Realistic Character Changes


With the exception of books I read for review, during my regular reading times I have this bad habit of reading more than one book at a time. I’ll start reading a book and then stop and mark it off so I can go think about it. My intention is to come back after thinking about it for a while but I just end up reading something else. I do come back to it, it’s just. I have a problem.

Anyway, so I’m reading a few books, one of which happens to be C.S. Lakin’s Writing the Heart of Your Story (part of The Writer’s Toolbox Series) and for these kinds of books I am never really finished with them because to me they are part of my study material. So, it is while sitting in the bed, pillow prompted up behind me (while trying to sit as straight as possible because my computer cord has a short in it) that I decided to put my kindle down a moment (see? SMH. Get it together EC) and share my thoughts. I am especially excited because my husband is watching the football game while I’m drafting this which means he doesn’t particularly want me in his face. So, I thought I’d write until I feel like bothering him again.

In Chapter 15, Character Arcs (she dislikes that term by the way), Lakin explains how change for characters come in stages. This caught my attention because I come across this a lot. That is, the characters in the story aren’t given enough time to decide or come upon an epiphany that makes sense. What I mean by making sense is that they are too easily convinced, swayed, or compliant at times where they should be pushing back against the grain.

If the character hates ice cream, it’s unrealistic for him to be convinced to eat an ice cream bar after one conversation with his brother (who loves ice cream) taunting him about it. That’s not realistic. In real life, he would not be so compliant, in fact, he will probably get upset that his brother would even offer him such a treat. There will likely be resistance. Lakin explains it so much better than I do:

“Remember, you have to change characters in stages, starting with their opinions and attitudes and eventually changing their core beliefs.”

– Opinions
– Attitudes
– Core Beliefs
– Self-Image
She goes on to say:

“You can’t have a character talking to someone about the death penalty (which he is all for) and just through that one conversation have his belief changed (fully against) right at the heart of his core belief.”

When I read this I had to share it with you all because it’s such valuable advice that I will definitely be heeding.

At the end of the day, everything about our characters has to reflect that of real people. If in real life it will take someone a while to warm up to change, our characters have to resemble the same. We have to get out of the way of the story and let the characters do their thing.

Speaking of getting out of the way I have one more tidbit. There’s something else I’m seeing more and more and that is this: the author who is so passionate about their cause that the tone of the book sounds as if we’re talking to that author more so than the characters in the story. The author’s purpose or mission is so prominent that we can’t separate the author from the characters in the story.

Let me be clear: The author will, inevitably, come through his or her work in one way or the other. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about deliberately, or inadvertently, creating characters who are just a replica of yourself.

Be sure that when you’re sending a message through books, that you aren’t inadvertently forcing your beliefs on readers. As a reviewer, the author’s personal belief is something I actually do not count toward my rating because  my job is to focus on the story, not the author’s personal life (I’m working on a separate article about my biggest challenges as a reviewer soon) but it is becoming such a problem that I may find myself taking it into consideration while rating if it gets in the way of the story too much. How do you know if you are forcing (or may appear to be forcing) your own beliefs on the reader?  If your manuscript resembles too much of the following:

  • Posting scriptures directly in text
  • Using more than one paragraph for your character to preach or pray in (this will most likely be skipped. No offense, js)
  • Characters who are too young to realistically understand the meaning of certain scriptures
  • Anything that sounds too much like overt religious or political speech

I believe anything can work just as long as it’s done right. The reason I speak so much about symbolism in writing is first because I just think it’s the best way to reach people in writing, but also because I think it’s a great way to write for those who want to send a message specifically but don’t want to be preachy. Fiction is all about the story. People want to be entertained or informed but most of all they want to disappear from this world a moment and get lost in another one: your book.

This means you want to make it their worthwhile. If you’re giving readers sermons and lessons then you’re not (technically) casting down your nets and may do more harm than good. Readers will likely be turned off, your story will fall flat, and you would have reached no one.

Also, by sermons, I don’t just mean religious in nature but any belief system that may seem forced on the reader. It can even be an age difference. Because I write Young Adult, Historical Fiction, I have to take care not to put my own adult voice inside the head of my characters (I know, we don’t like to say characters but work with me here) but to make sure that their dialogue, emotions, and actions are fitting for their age.

To do this, I try to fall back on my years of experience working with children for a reminder of what it was like to be a kid or a young person in general (or OK, a younger person).

What you can do instead is drip feed (introduce drop by drop, here a little, there a little) the message throughout the story, make it a part of the story. Maybe your character was anti that belief but in the end comes upon a revelation. Something like that but don’t make it blatantly obvious.

Remember that fiction writing is, at its core, about entertainment. Even when we do have messages (who doesn’t?), we must still educate through entertainment.

Now, pardon me while I check on Nora.

Yecheilyah Ysrayl is the YA, Historical Fiction author of eight books, most notably, The Stella Trilogy. She is currently working on her next book series “The Nora White Story” about a young black woman who dreams of taking part in The Harlem Renaissance movement and her parents struggle to accept their traumatic past in the Jim Crow south. “Renaissance: The Nora White Story (Book One)” is due for release spring, 2017. For updates on this project, sneak peek of chapters and the pending book cover release for this project, be sure to follow this blog and to subscribe to Yecheilyah’s email list HERE.