How to Show Character Change

One of the things I’ve always been fascinated by is character change. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can spend hours just looking over the behavior of a character and seeing how it compares to when she was created. Making mistakes and coming to terms with them, dealing with old traumas, learning things and internalizing the knowledge, falling in love—it’s only a smattering of the kinds of changes a character can go through. But it’s not near as much fun if the creator just says that a character changed. So how does one go about showing it?

One basic is changes in self-presentation. This is a popular one, but it’s easy to overblow (sexing up a character’s costume when he/she goes evil is a personal pet peeve of mine, and I’m not particularly fond of the insistence on tying hair back to symbolize confidence even if it is justified). Depending on how the character works, there are a lot of ways this can go—overall posture, hairstyle, color of clothing, style of clothing, addition or subtraction of ornamentation, where they wear their insignia, you get the idea. And yes, uniforms get in the way of this, particularly the ones that are supposed to put the uni in uniform, but even those don’t hide body language and facial expression too much.

Interactions with other characters are always fun. The way people address each other can demonstrate different emotions between the characters in question, power dynamics, prior relationships, the presence or absence of secrets, prior incidents that might have happened to one or both of them, one reminding the other of someone else… and that’s just the ones I can think of while writing this. Now what happens if these emotions change? For instance, if someone who always used to defer to one of her traveling companions at one point countermands one of the second’s decisions to that person’s face, what might it mean?

As a side note, are they handling conflict differently? Emotional intensity, particularly if that emotion is some form of fear, tends to bring out parts of people they usually keep hidden; if a character who otherwise has been showing no outward signs of change goes berserk during a fight without precedent, that’s usually cause to assume that something’s going on.

Then there’s behaviors in general. Things people won’t do are a vital part of their characterization, but nobody said they have to be static; a character who’s gone through enough change might loosen up on old ones, or acquire new ones. This is one of those things that should probably be set up gradually, or it might result in people expecting a doppelganger plot instead. On the other hand, taken in tandem with sufficiently intense circumstances or other signs of a drastic change in attitude/personality, it’s an excellent sign of character arcing. Similarly, a character doing things with increasing proficiency as time goes by, or seeming to lose the ability to do things she could do before, can show changes in characterization. Even just changing the emotional cues while a character is doing whatever the action or behavior is makes a difference.

What about attitude? While this one’s often done in tandem with how people relate to other people, it’s worth taking on its own—what people tell themselves when nobody else is there is just as important to how they act as what they tell other people. Changes in emotional cues, reacting differently to the same situation at two different times, pursuit vs. evasion vs. indifference, credulity, skepticism—a lot goes into an attitude, and any of it can be tweaked in ways that people should be able to see.

Consider also their priorities. Most people get used to the fact that life is full of choices, whether they have a good sense of what they’d actually choose in a given situation or not. What better way to show change than to go through the same choice twice under similar circumstances but with a significant time difference and make different choices each time? A character might show greater intensity in the pursuit, defense and discussion of those things she prioritizes; some things she might negotiate for and some she might fight for; some aren’t worth a confrontation, while others may be important enough to get around her other feelings on an issue.

Change one of these and you have an indicator. Change several and you have a pattern. Change them so that people can see them and you have a way to show and not tell. How do you prefer to show change?

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