar 22 at 20:36
  • Nah, it's all about Ani: teamstarkid.com/ani "Ani Skywalker is in the dumps. His wife is dead. He's stuck in a bogus government job he hates. He spends most of his time staring out into space, thinking about the good old days. But things are about to change for Ani as he sets off for adventure in the galaxy's biggest come-back..." (This also seems to connect him more to Luke (Tosche Station!) – April Mar 22 at 20:42
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Dynamic characters are a good thing.

Provided the seeds of growth exist and the path is visible, there is no limit but that which we impose. Sidney Carton went from drunken loser to noble hero - sacrificing his life.

We meet character X and they are at A. Something happens and they respond. This experience changes them and they can either change slowly and reach B or change rapidly with a epiphany and reach E. Something else happens and they learn from it. They observe things happening to others and learn from that - changing and growing.

If growth does not happen, it seems an opportunity lost. Some static characters can be interesting, but the dynamic ones we engage with more easily as life changes us all.

How much is too much? Depends on the character and the situation they are in.

Consider the tv show 24, in which a heroic CTU agent must strive to prevent an assassination (season one) while rescuing his family held hostage to ensure his good behaviour. Jack Bauer learns quite a few things and often does things that surprise his colleagues. In later seasons, motivation is what divides him from those he seeks to stop since the methods he will use are often those used by the bad guys. His line was not crossed, but moved and blurred by experience to render ethics not only optional but dangerous. He considers his pre-kidnapping self naive and now he knows better. It worked.

Keep the path he has travelled and he can change drastically while remaining true to his core. Jack Bauer was always loyal to friends and family and wanted to do the right thing - that never changed. How he did the right thing changed.

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    I like that you bring out how a seed of potential should be visible before a change happens. This is an important part of persuasively maintaining continuity over a character's progression. – Jedediah Mar 22 at 14:51
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In my opinion, a character needs some kind of impetus or crisis or catalyst or heartfelt realization to change their character. To me, that reflects reality. For a positive change of character, something has to cause the change, to make the character either realize they don't want to be the same person, or realize they have been wrong and someone -- themselves, their family, innocent people -- have now been hurt by them being wrong.

On the flip side, for a negative change of character, something still has to cause the change, but this will usually be an injury to the character; literally or metaphorically. They were trusting, and that trust made them a victim. Or even without them trusting, circumstances (like poverty, racism, bigotry) cause them great harm, and their reaction, in despair, in sorrow, in outrage, is to cause great harm in return. They decide to take what they need when it isn't going to be given to them, or to harm others to get ahead in what they see as a dog-eat-dog world: The dog being eaten didn't do anything wrong, it was just too weak to win the fight.

However, these circumstances require at least several pages to set up (for me chapters to set up) and the issues and current "setting" of the character must be described in even more pages, and the triggering event must seem realistic as a cause of change.

How many pages depends on your skill as a writer. Thus how many such changes with realistic causes you can get into a novel depends on your writing ability. For me, it isn't many, for a single character I have one epiphany, or perhaps two unrelated epiphanies, but I also have two or three characters that can experience such growth.

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    So when the entire city is attacked by a monster (massive flooding, property damage, deaths), it makes sense for many people to have some (probably negative) character changes, since they all suffered from a related injury/trauma, so no extra exposition is needed? This may explain how the background characters DO change without drawing too much focus. I also know POV matters a lot -- sometimes an apparent change is just the 1st person (or tight 3rd person) narrator knowing more about a person. – April Mar 22 at 14:48
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    @April it does make sense for the crowd to have negative character changes. As far as exposition is concerned, you should show it. One trick in writing is to use an exemplar to show this; one walk-on town member the MC interacts with to show the typical change of character due to the attack. Another trick is telling in dialogue; "They don't welcome dragon hunters here; they've been burned before. Literally. We're just traders, remember that." – Amadeus Mar 22 at 15:00
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    I partially agree, but the cause does not need to be enormous to allow a tremendous change in a person. The start to someone turning from a couch potato to a fitness buff can be as simple as taking a walk that turns out to be very pleasant, so the next day they go a little further, and the day after they go both a little further and a little faster... Things can snowball as long as time is also available. The same applies to many other changes as long as time is available. – TimothyAWiseman Mar 22 at 15:36
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I don't think the issue is how much the character changes, but whether those changes reasonably follow from the causes. That is, are the changes plausible?

People can and do have dramatic personality changes in real life. There's nothing fundamentally implausible about that. Benedict Arnold went from being a war hero to being a traitor. Paul of Tarsus went from killing Christians to becoming a Christian himself. Erwin Rommel went from being a loyal Nazi to being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. Etc etc.

Even a small character change might be unbelievable in context. If you say that the hero went from being lazy to being hard-working because one day he met a stranger who said, "Hey, you shouldn't be so lazy" and walked away, I'd find that hard to believe. But I'd believe a major character change if the cause was big enough. If you tell me that the hero turns against his former allies, the people he has worked with for years and devoted his life to their shared cause, because he discovers that they were responsible for the death of his wife, that could be quite believable.

Of course like almost anything in writing, it depends on whether you do it well. To take my "stranger made one comment" example, if you have the stranger make this comment, and then say how the character was really struck by it, and he goes home and thinks about it, and he concludes that he really needs to change his life, and later he talks about how amazing it was that this simple comment from a stranger changed his life, I might well believe it.

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There is no limit, but more extreme changes need more extreme causes or more time.

People can change dramatically in real life and in fiction it is possible to go even further because fiction allows us to escape the limits in the real world.

But to keep things believable, the more dramatic a change is the more you need of either time or strength of the intervention.

A middle aged man can go from being overweight and mostly sedentary to a serious contender in a bodybuilding competition, but it will not happen overnight and probably won't happen without some underlying reason. I had a friend that pulled off exactly this kind of transformation, but it took him tremendous effort applied over years.

Perhaps an archtype for a dramatic change is Saul of Tarsus. He went from persecuting the early Christians to becoming one of the most zealous adherents. (I'll leave aside the question whether this one is real life or fiction). This change was tremendously dramatic, but it required the direct intervention of Divinity so it had a rather dramatic cause.

As for story telling techniques, in writing you can summarize years in a few sentences as long as your story supports a time skip. In speculative fiction, you can utilize dramatic interventions such as magic, demonic possession, designer medications, or advanced technology that do not exist in the real world.

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Here's something important: if I am invested in a character, I would feel cheated if that character suddenly changes off-screen, and I am supposed to just accept that change as their new "characteristic". It's not enough that one could theoretically get there from here, as @Jedediah states. I would want to be there watching it happen.

Alternatively, if we encounter a character following a time-skip, and he is suddenly different, I would expect someone to be there, asking my question "what happened to you? What made you change?" A drastic change would pique my interest, it would be something I'd want to explore.

This is not to say that no change can be just skipped over, ever. In some cases, it is acceptable for a character to "grow up" and outgrow certain traits. In other cases, "what happened to you" is easily understood: a man coming home from war is not the same boy who went out, no additional explanation required. And it could be that you start a character on a path, and then pick up the story a while later, when they have gone some distance along that path.

All the same, character growth is one of the things one is looking for in a story. If you hide it all "off-screen", and just skip from result to result, even if you manage to justify it all, you're still waving candy before your reader without letting them eat it. Not nice.

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    I am by no means advocating for an authorial lecture to justify an off-camera change. The best persuasion in fiction is to bring your audience along to live the key moments with your characters. – Jedediah Mar 23 at 4:15
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I've done a lot of personal development and restructuring in the past year, and it has been jarring to some friends and even to myself.

I've found a need to slow down, because if I don't my past sort-of boomerangs back into my present and puts me on my ass. I start feeling like I've become a stranger to myself, and then I panic ("Oh shit, did I just annihilate literally everything that was near and dear me?") and compulsively return to old habits (like smoking) just to feel "like myself".

If I go slow, the past also comes back to me, but in a gentler way. Sometimes it's in "Aha, so that was ...!" moments. Or like shaking my own hand and a load being lifted.

What I'm saying is, if a character goes through a lot of sudden changes, that's surely possible, but it takes time to integrate it with their past afterwards. It shakes up ones identity, so include that in the character's present or "growth story".

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Chart out the character growth of a character like you chart out the plot of the story.

Begin with the character's start and where you want the character to end up. Figure out what steps need to happen to get the character there. Whenever two steps are too far apart add more steps. In other words, if at one point of the character, you can't see how the character would get from where they are to the next step in the character growth, figure out where they can go along that path.

If there are steps that are necessary but not in the interest of the story to show, describe them off screen.

If too much has to happen off screen, you might want to look at either toning down the growth or modifying your format.

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