All You Need To Know About Character Transformation

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

God was not pleased.Ocean-Storm-Waves_Free_Desktop_Backgrounds_chillcover.com_

The special creation he had lovingly shaped, and into which he breathed the breath of life, had gone off the rails. God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Things went south from the very start. He placed man and woman in this beautiful garden with plants and animals and a Starbucks, and said there was only one rule: Do not eat the fruit of this one tree, okay? Is there any part of Do not eat you don’t understand? No? Very good.

But then the first politician the serpent whispered a sweet lie, and Eve took a bite, then Adam chomped, and it was bye-bye Eden. In the outside world Adam and Eve scraped up enough to buy a little starter home, had kids. But tragedy ensued–Cain murdered his brother, Abel.

Things only got worse. After several generations God decided it was time to clear the table, wrap it all up. But there was this one man, Noah, who was perfect in his generations, and … walked with God.

You know the story. God tells Noah that judgment is coming, so he is to build a big boat according to certain specs. Then he must bring in pairs of animals for the repopulation project. Noah obeys, gets the animals and his family on board. The flood arrives.

And Noah becomes the greatest financial planner in the Bible. He floated his stock while everyone else liquidated.

Ba-dump-bump.

So there is Noah, inside a stinky animal pen for over a year (when you do the math), and what is he thinking? We have a clue. The ancient Hebrew style of writing is minimalist, and leaves a lot “between the lines.” At one point we read this: And God remembered Noah.

This tells me that sometime during his voyage Noah began to wonder if God had forgotten him. Was he a sap for listening? Was this all a cosmic joke? Was he going to die out here in this watery wasteland?

What Noah experienced was his “mirror moment.”

Yet he keeps the faith, does not curse God. The flood subsides. Noah and his family and the animals step out into the new world.

And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour… 

Noah is the same righteous man he was before the flood, but now his faith has been tested, and has become stronger.

This is Noah’s arc.

Discussions about character arcs can sometimes get overly complicated––complete with graphs that look like transcranial Doppler readings––or too simplistic (“Not every story needs a character arc!”)

But as I argue in my book, Write Your Novel From The Middle, it’s not really complicated at all once you nail that mirror moment.

And every story must have a character arc–or as I prefer, transformation–because, wait for it, you can’t have a story without one. You can have good writing. You can have distinct style. You can have quirky characters. But without transformation, friend, you will not have a story, and that’s what 99.9% of readers are looking for, consciously or not.

Your character’s mirror moment tells you what kind of transformation guides your story. It will be one of two types:

  1. The Lead character changes inside, becoming a different person at the end than at the beginning. In this type of mirror moment, the character is forced to look at himself and “ask” if this is who he really is, and wonder if he’s going to stay that way. The story question then is: will he actually transform into a different person at the end?
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Martin Riggs

This transformation is from one pole of existence to another. From one kind of being to another. It’s a fundamental change.

Examples of this type of transformation include: Rick Blaine in Casablanca; Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird; Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon.

Note: This transformation does not have to travel from negative to positive (though most of the time it does). It can also be from positive to negative. A prime example of this is Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He transforms from good American soldier to soulless gangster.

There is even a type of transformation where the character is “offered grace” (as Flannery O’Connor put it) but turns it down. This is a tragedy. The character actually transforms backwards, becoming even worse off than before. Two of my favorite films of all time, both starring Paul Newman, are examples of this––Hud and The Hustler. 

  1. The Lead character realizes, right in the middle of the struggle, that there is no way he can win. The odds are too great. He is “probably going to die.”
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Clarice Starling

This transformation goes from stasis to strength. The character remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger in order to survive the “death stakes” of the conflict.

Examples of this type are: Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs; Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games; Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. 

Are there any examples of characters without any type of transformation? What about James Bond? Jack Reacher? They’re always the same, aren’t they?

They are the same fundamentally, but in those stories the transformation is of the second type, because the case or intrigue they are involved in challenges their powers and threatens them with physical, professional or psychological death.  

If the story doesn’t have death on the line, it’s going to feel flat.

The easiest way to find the transformation that is right for your story is to brainstorm your mirror moment.

Pantsers, you can brainstorm that anytime you like. If you’re lost in the middle of a draft (and I know you will be), the mirror moment will become the beacon that lights your way out of the thicket.

Plotters, you can determine your transformation at the beginning of things and know precisely how to outline from there (in my book I describe the “Golden Triangle” as the basis of a solid outline). Or you can put a moment in provisionally and change it later on as the story grows.

The point is that once you have it, it will illuminate the rest of your novel, from beginning to end. It will guide you in the formulation of plot, scenes and the ultimate meaning (theme) of the story trying to get out.

I’ll be in travel mode today, but will try to drop by if I can. Please continue the discussion!

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16 thoughts on “All You Need To Know About Character Transformation

  1. Okay, A+ just for this line alone: “And Noah becomes the greatest financial planner in the Bible. He floated his stock while everyone else liquidated.”

    ROTFL!!!!!!!!

    I’m in the middle of puzzling out a novel series and am dealing with just this thing–my lead character’s arc across those stories. Once I have that, I think my other characters’ arcs will fall into place as well.

    Thanks for a great post. TKZ is the best place to come to keep firing the writing brain….

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    • Wish I could take credit, BK! It’s an old joke that’s been “floating” around for years, with no authoritative source that I know of. Probably the same guy who said Noah did not allow card playing on the ark … we know that because he sat on the deck. Etc.

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  2. I used your book yesterday. Clarified my whole outline. I give you an A+ for “This is Noah’s Arc.” (Another one of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? lines.) I also commend you on your photo of Seattle in March.

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      • LOL. “A man by the name of Noah once saved our world with an ark of wood. Here at the North Pole, a few men performed a similar service with an arc of electricity.”

        Part of the news story dictated by newsman Ned Scott just after the survivors at the Arctic Circle research conference killed The Thing in The Thing From Another world. (Howard Hawks’ 1951 production.)

        He signed off his story, and the movie, with these words: ” And now before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning: Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”

        He, of course, is speaking of flying saucers, one of which he talked about earlier. “So few people can boast that they’ve lost a flying saucer and a man from Mars -all in the same day! Wonder what they’d have done to Columbus if he’d discovered America, and then mislaid it.”

        Douglas Spencer played Scotty.

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  3. Jim, I loved he Bible history synopsis. I’ll read that one to my grand-kids before I get out the big children’s Bible stories.

    I’ll leave a testimonial to use of the mirror moment, the golden triangle, and “write your novel from the middle.” In the past year, since I started using that approach to short stories, I got 3 shorts into competition anthologies. And Jodie Renner kept asking me for more short stories for her anthology (about child labor in Asia – CHILDHOOD REGAINED), until I had written 3 for her. Six stories accepted in one year. And I attribute much of my success to the “write from the middle” and use “the golden triangle” approach.

    Safe travels. And thanks for the post. Great as always.

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    • Thanks, Steve, for the very kind words! Kinder than what the chickens used on Noah’s ark. They used fowl language. (See the great benefits of going to Sunday School as a child?)

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  4. I wasn’t going to comment today, Jim, because I’ve been talking a lot here over the past couple of weeks.

    But Joe Hartlaub’s column yesterday on his 25th anniversary of his sobriety set my own thoughts in action when I read your column today.

    In your description of statis-to-strength, you touched on the concept of psychological death. In my own observations of this phenomenon over my lifetime, I have come to see that the struggle is extreme and, sometimes, frightening. The people whom I have seen in this struggle are folks we might see every day–because we may well be related physically (not fictively) to them. People who are addicted, war veterans and others who are suffering from PTSD, and those lost in their own sinfulness and see no way out, have been members of my own family.

    Seems to me that they are stuck in their mirror moments–they can’t yet move on, and maybe they’ll never have the opportunity to do so. In my very first job out of college, I was the head of an health and education department at a social services organization. One day, one of the clients of the organization stopped by my office just to talk. In a moment that I can only describe as a mirror moment, the young men–who was smart, funny, quick-thinking, and smelled to high heaven because he was a street wino–made the comment, “You know, we know that wine is going to ruin our lives. It’s going to ruin mine.” In a movie or in a novel, probably, he would have been able to see the need to switch paths, ending with a traveling shot, as we dolly back from the front door of his new home where his wife and children are awaiting him as he steps from his car. But that young man probably never did move from his mirror moment. Though I lost touch with the clients of that organization, I am pretty certain I heard that they found him dead several years later, laying under a house, his hand still on a bottle of 69-cent Tokay. My own cousin, I believe, committed suicide-by-car-wreck while he was likely intoxicated. And so many of my son’s go-to-buddies, guys he joked and drank beer with, and fought with in Ramadi, and introduced to us, eventually succumbed to the winds of war that most of us know nothing of, and put a gun into their mouths and pulled the trigger.

    Tragedy because one cannot go beyond their mirror moment heaps grief and existential moments of loss on us.

    I wish, in real life, there was always the moment when one could go on from the mirror to the answers and actions he or she needs.

    Alas, it is not always so.

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  5. Thumbs up for going straight at it, with this: “… because, wait for it, you can’t have a story without one.”

    So true. For the mirror moment, and for a handful of other essentials story elements. I often get a little heat when I frame a point just that way – as essential – because some writers believe nothing is essential, there are no “rules” or even principles (different things, those), that in the name of art we can write a novel any way we choose, leaving out what we want and putting in what we want, where we want it.

    Let’s keep pounding the table on this. The essentials are what liberate us as storytellers, rather than constrain.

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    • There are certain truths that are irrefutable. Gravity, for instance. And that a story is a record of how a character, through strength of will, fights a high stakes battle. Which leads to some form of transformation, or else the challenge was real, which means the story was not a story, but a vignette, a prose poem, and probably dullsville.

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