Stories are about change. Our characters’ world is changing around them, or they’re changing internally—or both.
Yet at the same time, we know change is hard. In our own lives, we struggle to change our habits or take steps to be successful and reach our goals, whether that’s switching jobs, getting into shape, or whatever. In fact, we often resist more the closer we get to the possibility. Just because we know what we need to do doesn’t mean we follow through.
Real-Life vs. Fiction: What’s Realistic Change?
Despite the reality we all know about life, when it comes to storytelling, there’s usually a limit to how patient our readers will be with our characters not taking steps toward changing their situation, beliefs, or behaviors. That reader impatience is especially a risk if our characters suspect (or maybe even know) what “should” be changed before they’re ready or willing to act. Worse, if readers get too frustrated, they can stop rooting for our characters, thinking them too stupid or pathetic to do what needs to be done.
On the other hand, if that change were easy, why wouldn’t our characters have already reached their goals? Stories without resistance either need to be super-short or risk seeming unrealistic—and quite frankly, boring. Ask any romance novelist skilled with sexual tension about the value of anticipation for reader enjoyment. *grin*
In other words, we need to make change realistically difficult while avoiding the problem of wishy-washy characters. And that’s often easier said than done, especially when considering readers’ reactions.
Keeping Readers in Our Characters’ Corner
One key to keep readers cheering for our characters, even when they’re not taking steps toward change, is ensuring the obstacles in our story—internal and/or external—are as strong as possible. If readers believe our characters have “good” reasons for delaying, resisting, or only taking baby steps, they’ll stay on our characters’ side.
Of course, virtually any reason could be convincing with strong writing. However, we first need to be consciously aware of what’s stopping our character to ensure we’re fully developing those reasons on the page.
Using Plot Obstacles
Plot obstacles are typically easier to use for convincing readers, as the evidence that our characters’ have “good” reasons is right in front of readers’ eyes. For example:
- Plot Obstacles Interfere: Our character might be on the path toward change, but plot obstacles—such
as needing to complete a different quest first—slow their progress.
Our character desperately needs to pursue a promotion, but their father’s heart attack means they’re distracted by having to take on caretaking duty. (i.e., It’s not our character’s fault their progress is slow.)
- Plot Events Change
Priorities: Despite what our character thought,
recent plot events have triggered realizations or exposed the need for
Our character wanted a promotion, but their father’s heart attack makes them realize a focus on family is more important. (i.e., Our character’s goals change during the story, so they take steps only after they embrace the new goal).
Using Internal Obstacles
Internal obstacles are often trickier to use for convincing readers, as too much emphasis on their internal debate can make the character seem obsessed, indecisive, weak, etc. While characters hem and haw, readers are likely to want the characters to just get on with it, no matter how realistic that behavior is in real life.
To overcome that problem, we want to transform their internal reasons for avoiding change into tangible, external reasons as much as possible. For example:
- Emotions Hold Them Back: Our character’s too afraid, too resentful, too doubtful, too
uncomfortable, etc. to change—which is expressed in words or behaviors with
external plot consequences.
Our character wants a promotion, but when they learn their competition is their “nemesis,” they angrily insult their coworker in front of the boss. (i.e., After the character self-sabotages, their goal is further out of reach.)
- Change Isn’t Needed: Our character believes they’re right or fine as they are and don’t
need to change, or they believe it’s not their responsibility to change—which
is expressed in words or behaviors that reject other options.
When told they’d be eligible for a promotion if only they learned to meet deadlines, our character counters by stating their missed deadlines never caused issues. (i.e., They embrace the status quo and refuse other goals.)
Delay Makes the Eventual Change Sweeter
No matter what combination of reasons we use for our characters, the circumstances and rising stakes will eventually force even the most resistant character to attempt change. But before we get to that point, we first want to make change seem impossible.
The more we develop the obstacles preventing our character’s change, the more readers will believe success is out of reach. When the delays, debates, or resistance are finally overcome, the eventual change can be both emotionally satisfying and surprising. *smile*
Do you have any questions or insights about setting up obstacles to prevent our character’s change? And for more information on this topic, try this post.
After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat. Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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Vivienne Sang says
Thanks for this post. Most helpful.
Jami Gold says
You’re welcome, Vivienne! 🙂
Jan Sikes says
This is such great advice on layering characters growth and not reveal everything to the reader at once!
Jami Gold says
Glad you found it helpful, Jan! 🙂
Mark Marderosian says
This article is quite timely for me as I continue to bolster the reasons my MC would remain silent about a deep emotional wound for three years.
This is GREAT advice, suggestions, and clarity. Thank you for putting it all on paper, Jami!
A PS to the head honchos in charge of this site: The quality of writing and how-to’s on this site are amazing. A big go-to place for me in my journey. Thanks!
Jami Gold says
Glad this resonated with you! To figure out your character, you could try filling in the blanks on some statements from their perspective.
Yes, I’ve kept silent, but if I didn’t, I’d be afraid of ____ happening. I might lose ___ or be angry about ___ or have to admit ___.
Then once you’ve brainstormed some ideas, you can think about how those fears or reasons might affect their external words, actions, or behaviors, and make that internal into something external. 🙂 Good luck!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I like your take on how we can keep readers invested while the character fights their fear of change. Thanks, Jami!
Jami Gold says
Thank YOU for having me here, Angela! 🙂