A story I am currently working on contains a scene where a figure with a certain character quite unexpectedly has a change of heart, and I am having difficulty finding a way of smoothing the transition.

Detailed description

The transformation of the character (hereto referred to as A) could be represented as such:

  1. A is cold, calculating, self-centered and has a strong sense of patriotic duty
  2. A presumes B to be morally vile based on B's known actions
  3. A confronts and interrogates B
  4. B reveals true motives, which cast a different light on B's actions
  5. A sympathises and decides to aid B in getting out of trouble
  6. A is aware that only B benefits from this action and aiding B could have very serious consequences

This final action appears to go against all A's established character, but I believe A had become calculating and loyal to their profession as a result of experiencing hardships. The interrogation causes cognitive dissonance (or something along those lines), resulting in this change in character.

I am unsure as how to convey this information to the reader effectively.

EDIT: A intends to help B out, but then part ways later and hope their actions go unnoticed.

  • What POV are you in for the interrogation scene? Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 9:39
  • Sorry if I wasn't clear - what point of view are these being told in, are we first person, third person etc. Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 11:00
  • Are we in A's POV when they have their change of heart? Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 11:03
  • I'm sorry, I told a lie. there are four segments, and we are in A's point of view in parts two and four, when they begin and end their change of heart. Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 11:10
  • 1
    @Amadeus Thanks for pointing it out, not sure how that slipped in. Perhaps I've been thinking too much about chemistry lately? Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 11:38

7 Answers 7


Time is an illusion in storytelling--one that you, the author, create. You can skip millenia just by saying that they passed, and you can spend as many pages as you wish to describe a single moment, frozen in (in-universe) time. Furthermore, you can spread your material to best serve the pacing of your story: for example, consider an action scene that requires worldbuiding for the reader to be able to understand it--you can ensure you have provided that worldbuilding ahead of time, even though it was not truly important then, so that you can pace your action scene quickly, without needing to stop and explain things.

Your "rapid" change in character is a case study in this area. In what way is it rapid? Because it happens in a short amount of in-universe time? Because it happens in a fast-pased scene? You have all sorts of ways to manipulate time, so as to make this rapid change work. You will need to draw on these ways if a totally abrupt, unprepared rapid change does not work (e.g. because it is unconvincing, or feels unnatural for this character).


1) Foreshadowing and characterisation performed before the actual "rapid change in character"

You can show that the character is strict about doing what they think is right, giving previous examples of them immediately acting upon decisions. Thus, when the character changes his mind, it feels natural that he immediately takes appropriate action, which would have seemed strange even to himself a moment before. In other words, you take the time early to establish the cadence of the character's decision making. Then the "rapid change in character" feels natural, when it happens, if only you can show that he is convinced by a moral revelation.

You can show the character never staying long in a state of not having made up his mind. When faced with a dilemma, he quickly gravitates towards one side, even if in reality the original balance was delicate. You take your time to show this, but in a previous part of the story. Now we believe in this kind of abrupt-change behaviour, because it is decisive. The character prefers to swing from one extreme to another, rather than remain undecided. We are still suprised by his change in moral choice, you still have to convice us of that, but your task is manageable.

2) Handling narrative pace for an event that is sudden in in-universe time

You can slow down and take your time to describe the character's thought-process, even if the change is abrupt in in-unverse time. You could spend 5 pages on the 2 minutes it takes him to change his mind, if that's what's needed to provide a convincing amount of detail.

Building on the previous point, you might be able to spread the material throughout a scene, in order to keep the pacing interesting. For example, we see the character is taking dangerous action to help another character in an unexpected way (but we didn't see the moment he changed his mind), and as he does so, he thinks about why he's doing it. He thinks to himself "making snap decisions--typical of me, I always thought it would get me in trouble one day", "but why am I helping this particular guy? Oh I guess because xyz...", "...", and these throughts are spread throughout the actual action of e.g. escaping a military camp, keeping an exciting pace.


If I understand you correctly you are in A's POV when they have their change of heart, this means you can you can show what's leading them to having this change and make the change consistent with them:

B's words struck me like a freight train hitting a hay bale. I'd started this interrogation so certain of my position. B was the enemy, vile and repugnant. I expected them to vent their bile and hatred at me. But instead as they had recounted their story I couldn't help thinking how I, in their position would have come to many of the same conclusions and might have done the same in their position.

I've always tried to do my duty as best I could, and I've always done what I needed to survive. How was what B had done any different? How could I see someone punished for something I would do myself? Just because we served different masters?

I know many think of me as cold, and calculating, and maybe I am at that. But I'm not a hypocrite.


Always try, at least for yourself, to give motivations to any character for behaving a certain way.

Why is A the way he is? Should the reader know this?

Here are some ideas for making a change, such as the one you describe, 'realistic'. From what you write, it seems to me that A is a person in power; like a cop, agent of some sort.

1: Before the interrogation, A has an idea about how things are going to turn out - he's proven wrong, but, knowing that it is risky for him to aid (and that being 'selfless', unlike him), he simply suggests a few ways that B can help himself. This could also go in the direction where A tells other people to do (something) to help B.

2: Before the interrogation, A has gotten the impression of B from someone else, C; maybe a co-worker or boss. Realizing that the impression/understanding was incorrect, he then doubts the perspective of C and perhaps starts suspecting that C has been wrong before - making him reevaluate previous actions, etc. that he has executed based on C's directions. This could be a realization big enough to change how he behaves from that point on. His first move in that direction could be to actively help B himself.

In both examples, the 'case' could remind him of previous experience, where his lack of help lead to someone getting hurt, or similar.


"Change of heart" may, or may not be real change of heart. There may be different scenarios to explain your events.

  1. Justice is above all. Your character "A" may be self-centered, but he has a strong sense of duty. After listening to "B", he realizes that the only justified course of action would be to offer "B" some aid.

  2. Even villains have heart. B's story melts A's heart and he decides to help. Please provide some foreshadowing how details in B's story can connect to A's own past.

  3. It's all a ruse. A offers help, but it's only a ploy, Ultimately, A is still pursuing his goals and not changed one bit.

  4. It's just a game. A is offering help because he is amused. He's not sympathetic to B, but curious to see how B would progress.


In your section (5), when A feels sympathy, it isn't enough to feel sympathy. You have to give A some reason to reject their previous life.

Personally, I'd revise this: A is too much in charge. For example, instead of A confronting B, maybe A tries to thwart B, and then B confronts A, and interrogates A.

In that interrogation we get both A's backstory (why they are as they are) and B's story voluntarily, why they are doing what they are doing.

That covers 4, 5, and the missing piece X, which is A realizing their flaw, and that has to happen before 6.

Then 6 can happen, A realizes they've been a self-centered ass, and realizes B's actions are just, and determines to put aside their own nature and own benefit to help B, regardless of the consequences, because B's goals are the right thing to do.

  • Thank you for your insight, though I didn't mention that A won't be a long-term aide to B. A wants to get B out of trouble and then continue as if nothing had happened, so much less 'rejecting' themselves but more 'making an exception', if that makes sense. Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 11:49
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    Well, you can still do it this way. In the process of B confronting and interrogating A, A realizes B deserves an exception, and the reader sees that. Basically, while B interrogates A over why he is sabotaging B, A sees a reason to give B a break, and even help him at his own expense. It is hearing B's story, not under duress, but voluntarily explained by B, that makes A see his normal principles do not apply here, B isn't malicious, but altruistic, and that convinces A to do the same.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 14:25

I am a big fan of the four-stage thought process. In my writing group, we call it the story cycle.

We start with an event (an inciting incident for the current moment)

  1. Emotion (reaction)
  2. Reasoning (logic and "in-character" attitudes)
  3. Anticipation (expectation of good or bad outcomes)
  4. Action

With these four steps, you can steer a character through the initial emotional impact, via logic, and into anticipation in such a way that you can make quite wild "out of character" moments.


For example, our hero the boy scout and local do-gooder is driving home. There is a lot on his mind and he does not see the woman until too late. He gets out of the car. She is bleeding out on the floor and moments from death.

1. Emotion

His first reaction is emotion - shock, horror, guilt, etc. - she looks kind of like his wife.

2. Reason

Then he starts to think about calling for an ambulance and trying to save her.

3. Anticipation

Before he can act, we allow him to anticipate. What will his kids think? Will he lose his license? Will he get kicked out of the PTA? and so on and so forth.

4. Action

He looks around. There is no one in view. Before we know it he jumps back into his car and speeds away. This sin will probably haunt him for the rest of the book.


Internal dialogue would be a good way to show how A had his change of heart. Putting the sequence of thoughts that leads up to his decision down on paper is a great way to convey it to the reader.

Show A's dilemma, how the revelation of B's true motives affect him and causes his views to shift. It will allow you to weave the cognitive dissonance in the thought process too.

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