The Emotion Roller Coaster: Why Characters Resist Change

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.

brainWhat 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.

dead flowerAnyway, 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:


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.

conflictIt Upsets Personal Autonomy (ANGER)

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.

AFGM_One Stop ExampleHappy writing!

 How does your hero or heroine resist change? Let me know in the comments!

Image 1: Geralt @ Pixabay
Image 2: Wenphotos @ pixabay
Image 3: PublicDomainImages @ pixabay



Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Arc, Character Wound, Characters, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Fear, One Stop For Writers, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Emotion Roller Coaster: Why Characters Resist Change

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  5. Jack Ori says:

    My protagonist is in denial about how much he has changed. He reacts as if he’s his old self who did self-destructive things and the more good things come his way the more frightened he gets that he’s going to screw it all up.

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  9. Wonderful post! I’m working on a YA WIP right now, but I have another one creepying into my brain. My daughter bought the book the Psychopath Next Door. I know that is one of the books I want to read as research for it. 🙂

  10. Mark Noce says:

    Great points! I guess characters are a lot like the humans they mimic. Change is good, right? But who wants to actually go through with it:)

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  12. Glynis Jolly says:

    This explains what I’m trying to accomplish with my WiP, in reverse. Yes, my protagonist is fighting psychological issues and losing. This post gives me ideas on how to elaborate on this.

  13. Great post!! Change does have a price and hopefully it pays off in the end!!

  14. JC (Judi) Martell says:

    Agreed – post to save. Amazing what you can learn from studying “gray matter”…..

    I was doing research on empathy and found something called “mirror neurons”, which were “discovered” in the early 1990’s. There are sooo many interesting aspects of it which can be related to writing.

    Here are a couple excerpts from the American Psychological Association:

    “The researchers used fMRI to examine 23 participants as they watched videos of a hand picking up a teacup. In one video, the teacup sat on a table amid a pot of tea and plate of cookies–a signal that a tea party was under way and the hand was grasping the cup to take a sip. In the other video, the table was messy and scattered with crumbs–a sign that the party was over and the hand was clearing the table.” (Reader assumptions and expectations from a well-described setting.)

    “…..why we react at such a gut level to other people’s actions. How do we understand, so immediately and instinctively, their thoughts, feelings and intentions.” (Reader understanding and deeper empathy from well-described actions. –Holy Emotion Thesaurus, Batman!)

    • Our brains are wired to create associations, causing the correct neural networks to fire so memories and emotions can be stored in the right boxes. We are always looking for context–this is what makes us so adept at reading body language, and when body language is paired with sensory information, it’s a match made in heaven. 🙂

      Knowing this, we apply it to fiction, and if we describe our characters well, we can create specific reader assumptions the same way–it really is fascinating, isn’t it?

      • JC (Judi) Martell says:

        Just goes to show why One Stop is a writer’s best friend!!

        • Aw, thank you for saying so! I really do feel it is. I am very excited to work with Becca and Lee on it, and we’re doing some really cool things. It’s so much fun to have a playground where our biggest task is answering the question, “what do writers need most?” 🙂

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  16. This post is definitely on my save list. Thanks!

  17. Another great “save-able” post, as usual. How do my heroines resist change? I think I’ll ponder that today. Thanks!

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