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How do you get your character to change?

As simple as this question may seem,

it's also a super practical and important question that deserves an equally
practical answer.
At this point in our journey through character arcs, I hope youre as stoked as I
am about the potential of well-structured inner journeys for your characters
whether theyre positive change, flat, or negative change arcs. So you join in the
general cheerhip hooray for character arcs!and roll up your sleeves to
implement an awesome change arc in your story.
But then you run up against that gaping quandary: How do you get your
character to change?
The Only Way to Create Organic Change in Your Character's Arc
The first thing you do is run over your character-arc checklist. Yep, hes got a Lie
thats making him miserable (or at least less-than-fulfilled in some aspect). Yep,
the ending features a terrific new Truth thats going to make his life or his world
so much better. Just as importantly, you understand how your plots structural
beats are each going to need to influence your characters arc.
But how do you make your character change? How do you get him from Point A
(the Lie) to Point B (the Truth) in a way that makes sense from the inside out?
Its not enough to put a character though all the proper motions of a change. To
make it really work, the character has to feel that change. He has to be
personally motivated to change.
And how do you accomplish that? Lets just say I hope youve got a nice juicy
carrot and a not-so-nice hard stick handy.
Using Rewards and Punishments to Get Your Character to Change
People are motivated by pain and pleasure. We move away from pain and toward
pleasure. We move away from what we dont want and toward what we do want.
As any parent knows, this means rewards and punishments are highly successful
How to Use Rewards and Punishments to Get Your Character
to Change
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motivational tools. And what are our characters except wayward, recalcitrant
children who need to be shown a better way?
In Character Arcs, Jordan McCollum explained insightfully:
When the characters positive choice brings her closer to the post-arc
state, the best reward in storytelling terms would be to bring her
closer to her external goal. When a negative choice backfires, the
biggest punishment is to take her farther away from her external
goal. We slowly force the character to see that her pre-arc beliefs
and behaviors will no longer work, and she must try something new.
Every story is defined by what the character wants. This external goal (the Thing
He Wants Most) starts out as the storys manifestation of ultimate pleasure
(even if the storys true source of pleasure is really the Thing He Needs Most).
Naturally, the character is headed straight toward this font of bliss.
But his Lie keeps getting in his way, especially in the first half of the book, prior
to the Moment of Truth at the Midpoint. Every time he makes a Lie-based move,
out comes the authors omnipotent stick to give him a good whack on the
backside. Unless the character is a total dope, hes eventually going to get tired
of getting spanked and try a new tacka Truth-based tack.
Only when the character begins to act in harmony with the Truth will he stop
being punished and instead begin to be rewarded. This is where you pull out
that carrot! The more in sync the character is with the Truth, the greater his
rewardthe greater his progress toward the Thing He Wants and (more
importantly) the Thing He Needs. In Plot vs. Character, Jeff Gerke reminds us:
The key is to have a firm grip on two things: what your heros old
way will eventually do to her if left unchecked and what bright future
the new way is trying to get her to receive.
How Yes, But Disasters Act as Rewards
Properly structured scenes are split into two segments: action and reaction. The
action half will be structured into three parts of its own: goal, conflict, outcome.
That outcome is almost always going to be disastrous or partially disastrous. We
call these partial disasters yes, but disasters. They are disasters in which the
characters main scene goal is obstructed, but only partially. He comes out of the
scene with half a victory.
In the first half of your story, your characters Lie-based actions are going to be
leading him to a lot of full-on disasters. These disasters are punishments. Every
time he aims for his goal in the wrong way, he gets slapped for it. He enters the
conflict and comes up wanting every time. But every one of these disasters
should be teaching him something: his Lie isnt giving him the right tools to get
want he wants.
As he begins to search for new ways to avoid disasters and reach his goal, he
starts growing into the Truth and gaining more effective tools. As a result, in the
second half of the story, hes going to be scoring more and more yes, but
disasters. Hes still not capable of fully defeating the antagonist and winning the
conflict (once he does that, the story is over), but hes getting closer. And the
closer he gets, the more he will be rewarded by better results.
Figuring out how to get your character to change is a decision that must be
made on the macro level of your entire story: the structure of the plot and how
it influences all of the character arc's catalytic moments.
But your ability to get the character to change is also dependent on the micro-
level decisions you make in every single scene in your story: punishments for
Lie-based actions, rewards for Truth-based actions.
In every scene, take the time to identify your characters guiding principle and
make sure hes being appropriately punished and rewarded. The result? You'll
end up with a powerful character arc based on realistic motivations and flawless
cause and effect.
About the Author: K.M. Weiland is
the internationally published author of
the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your
Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as
well as the western A Man Called
Outlaw, the medieval epic Behold the
Dawn, and the epic fantasy
Dreamlander. When shes not making
things up, shes busy mentoring other
authors. She makes her home in
western Nebraska.