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  1. John Horace
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    John Horace Member

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    Change in a Character's Personality over Time

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by John Horace, Aug 26, 2010.

    This was inspired by another thread. One of ya'll guys was wasking about changing their hero into a more arrogant character. I was thinking about responding in the thread, but as I typed, I realized that my response was a little bit too complicated for that single thread.

    Also, I figured others might be able to pick apart what I say and give some crucial feedback and suggestions, as well. So why not make this a kind of lección sobre Personality change?

    Anyway, the main question that we are considering is that we have a character with a well developed personality already. Personality type A, and we want to change that personality into a much differently developed personality type: Personality type B. There are several things to note about this:

    If you simply start having the character act like they possess B type traits, something will seem off, and the reader will react as if the story was a piece of bad writing. An example might be: (a very short example, sadly)

    Malcome slowly took a draft of one long cigarrilo after another. He held in the smoke as long as he could, relishing the burn inside his lungs. When at last he let the white stuff stream out, a crooked smile curled on his lips. "hey, wow, what a great day! I hope this is the best day whatsoever!" and then he jumped up on the sofa and did the hokey pokey. But the flick flew out of his hands and he coulsn't control himself and started flipping the buttons all over the place on the remote control, and then he died.

    Is something wrong with the previous paragraph? Yes, the character went from a slow, mellow convalescent to a hyperactive immature klutz in the span of 4 seconds, with apparently no reason for it.

    Now, this is a little drastic. I don't expect any of you guys would write like this. You are probably better than that. But I think it gets my point across at least. So, how to start changing character traits without making it seem like the above?

    Well, the easiest way, and also the most realistic( because this is how people change in real life), is to have your character discover that a modification of his behavior solves a recurring problem. Right off the top of my head, I can imagine that a deeply mellow person might find that a mild display of annoyance might solve a small problem with another character. That's a positive feedback. Immediately, your character is likely to repeat that display of mild annoyance should the problem arise again.

    And over time, if problems arise that reward displays of annoyance/arrogance over mellowness/calmness, then that character will display a marked tendency to start leaning towards more of those types of reactions.

    The trick, however, is to gradually accumulate the character responses over time. As arrogance, or perhaps any other character trait becomes more desirable as a way for the character to solve his or her problems, the more the character will switch over to the new personality. And since this is realistic in real life, too, the reader will not have too much of a hard time digesting it.

    However, there comes a warning. There will and should be friction between the character and the reader. No reader will simply accept that their beloved character is changing wholesale. No character will completely embrace the new methods of doing things. This is where inner conflict comes into play. Neurosis. Struggle. Strange behavior. You have to make things appropriate, because if the character throws himself with whole abandon into his new personality, the reader is going to feel tormented. If the character struggles too much with his new personality, the Reader is going to get impatient with him/her and get annoyed themselves.

    You, as the writer, have to find the appropriate balance. This comes with experience, and knowledge. Try it out. Don't be afraid to experiment. I hope this helps, and anyone who wishes to add any information, go on ahead.

    Thanks a lot for listening, John Horace, out.​
     
  2. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Not sure if it was my thread or not lol - I have the story mapped out since I posted. My issue was taking a character that in my second book is the narrator - it is first person present tense so we are right inside Socrates head.

    In the third book I am going to not just make him arrogant but do the equivelent of turning Harry Potter into Voldemort or maybe worse as he has no real equivelent in terms of magic or ability.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Note that placing a character under stress is a good way to begin introducing changes. An idealistic rookie police officer may believe in doing everything by the book and defusing every situation by staying calm and professional, but when he is placed in a position where he sees a small child at risk, he may decide he has to take a short cut. So instead of ressepcting the drunken father's constitutional rights, and simply warning him and filing a report, he jams the guy against the wall and threatens him if anything happens to the child.

    And each time he takes a step over the line, it becomes that much easier.

    So when someone is stalking his girlfriend, and he thinks he knows who it is, he puts a bullet in the guy and plants a throwaway weapon on him. On an innocent man.
     
  4. Cynglen
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    Cynglen Senior Member

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    Dun dun dunnnnn! :eek: Sounds like one of the (way too many) crime shows on TV nowadays.


    Anyway, riding on of the heels of Cog's comment I think an excellent way to change something about a character is to make the character not even realize the change is happening. The transformation from good-cop to bad-cop Cog described is a good example of someone simply thinking the new way is the way things should be done. Another scenario is a character going through a logical process and coming to a conclusion which brings about a major personality change.

    An example for that could be someone trying to save money goes through his expenses and realizes how much smoking and driving a car costs him per year, so he decides to quit smoking and get a manual bike or take public transportation. Those aren't such dramatic changes as far as personality, but you understand the whole idea of using a process to bring about the change.
     
  5. John Bender
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    John Bender Banned

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    What might help is to plant rudiments of what he’s going to ´become` form the very beginning. In other words, to make him ambivalent. Not just ´good` or ´bad` but tendentially one or the other. Like, if he’s a racist give him one ´nigger` he’s moderately respectful to. I think ´American History X` did that with the Afro American teacher Mr. Sweeney. If I recall it correctly even Derek, who really was a major racist, said he was a good teacher.
    What did not work for me in this film was that Derek’s actual transformation from racist to rally non-racist was primarily influenced by this slight pain in the backside he had to work with in prison laundry. He was Afro-American too and a nice guy and all, but a bit annoying and all in all just not enough for me to make such a massive change in a character plausible.

    And that’s another thing: a character change works better if it’s not too massive. Rather not go from ´good` to ´bad` (or the other way round) but from ´good` to ´not so good any more` (and vice versa). Unless you have a really, really massive reason for a massive change…

    Plus: If you look at the structure of the hero’s journey, which a lot of tales and legends work by, you have a point in the story where the hero experiences his all time low, his symbolic death (rock bottom, all is lost…whatever you call it…) and from that he arises transformed. This is also a good device to work the character change…
     
  6. John Horace
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    John Horace Member

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    Great Ideas guys. Excellent way to add to my original points. I appreciate it. :D
     
  7. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    No no, I don't think that's really what changed Derek. First, his illusion of a white brotherhood was totally shattered when he got anally raped by the nazi bunch. Second, on his release, Derek learned that his black work-buddy had arranged things so he got spared for the remainder of his stay in prison. These things together made him realize that even a simple work-buddy relationship is stronger than racial ties and thus his whole us vs. them ideology was exposed as hypocricy.
     
  8. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I actually think the master of getting someone to see what they want in a character is Shakespeare. He draws such amazing 3D villans, and his good characters are generally not flawless.

    I think the wonderful change in the Macbeths is one of the best example of this in literature. Starts out with Lady Macbeth the evil, nagging woman, which is actually all she does do, even in Shakespeare's time her power was not much. She then wrings her hands and goes through agony of conscience.

    Then you have Macbeth himself seems to be a decent enough guy, wary of the witches etc who grows in evil.

    Personally I think for the ability to draw deep characters he is rarely surpassed.
     
  9. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    I doubt that this is how personality changes come about in real life, or at least larger ones.

    I think large personality changes come about when someone's fundamental assumptions are challenged and have to be abandoned.

    For example, someone who believes society is generally just, and people generally benevolent, may have to abandon those assumptions if she's wrongfully convicted of a crime. This may turn her from being generally cooperative and helpful, to being bitter and suspicious.

    Someone who finds himself in a situation where he has to break his moral codes in order to survive - by stealing, murdering and lying - will have to rethink his ideas on morals. He may come to the conclusion that morals need to be flexible and depend on the situation, or reject the concept of morals completely.

    Someone who believes that a smile costs nothing, and will make other people's day that much better, may be cheerful and upbeat. That assumption may be challenged if people start misinterpreting her cheerfulness as flirting, and she may become much more cautious.

    Someone who is afraid that other people will reject him if he doesn't please them, may be nervous and careful around them. If he realises that he can gain people's respect by just being himself, or that he doesn't really need them, he may become much more confident and outgoing.

    In a black-and-white fantasy story, evil characters really see themselves as evil. So for a person to turn from good to evil, the fundamental assumption that has to be abandoned is, "I'm a good person. I'm on the side of good."
     
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  10. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Heh, I got all the way to the bottom of the page waiting to make a response like Islander's...

    Would like to add though that working gradually doesn't always happen. Sometimes a thing will make a person flip out - apparently from nowhere, though if you're writing it good enough you'll be able to show where it really did come from. Amazing characterisation can then be made from backtracking from the flip out, trying to be serious/happy/whatever again, and slowly accepting that they've become much more like their flip out. I am trying so hard not to reference Me Myself & Irene here, but it was the first thing that came into my head. :p Straightlace guy represses himself 'til he cracks, and all the rude and crazy and hilarious face-stretchy expressions come out and he enters into a vicious battle with himself... By the end of the movie he's a totally different character using both sides of his personality. It's been a long time since I've seen that movie, but I'm pretty sure my impression of good character development isn't too tarnished by forgetting due to really not wanting to spend my life thinking about old Jim Carrey movies. :p

    Anyway. I like shocking characters and then making them have to come to terms with what they can be, rather than a gruelling climb and then a "Oh noes, what have I become!?" moment. Self-awareness is very important for believable characters.
     
  11. Lothgar
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    Lothgar Contributing Member

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    Well, the key to a realistic and believable transition is to slowly morph the personality over time. If you do the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide bit, your story will require some mechanic to explain it away.

    Once a character is established and the personality clearly defined, the changes should gradually start showing up due to some stimuli.



    THINGS THAT MAY BRING ABOUT PERSONALITY CHANGES IN A CHARACTER:
    (in order of intensity)


    Giving up smoking (makes you cranky, snapping at people over nothing)

    Falling in love (walking around on cloud nine, annoying the living daylights out of everyone else by constantly bursting into song)

    Mental Illness (developing a phobia about crowds, males, females, office machines, constricted spaces, etc.)

    Windfall of cash (Hitting the lottery means hundreds of "close" relatives you never knew you had showing up and suddenly all your friends have a "crisis" that only large sums of cash will fix. Time to hire a lawyer, change your name and go into hiding).

    Addiction withdrawal (Some cases range from being violently ill to going totally berserk)

    Death of a loved one (Overwhelming grief can lead to depression, suicide or acts of violence against the perceived ones responsible for said death)

    Finding religion (Could rage from anything from an obsession with charity work, to a desire to kill for your god, to some cult of demon worshipers who want to summon some unspeakable abomination into our world).

    Election year politics (If you've never seen Conservatives and Liberals suddenly turning into rabid animals, you've not been a part of election year politics).
     
  12. Lord Gilgamesh
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    Lord Gilgamesh New Member

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    It really does come down, I would say, to the time-line you have. If you want it to happen quickly, it's going to be difficult to pull it off well. If you have a decent length of time, then it becomes easier. In my current story, I'm planning on having my MC go through two relatively major personality changes, from anti-social and quiet, to friendly and warm, to obsessive and introverted. The changes are being brought out directly by the main plot and the character's original flaw of not being able to handle emotions very well.

    While I hope this isn't going into an overkill of detail, it's basically this:
    -The MC is anti-social and quiet, mainly because he lives in a backwater village and is bored to the point where he feels like he's losing his mind.
    |A string of murders starts occurring and he has a contact in the police force
    -He starts investigating, grows less bored, and feels like he's regaining his sanity, this causes his personality to start to change towards being less anti-social.
    |Later in the investigation, the murders are happening more frequently and the investigation starts to hit a standstill
    -Since he's grown to care about people and wants to help people at this point, he starts to spend more and more time trying to investigate and learn more. This leads to him spending less time with the others he's grown to care about, but he's so obsessed by this point he doesn't realize it.

    It happens gradually and, at least in the beginning, the MC himself, notes that he's noticing changes in himself, but there's no major jumps, and it's always something minor, like a comment he normally finds stupid, he actually smirks at, or something he's usually pretty apathetic about, he's actually a little uncomfortable with. Normally he's clear headed and can think things through, but in certain situations he finds his thoughts not actually showing up.

    Basically, it happens gradually, and follows a logical and explained path that doesn't feel like a drastic change. It's fine and it should work without too much trouble.

    On the contrary, if it's just a matter of having a personality type A in the beginning, but wanting an unplanned personality type B later for personal preference, then something drastic is going to have happen to cause that twist and it creates a sort of break in realism for the reader. The best chance of pulling it off, in my opinion, for however much you care to value it at, is usually by having a dramatic and large event. Like a normally happy person loses his girlfriend in a murder, the normally happy person could then be a more serious and mature character after going through a meltdown and being depressed or if a major failure causes bad consequences. The young and cocky hero screws up at stopping the evil wizard so the town he was supposed to defend ends up a heaping pile of ash and he realizes he can't carry on as he has been.

    As far as good to evil/bad or vice versa, if the people the good guy was protecting go and stab him in the back, he could grow bitter and angry at how easily he was framed, or if an evil/bad guy is forced into a situation where he grows to care about something, then has to defend it, he could have a realization that being good feels good or something. (Look at the Despicable Me movie that came out recently.)
     
  13. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    There's a psychological term called "Foot in the door effect." Also known as the "frog in hot water" effect.

    What it means is that people won't accept something huge that gets dumped on them all at once...but build it up, a step here, a step there, bit by bit, and by the time they realize they're boilingin the saucepan it's too late.

    Good ---> a few compromises in their principles, but they can live with it ---> willing to bend their loyalty to what they believe in ---> not so good anymore ----> willing to do some really evil things and they don't think it's evil anymore ----> evil.

    Good luck. :)
     

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