Character Evolution: Crisis and Internal Reaction

Yesterday, we saw how a character can be affected by those around her. Today, and for the rest of this week, we’re going to look at threats to personal ideals and how they interact with characterization. Conflict is one of the greatest sources of character development.

No matter what happens, if there’s a crisis, there’s probably going to be some sort of internal ramification or complication. These situations can be even more difficult to work through than the external revelations and complications, but they can also make a more fascinating story. There is, after all, a reason why man vs. self is one of the major conflicts taught in most if not all creative writing courses.

Many of these sorts of conflicts fall into a few major categories, but character reactions to them tend to boil down to three major types: clinging to the self-image, clinging to the new image, or ignoring the issue/moving off in a different direction.

One is a matter of confidence. While most people are thrown into situations that make them wonder about their own ability to handle themselves, not all such situations are created equal. This is particularly true when dealing with a character who has never had occasion to doubt her own confidence or competence. It’s rather like going from being the star pupil of a small high school to being just one of many in a considerably more difficult college; circumstances are overwhelming enough to cause the character to doubt or even give up on the idea of her own ability to function. For this one, the three responses boil down into working extremely hard to regain the old position, making an effort to stay afloat and no more, or just allowing oneself to fail.

People don’t have to just lose confidence in themselves; they can also lose confidence in those around them, or even in all of humanity. Characters’ general reactions are making an effort to recover their faith in the people in question, losing touch with it entirely, or just going on with what they know and seeing what else they discover. Loss of faith is a common defining event for villains; they’ve seen the darkness in the humanity and are finding their own ways of dealing with it, whether by trying to bring it under their control, spreading it, or repudiating the worth of humanity because of it.

Another is the loss or lack of a major role. This one touches identity itself, and as a result is a common individual problem. Generally, what will happen is that the character identifies herself with a given role. This can have to do with function (“The one with the plans”, “the sneaky one”); with interpersonal relationships (“Kiara’s student”, “Tarisa’s mentor”, “Rilik’s girlfriend”); or just with how a character is viewed by those around her, or thinks she should be viewed by the rest of the world (usually these are one-word qualities, like “experienced” or “fearsome”). The role might be self-assigned or come from someone else, if it exists. Either way, it’s gone, if it even existed, and the absence is devastating. Often (particularly in the case of function-based roles), this will be either triggered or accompanied by a crisis of confidence. Characters in this sort of situation tend to have one of three classes of reactions: clinging desperately to their own role, trying to find a new one, or giving up entirely.

Another is the discovery that something they believed or worked towards is actually wrong or harmful. This one is one of the most insidious, as it rarely occurs alone; often it will trigger one or both of the above crises. Reactions to these can vary in an extreme manner, but still fit the three categories: a character might reject this discovery entirely and focus even harder on proving that her belief or project is to the world’s benefit; she might work to destroy the offending belief or project to prevent it from affecting others; or she might distance herself as much as possible from it, trying to avoid responsibility or condemnation.

Then there’s the loss of someone or something important. This probably deserves its own entry, but I’ll have to get back to it later. It still follows the three major categories, though: a character might deal with the loss by attempting to carry on the ideal of the lost one or search out the item, by going into some form of mourning or despondency, or by just blocking it all out and carrying on.

One of the most important ones is the conflict of ideals. For this one, the problem isn’t one being wrong; instead, it’s multiple ones being right. For instance, using yesterday’s demon example, what happens when loyalty to the family conflicts with an ingrained opposition to demon-worship in all of its forms? These can come in a lot of forms: truth vs. people’s feelings, right vs. easy, friendship vs. common sense, duty vs. much of anything, including other duties, traditions, survival, love, or almost anything else you can name. For this, the choices tend to be one ideal, the other, or something in between. This situation is often a motivator for villains’ lieutenants, as their loyalty or sense of duty may have won out against what was right; the fact that the scales can still be tipped is why these characters regularly end the story either with their redemption or their removal from the conflict.

Tomorrow: So now we’ve got enough conflicts, crises and ill influences to put any character through the wringer. How are the characters likely to react to these new developments?

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