I’m reading this fascinating book right now about the human brain (yes, really!) that details how our gray matter works, and how we can evolve ourselves through concentrated intention and awareness. One of the terrific nuggets is the belief that every emotion, good or bad, sends a flood of chemicals through the body, and that repeated “doses” of this cocktail turns our brain into a bit of an addict, making it hard to break an emotional habit should we wish to.
What does this mean? Well, if you are trying to claw past feelings of low self-worth brought on by past trauma, or you’re determined to think positively and fight the cloud of pessimism that always seems to envelope you, your brain may actually work against you. Why? Because you’re denying it the rush of chemicals it’s gotten used to. So, craving a hit, it hammers your mind with defeatist thoughts (you’ll never be good enough, so why try? or, someone else would have handled that better) which encourage you to “give in,” and feel the very thing (emotion/chemical mix) you’re trying to avoid.
Anyway, this is an oversimplification so I recommend reading the book, but it got me thinking about WHY change is so hard for us, and therefore our characters as well.
First off, change is HUGE.
It triggers an emotional response because we need time to process it. In essence, we’re giving up one idea for something else. It’s the death of one thing, and the birth of another.
Because of this, characters facing change may experience the 5 Stages of Grief:
SHOCK & DENIAL:
What? I don’t need to change! Everything’s fine, F-I-N-E.
How dare you tell me I must change! I’ll cut you, I swear.
My life is over–nothing will ever be the same. I am losing who I am. #cuewallowing
But…what if I just do X? That’s good enough, right? Come on, help a bro out.
Well, this is the new normal I guess. Better get on with it.
And, in some circumstances, characters will skip the queue and go right to Acceptance, because the change represents something they have longed for or really need. They may feel RELIEF, GRATITUDE or even EXCITEMENT.
But much more often, characters resist, creating a beautiful tug-of-war between Inner Motivation and Inner Conflict, which adds story tension.
Here are some of the common reasons people (and therefore characters) fight change:
Comfort Zone Issues (FEAR)
One of the biggest reasons to resist is our need to maintain the status quo. The comfort zone is known and safe. We like it here. Sure, it’s not perfect, and sometimes it may feel like we’re in a rut, but we’re used to it and know how things works. But…out there in the badlands? Who knows what kind of clown-crazy goes on. Maybe it’s better, but maybe it’s worse. We just don’t know, and neither do our characters, and flight-or-fight instincts can push us to pick what we know over what we don’t.
Threats To The Status Quo (RESENTMENT)
Remember that epic party you threw when your parents went out of town, but then the cops came and busted it up? Okay, well maybe you don’t, but either way, no one likes it when someone or something messes up a good thing. If there’s a threat to your character’s dominance, authority, or control, it’s rarely well received. Your character may not only oppose the change, they might fight back, hard.
Many of us want to carve our own path, so when someone shows up to tell us we can’t, it causes serious friction. Characters will also naturally resist change if it means giving up freedom or control, unless they are self-aware enough to see it makes sense for the greater good.
It Requires A Leap Of Faith (UNCERTAINTY)
When it comes to our well-being, we want to glimpse the end zone or see data points before making big decisions that affect not only us but possibly others we care about as well. And, like us, if a proposed change has too many unknowns, or could have unmapped side effects, most characters will adopt a “wait and see” mentality and delay decisions, hoping more information will be forthcoming and allow them to make a more informed choice.
A Lack of Confidence (SKEPTICISM)
Sometimes a change isn’t bad, but the plan in place or the person manning the helm is. If a character doesn’t have faith in the leader or feels the plan is somehow fundamentally flawed, they will resist change…especially if they have a better idea on how to move forward.
Painful Past Lessons (RELUCTANCE & DREAD)
Sometimes change is a merry-go-round, and characters who have ridden this particular ride before and it didn’t end well are reluctant to saddle up again. The deeper the pain, the more resistance the character will display. Wounds are powerful and can easily override logic, leaving characters blind to an important truth even if it is staring them in the face.
Change isn’t easy…and often comes at a price
If you’d like help planning your character’s emotional roller coaster as they navigate a change arc, you may find our Story Map tool at One Stop For Writers really helpful. And while you’re there, check out the Emotion Thesaurus and the 15 new entries we’ve added to it.
How does your hero or heroine resist change? Let me know in the comments!