Giving Characters the Courage to Change

by James Scott Bell

Zachary Scott and Eve Arden

The other day I turned on TCM and caught the last half hour of a film I’d seen before, The Unfaithful (1947). I was pleased because it has one of my favorite actors of that period, Zachary Scott. (This fine actor really needs to be remembered for his body of work, especially in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner). The other lead was the “Oomph Girl,” Ann Sheridan.

The plot: Bob Hunter (Scott) and Chris Hunter (Sheridan) are a happily married couple. One night, when Bob is away on business, Chris kills an intruder in their home. Self-defense, right?

What no one knows (at first) is that the intruder was a man with whom Chris had a one-night tryst during the war. She and Bob had been married only a short while before Bob went off to fight. Lonely and anxious, without letters from Bob, Chris found solace in this man’s arms. She felt guilty about it ever since.

Well, the truth comes out, and Bob is stunned, hurt, outraged. He demands a divorce. Chris pours out her heart to him, admitting the wrong, needing him to understand, wanting to stay married. But Bob remains resolute. Chris accepts the inevitable.

With the secret out that Chris knew the victim, she is tried for murder. But through the fine job done by family friend and lawyer Larry Hannaford (Lew Ayers), she is acquitted. (Let’s hear it for lawyers!)

Bob is still firm about the divorce. He goes to see another family friend, Paula (Eve Arden, who made a career out of playing the good-hearted pal). Paula delivers some plain talk to Bob. Almost like a slap in the face. She tells him about women during the war, how frightening and lonely it all was, especially when no letters came. And aren’t we all human? Don’t we all make mistakes? And are you going to hold on to this bitterness forever?

Bob goes back to his house as Chris is coming down the stairs, her bag packed. Bob asks her what her rush is. Maybe they could talk awhile. Discuss how to split up the property (he’s clearly wanting her to stay so they can reconcile.)

Chris, however, has accepted the divorce and closed off her emotions.

Now it’s time for family friend and lawyer Hannaford to be the voice of reason. (Let’s hear it for lawyers!) He makes a plea for the two of them not to throw away what they have. He leaves telling them this is one case he won’t mind not getting.

Bob sits next to Chris on the sofa and, in a typical 1940s gesture of impending reconciliation, offers his wife a cigarette. She takes it.

Fade out.

And I thought, Nicely done. Because the film utilizes a very helpful tool of the craft—the courage to change motivator.

When a character has to go into pitched battle—physically or professionally or psychologically—he is taking a step that requires courage. We need to see what it is that helps the character overcome the natural fear that occurs when facing such a challenge.

In Bob Hunter’s case, his step is psychological. He has to be willing to put aside the blow to his male ego, admit he’s been wrong in his vindictiveness, forgive his wife, and work at saving the marriage. If he suddenly changed at the end, without any preparation for it, we’d feel a bit cheated. We need to know why he’s taking this step.

So the screenwriters (one of whom was the famous noir novelist David Goodis) gave Bob a “voice of conscience.” That was Eve Arden’s character. By giving Bob a good, old-fashioned talking-to, we are set up to accept his change of heart.

This voice of conscience needs to be someone who is credible, wise, trustworthy. In many movies—mostly from the 30s and 40s—this is a voice from the past (which is set up in Act 1). At a crucial point in Act 3, the Lead hears that voice in his head as he’s walking down the street in torment, e.g., his mothers’ voice saying, Johnny, don’t do it! Once you do it, you’ll do it again, and then you’ll be bad. Don’t break my heart, Johnny!

Then Johnny hears the voice of his parish priest (Irish accent, of course): Don’t do it, Johnny! You’ll break your poor mother’s heart!

Finally, the voice of Johnny’s brother who was gunned down by mobsters in Act 2: You’re nothing but a crumb, Johnny. That’s all you’ll ever be, you hear me? A stinkin’ lousy crumb!

Shortly after this sequence, Johnny will take the courageous step to do the right thing. And we accept it, because we know what motivated the change.

The motivation must be strong: coming from a source the Lead trusts and loves.

The motivation must be clear: there is no doubt about the source (to the Lead and to the audience).

The motivation can be a voice of conscience, or it can be invested in a physical item.

An example of the latter comes from the great Bette Davis film, Now, Voyager (1942). Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the withdrawn, unattractive daughter of a steely, upper-crust matriarch. This mother has dominated Charlotte all her life, convincing her she has nothing to offer the world.

After a nervous breakdown, Charlotte is sent to a sanitarium run by the good Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains). Charlotte reaches a point where she is ready to take a major step—going on an ocean cruise. This will require her mixing with people socially for the first time.

On the cruise she meets a man named Jerry (Paul Henreid), who is traveling alone (he is unhappily married). Jerry sees the “real” Charlotte, and the two fall in love. Ah, but they know they must part. Jerry gives Charlotte a bunch of camellias before they do.

Charlotte finally comes home to face her domineering mother. And boy, does the mother (the great character actress, Gladys Cooper) try to smash Charlotte right back to where she was before.

This is the key moment (the “mirror moment”) for Charlotte. She is thinking, can I possibly stand up to my mother? She’s too powerful! Will I go back to being the old Charlotte again?

If only there was something to give her the courage to … well, have a look:

Camellias! This emotional association is enough to give Charlotte the courage to stand up to her mother.

So …

… when you get to a point in your manuscript where your protagonist must take a major step, one that requires courage, provide a boost via a voice of conscience, or an item of emotional significance. This boost is most helpful sometime after—or simultaneously with—the mirror moment. Or during the final battle at the end of the book.

Characters exercising strength of will, to confront challenges and transform as a result. That’s what a novel is really all about.

Give them the courage to change.

29 thoughts on “Giving Characters the Courage to Change

  1. I’ve been struggling with just this type of moment, and wondering if the voice of reason could come from another’s character. I’d decided no, because the POV character needs to be the one that makes the change, drives the action, not doing it because somebody else tells them to change. But you seem to be saying that’s okay, so long as the Eve Arden character is just pointing things out to them that they think about and then make the decision on their own. Right?

    • Right, Maggie. The protagonist is still the one that makes the change and drives the action. But how does she move from one state of being to another? Unless it involves real risk (and almost always fear) it’s not dramatic for the reader. And we all need some sort of “push” to get us to that courageous step. That push is largely emotional. We have to have an inner feeling that overcomes our natural hesitation. Another character can be the one to provide it. The appeal is usually to values, to “do the right thing,” because that’s what makes us complete in our humanity … which is what a Lead character is (knowingly or unknowingly) striving for.

  2. Thanks for another great teaching moment – and a salute to good attorneys.

    When you began discussing “pitched battle—physically or professionally or psychologically” I knew we were talking about stakes, plot and structure, and familiar territory.

    When the “mirror moment” was mentioned, I felt even more comfortable.

    And the motivation to change – “The motivation must be clear: there is no doubt about the source (to the Lead and to the audience)” – sounds like the skills and knowledge acquired by the protagonist in Act 1, setting him/her up to be able do battle with the antagonistic force.

    But I am still fuzzy on how the whole plot and structure framework applies to the character development novel. Maybe I need to go back and reread Plot and Structure. I do know that character development movies affect me emotionally, more than thrillers. I would like to be able to incorporate that emotion into my adventure stories. If sometime in the future you could do a bare bones discussion of plot and structure of the character development novel, I would really appreciate it.

    Thanks for a great post. And Happy Easter.

    • Steve — Now, Voyager is a movie for you to study. It’s a perfectly structured “character development” story. The structural beats are the same as you’d find in an “action” movie (or novel). Heck, Casablanca is a “character development” movie at its core.

  3. I woke up with a scene of courage like this on my mind. The protagonist is physically courageous–doesn’t back down from a fight–and I didn’t like his cowardice in the scene I wrote yesterday. I was just getting ready to change it when I saw this blog. The scene is two chapters before the mirror moment. Hmmm.

    However, his learning curve is internal, gaining the courage to trust his instinct when everyone insists he is wrong. A different kind of courage maybe?

    Now I have to rethink this moment.

    • his learning curve is internal, gaining the courage to trust his instinct

      Why does he trust his instincts? What in his background prepared him to do so? What trusted person in his life once told him that’s what he needed to do?

      When Scarlett makes her decision to save Tara, no matter what, in the middle of GWTW, she first recalls her father’s words to her, how the land was “the only thing worth fighting for, worthy dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” He tells her Tara is in her blood. She had forgotten that.

        • Even if only you, the author, knows the background, it will “permeate” the decision. But when the readers know it, it deepens their bond with the character. I’m for that.

          • I’ve been thinking about your words all morning (Somebody told me the sermon was great. Missed it.) And it deepens my bond with the character.

          • Eureka! I’m reading Baldacci’s latest, THE LAST MILE. Did you help him write it?
            At exactly the midpoint Dexter has to muster the courage to speak out in court. To do so, he recalls the advice of his college football coach: “Fill the A-gap. Make the tackle.”

  4. Great example! I think we can learn a lot about writing from those classic films. (Casablanca being one of my favorites.) The character arc of Rick was, as they say, these days, “spot on.”

    I think it’s important for characters to have both an internal and external conflict. The external drives the plot. The internal helps define the character arc.

    I always learn something from your posts, James.

  5. I’ve been struggling with the middle crisis of my current novella. I remember a quote that some attribute to the Buddha. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” So often, TKZ and JSB turn out to be that teacher. My middle crisis is solved. Thank you again.

  6. Great set of posts, starting with Jim’s.

    I definitely need to see the two movies. May have to try inter-library loan for _The Unfaithful_ as Cuyahoga County Library, for all its greatness, doesn’t seem to have it.

    BTW, their inter-library loan is absolutely fantastic. We probably get two to four books, movies, & musical CDs a week through it.

    • Libraries rule, Eric.

      I think you can search TCM for any title they have and get an “alert” sent to you when it’s going to be on. Try that with The Unfaithful.

  7. “Now Voyager” remains one of my go-to movies when I feel I need a quick lesson in character arc. Love that story and Bette Davis’s transformation.

    But your mention of Zachary Scott made me think of another “women’s weeper” that I love, “Mildred Pierce.” Watched it just the other night in fact on TCM. I don’t think it works as well for learning about character changes as “Now Voyager” but it’s great to watch for plot and structure. And for Zachary Scott’s memorably oily performance as the smarmy playboy Monty…

    They don’t make em like that anymore.

  8. Almost didn’t check here today because I was running late on word count. That’ll teach me; you solved a story problem for me! I didn’t realize what was wrong, but my character needed to rediscover that item of emotional significance before she takes that courageous step.

    Thanks, and Happy Easter!

    Justine, who suddenly has the need to watch Casablanca yet again…

  9. Jim,

    Thanks for pointing out this tool which should work across genres. There is a lot to learn from the screenwriting of old. Anything that will bond an audience deeper to a character is something worth taking a look at. As you know there isn’t much original thought in Hollywood today.

    I don’t watch much TV, however I can strongly recommend the writing from Starz recent “Black Sails” pirate drama. I’ve learned a lot picking apart the show. One could easily use these outstanding writing techniques in the thriller /action genres. I found myself watching episodes two or three times and taking notes. Just a tip for everyone.

    I always look forward to your Sunday posts Jim,

    George Glennon

  10. I’m so glad to hear you unpack this! In the outlining book Take Off Your Pants (which in turn is adapted from Save the Cat or one of those other classics), she touches on the Ally–the character who is the voice of reason for your hero and who gives them that talking to right before the climax. While I was aware that such a thing existed, I was dissatisfied with the examples in the book. These examples you provide make it so much clearer. Thanks!

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