Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the seventh chapter, “The Most Powerful Thing a Story Can Do Is Show How People Change.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
What’s A Story, and How Do You Find One?
The Most Powerful Thing a Story Can Do Is Show How People Change
Fiction is superior to real life in one important respect: a story can show change happening in real time.
Over the course of a novel or short story, people open their hearts, or close them. Rulers fall, or ascend. People fall in love, and/or fall out of love. Parents and children reconcile. Empires are overthrown, oppressors are defeated, and mysteries are solved. Friendships are tested, and sometimes broken. Enemies become friends, and then lovers. Evil people realize the error of their ways, and good people realize that doing good isn’t as simple as they believed.
In a made-up story, you can see justice taking shape—or being thwarted. You can show how the human heart struggles with huge questions, and sometimes even finds an answer.
If there’s one thing that recent events have taught us, it’s that people do change, though it takes too long and progress is always fragile. Just look at opinion surveys on anti-racism, police brutality, same-sex marriage, trans rights, immigration, and a host of other issues to see how people’s views have changed in a very short time. But it can still be frustrating to fight and struggle and argue and wait for the battleship of public opinion to turn.
We’re all at the mercy of Dornbusch’s law: A crisis always takes much longer to arrive than you think it will, and then it always happens much more quickly than you expected.
So fiction allows us to skip over the excruciating, boring part where people are digging in their heels and the status quo appears unshakable. To distill those moments of transformation that are way too rare in real life down into a cocktail of pure, intoxicating flux. We don’t just crave fiction because we want to escape reality—but because fiction contains the best and worst parts of reality, without all the garbage that pads it out.
We talked before about how to find the characters that you want to follow around for a while—but once you’ve found a character, you need to keep investing in them. And as I said in that earlier essay, a character who doesn’t evolve is just a pet rock: fun to look at, but not really very immersive or compelling. There are two major ways a character can change: their opinions and feelings can shift, or their circumstances can. Or both.
You’ll often hear people talk a lot about a character having an “arc,” which brings to mind the image of an arrow shot in the air, curving upward and then downward again. But another useful image is a piece of coal coming under immense pressure and becoming a diamond. People don’t change when life is easy and straightforward—they change when life is a bloody confusing nightmare.
The hard part is making people believe in change
Because we all crave narratives of transformation, we actively root for characters to level up, or to come to their senses, or sometimes to take the plunge into doing cathartically terrible things. Reading the Song of Ice and Fire books, I can’t tell you how many times I shouted at the page, because I was ready for Sansa to stop letting Petyr Baelish wrap her around his little finger. (And I’ve definitely heard from readers who felt frustrated at how long it took some of my own characters to wise up to something.)
And yet, a story still has to meet the reader halfway. When a character makes a huge change that seems to come out of nowhere, this is frustrating precisely because we’ve been rooting so much for that character to change. We can all think of stories where huge character moments felt unearned and unsupported by everything that came before. When you watch classic Doctor Who, you can always tell a companion is about to leave the TARDIS when she conveniently falls in love with someone she’s barely spoken to until five minutes ago (*cough*Leela*cough*).
I spent a ton of time looking at how character growth works in various books, TV shows, comics and other media, and realized that often, it comes down to one of the following:
- A character couldn’t do a thing before, and now they can.
- Or they were not willing to do a thing before, but now they’re willing.
- They’ve been wrestling with a choice, or a difficult relationship, and now they have clarity.
- Also on the relationship tip, two characters work out (some of) their issues with each other.
- An identity crisis, or a crisis of faith or ideology, has reached some resolution.
Any of those things can also happen in reverse: characters can become less able to do something they could do before, and they can lose clarity as well as gain it. Also, the above categories are very broad-brush by design, and definitely not intended to be exhaustive.
But if you think of your characters as gaining XP over the course of your story, then you’re gonna want to make them work for it. Cheap epiphanies are worthless, and any problem or conflict that gets solved too easily probably wasn’t that big a deal to begin with. Not that we need to see people struggle or suffer, but they at least need to wrestle with the dilemma they’re facing.
The more major the characters, the more we need to see them earn any change of heart. For minor and/or supporting characters, we can assume they’ve done a lot of soul searching while we weren’t paying attention to them. It can actually be kind of cool to catch up with a character we haven’t seen for a hundred pages, and they’ve had some personality upgrades in the meantime.
One failure mode I see constantly in pop culture is the thing where a character has an emotional breakthrough that, in turn, allows them to solve some plot problem. (“I realized that I’m not properly hearing my girlfriend when she expresses her emotional needs, and that lesson about active listening also helped me to realize I need to use a lower frequency to communicate with these mashed-potato aliens.”) This makes for efficient storytelling, but also can lead to rushed emotional beats.
Trauma is also one important element of a lot of character developments—as I touched on in the earlier chapter about finding imaginary friends, people who deal with scary, intense events are going to be left with some damage. I had to spend a lot of time thinking about my own experience of trauma as well as talking to my friends about theirs, before I could get better at writing fictional trauma. I also highly recommend the books Trauma and Recovery and The Body Keeps the Score for a detailed, nuanced exploration of how we carry trauma in our bodies as well as our minds.
An unconvincing arc could also be down to a lack of clarity at some point in the process. In order to follow an arc, we have to have a clear sense of where a character starts out, what the character is struggling with, what exactly they’re aware of, what their goals are, and the ways in which their struggle gets more complicated or more painful as the story goes on. One of my unpublished novels, a portal fantasy, suffered from some of this: I kept wavering on stuff like how much power my protagonist starts out with, and how much she already knows about magic, and what exactly her unresolved issues are. And the result was a messy arc that nobody could follow.
As I’ve said before, you can’t twist the knife until you find the knife.
I often don’t know what the big character turns in a story or novel are going to be until I’ve written a lot of it—even if I outlined a ton in advance, the character stuff is usually the hardest to predict until I get into it. That’s one reason why I try to write a bunch of scenes where things happen: so I can see how the characters are changing, or could change, and write toward that. I’ll inevitably write the beats out of order and skip over important bits, and then I try to create a coherent progression as I revise. But in the first draft, I still try to find the bones of the character arc as I write, because that’s one of the best ways to find a satisfying ending. (We’ll talk about endings later.)
What if your characters just refuse to change?
It’s hard to invest in a character who never changes—though obviously not impossible, judging by the popularity of James Bond and most iconic superheroes. But sometimes you reach the middle of a story and realize that your protagonist is just…stuck. You have a character who’s going through the motions of the plot, but standing still in all the ways that matter.
This can happen for all sorts of reasons:
You might have picked the wrong person as a protagonist. This happens all the damn time. I can’t tell you how many times I started out building a story around someone who seemed, on paper, like the ideal main character—only to find them kind of lifeless. And meanwhile there was this other supposedly minor character who kept popping up here and there, and seemed to have a lot of issues they were anxious to come to terms with.
You’ve written a perfect human being instead of a flawed individual. This is easy to fall into, especially since you want your hero to be “likable,” which can easily translate into “well-adjusted.” But even if your character’s arc isn’t explicitly about learning to get rid of a particular pattern of bad behavior or unfortunate tendency, they’re going to need to have some issues, or they won’t be real enough to change.
Nobody in your story is willing to call the hero on their shit. This is a similar problem. You want everyone else to love your main character as much as you do, so all the other characters in your story treat them as if they can do no wrong. No matter how selfishly or obnoxiously the hero behaves, they get a free pass, and thus they can never grow out of anything.
Your protagonist doesn’t want anything. Every character needs goals or desires—and they don’t have to be related to the plot. In fact, I often find that a character who’s chasing after something unrelated to obtaining the next plot widget is more interesting. It’s the difference between Luke Skywalker, whose main agenda in the original Star Wars is to fulfill his father’s (supposed) legacy by rescuing Princess Leia and stopping the Death Star, and Han Solo, who wants to get paid.
You just need to torture this person a little more. See the “diamond” metaphor above—people don’t change unless they’re under pressure. Sometimes a lifeless character just needs another element to make them uncomfortable. Maybe they need a nemesis whom they loathe (but will learn to love later). Or they’re going to be forced to marry their own evil future self—I hate when that happens. It’s amazing how often a character just needs a foil, or someone to bounce off, to start going through some changes.
Your ostensible protagonist isn’t driving the action. As a general rule, the more a story is focused on plot widgets, or trying to achieve something, the more your hero ought to be making stuff happen, rather than being a bystander. The concept of “agency” is very culturally loaded, and rooted in a lot of Eurocentric cis male notions of “rugged individualism”—but in a story about searching for the magic bidet of the Elf King, the hero should probably at least be helping to find that bidet. Someone who gets dragged along for the ride by other characters might end up having fewer opportunities for personal growth along the way.
I’m a sucker for a story about someone who changes the world, and is changed in the process. In fact, I have a hard time believing in a person who travels through the Valley of Improbable Plumbing (searching for that magic bidet) and doesn’t emerge with a new outlook on life. The more I feel trapped in situations that I seemingly have little or no control over, the more I want to write and read about people who take action, and that helps me to believe I can do those things in real life—but only if I can see how that character is affected by this.
Fiction can work all kinds of magic during horrendous times: inspire us to resist evil, expose the reality of the world, create empathy, and help us to understand complex systems from a vantage-point that could be hard to reach in non-fiction. But the most powerful thing that fiction can do is show that people can change, and that we all have the potential to be different. That’s where I get a lot of my hope when everything around me feels hopeless.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.