Many writers are good at story structure, world building, and character creation, but fail to describe a believable and satisfying character change.
To create a compelling arc for your character, it helps to have a good working model of human nature and how people change.
The best model I know of is an ancient system called the Enneagram.
So now let’s discuss how characters change.
At the beginning of a story, the main character has a fear and a desire.
They are aware of their desire, which is the goal of the story.
But they are unaware of their fear, which is buried deep inside them.
This fear has controlled them since early childhood. To deal with this fear, the child created a defense mechanism, which turned them into the type of person they are today.
To achieve their goal in the story, the character must change.
To change, they must overcome their fear.
In real life, people don’t want to change.
In fiction, characters don’t want to change either.
So the job of the storyteller is to force a believable change upon them.
To do this, a writer must craft the story so that the character is confronted with a series of obstacles.
The character fails again and again to get what they want, until they’ve exhausted every available tactic except the one they’ve been avoiding all along…
There are nine character types, and each type changes in different ways.
But there are similarities.
Think of a character arc is a moral arc.
The character changes in a moral direction.
Towards good or evil.
Right or wrong.
Light or dark.
In general terms, and moving from good to evil, the nine stages of character change are:
The character has overcome their fear and achieved their desire. They are free, transcendent, and self-actualized. A paragon of virtue.
The character is psychologically healthy, but their dominant fear is present. So is their unmet desire. To deal with anxiety, the character uses defense mechanisms that shape their style of thinking, feeling, and acting.
The character is a constructive member of society, and relatively healthy. But they have secondary fears and desires that complicate their character. They are within reach of liberation, if only they can overcome their dominant fear and take virtuous action to achieve their desire.
The character has given in to an unhealthy temptation that now pulls them toward their dark side. Nevertheless, their actions fall well within the morality of their culture. Their flaws are easily overlooked, because they are so common. But the character has violated their best interests. They have sinned against themselves. Because they are resisting the better angels of their nature, their positive moral development is in jeopardy.
The character attempts to control their world by presenting a false self. They wear the mask of their character type. Defense mechanisms, which were created to control their own fear, now keep the character in conflict with other people, and with the world. The character is morally and psychologically average, in a world of the walking wounded.
The character’s defense mechanisms aren’t working properly. Other people begin to sense that something about this character is wrong. The character overcompensates by giving even more power to their false self. They become self-centered in a manner that matches their character type, and they act out in unhealthy and inappropriate ways.
Because of some outside stress, the character’s normal defense mechanisms have failed. The character is now in survival mode. They must protect themselves, while still trying to save face. But the face they are trying to save is a mask of their own making. The character is unbalanced. Depending on their character type, they will either violate others or themselves. They are still redeemable, but they have crossed a moral bridge and joined forces with the dark side.
The character’s perception of reality is completely distorted. They are compulsive in their thinking, feeling, and actions. They’ve lost control of themselves and their reality. Depending on their character type, various pathologies begin to emerge. The false self is falling apart. Beneath the crumbling mask is naked fear.
The character is extremely violent and destructive. They are capable of destroying themselves and/or others. They may even destroy their world. Depleted of all moral and psychological resources, they finally conquer their fear through annihilation.
So those are the nine stages of character change, as they apply generally to all nine character types.
It is difficult for a character to move up to a higher stage.
Instead, they tend to take on the traits of another character type, as represented by the straight lines of the Enneagram.
In stories, most character arcs move from one stage to the next higher or lower stage.
For example, a story might depict a character advancing from imbalanced (stage four) to socially valuable (stage three).
To show a character arc from being delusional (stage eight) to being in control (stage five), you must show the character’s struggle to rise up through each of the intermediate stages, one by one.
Otherwise the audience will not believe the change.
And the story will fail.
However, it must be mentioned that the opposite is not necessarily true.
Villains can fall fast and land hard.
For example, a villain might begin as a valuable member of society (Stage 3) and in only one or two steps plummet into a deep pathology (Stage 9).
Because we are rooting for the villain to fall, we can happily accept their complete and utter breakdown.
But if the character is a tragic hero, like Walter White in Breaking Bad, then the audience wants to experience the fall with him, and you should clearly depict each stage of his descent.
In future posts we’ll explore how each character type thinks, feels, and behaves in each of the nine stages, and how you as a writer can show each possible character change, so that you can create your own believable and satisfying character arc.
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