The Forces of Character Change

Extraordinary changes require extraordinary forces. The bigger the change, the larger the force needed to make it. This may seem obvious, but I continue to wonder at the stories that neglect this truth. Some of these stories are published novels or released feature films.

Writers understand that in order to move a massive boulder, for example, you need someone (or something) with massive strength. But they don’t seem to grasp that for a character to change himself from the inside, to change his world-view, to throw away decades of accepted indoctrination and adopt a new way, you need massive persuasion from multiple directions over a long period of time, years even. Instead, writers keep asking their characters to change their minds, on a whim almost, in order to tidy up the plot. And that’s bad.

Take The Mask of Zorro, for example. This story starts out great. The baby Elena is kidnapped by the evil Rafael Montero in an introduction that made me call out for blood then failed to give it to me. That’s exactly what you want in a beginning. SPOILER ALERT! Eventually, the young woman Elena, raised by Montero as his daughter, faces her real father and must consider whether the man who raised her is really a kidnapper. She is presented with a few startling coincidences, but nothing that would convince me to give up my life-long beliefs about my parents. Still, she believes Diego de la Vega and forsakes Montero her father. At this point, I lost her. The plot from this point on felt contrived.

Once you establish the character, that becomes the baseline. To change it, you must provide a force big enough to explain that change. Otherwise, it seems fake, unconvincing, like a contrived plot device, which it is. It’s a form of deus ex machina, a variation I call deus ex persona, “God coming from the character.” In Roman theatre, actors would wear masks to indicate which character they were playing. Having the character change to move the plot forward is like having an actor change his mask, out of nowhere becoming a different character. That’s a no-no.

Rather, the character must change from within, and that’s hard. Extraordinary changes require extraordinary forces.

-TimK

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