Thursday, February 9, 2012

Character arc - how much change is too much change?

Last week I finished reading Lauren Oliver's BEFORE I FALL. It was on the long side, but for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed the story from start to finish. The protagonist, Sam, isn't a particularly sympathetic character. She's a bully and her friends pick on those weaker than them. Although I found some of her actions abhorrent, the connection she had with her three best friends was very genuine and heartfelt.

As is typical with YA books, Sam undergoes an emotional transformation over the course of the story. She begins to feel awful about the way she's treated other people, and she starts paying more attention to her childhood friend, Kent, who has always had a bit of a crush on her. I think it's important that characters go through such a transformation. However, they must do so without pulling a complete 180 and acting in opposition to previous character development.

This was the one thing I loved about Sam. She realizes the error in her ways and becomes a more empathetic person, but she never ditches her friends. Popular kids are often stereotyped in books. Here's a typical scenario: girl social climbs, starts hanging out with popular girls, becomes really mean, has an epiphany, realizes being popular isn't important, and ditches her mean popular friends to hang out with the nice nerdy people.

To me, this isn't realistic. Popular people are capable of loving one another (even if they're sometimes mean to others). Even though Sam changes and recognizes that her friends aren't necessarily the nicest people, she still cares deeply about them. This led to a very satisfying transformation. Rather than coming to the conclusion that "popularity doesn't matter and thus popular kids are awful," Sam acknowledges her friends' faults, yet still loves them deeply, just as much as she did before. Because people aren't perfect. Situations are never black and white.

So when it comes to your character's emotional arc, always keep in mind their underlying personality. It's unrealistic to have a protagonist suddenly change all their values. Sam changes to some extent, ultimately sacrificing a great deal to help the people she previously tormented, but she's still the same person, who loves hanging out with her friends and dressing up and going to parties.

BEFORE I FALL is a great example of gradual character development. If you haven't already, I suggest you check it out.


  1. Ooo, Thanks for this post. I agree that too much change, change out of character is a total turnoff to a book.

  2. Wow, you always have such great insights, Kate. I love reading your posts! When I think of character turnarounds I think of Artemis Fowl. I thought he's had really interesting developments, although he has had 7 books to change and grow...

    1. I completely agree with you about Artemis Fowl though I think part of his personality turnaround has to do with growing older and gaining maturity.

  3. Good reminders, Kate. This sounds like a great book! Thanks for sharing your thoughts--awesome as always.

  4. Fellow Campaigner here. I love your blog background (and the posts are great too).

  5. Sounds like a great story. I agree with you that no character development should result in a complete turnaround. Unless, of course, there's a REALLY good reason for it. But those are rare and difficult for the writer to judge for him/herself. :-)

    Just stopped by to say hi from the campaign.

  6. Sounds like a great book! I'll definitely check it out. I really hate it when a character changes too much over the course of a story. On the flipside, I despise it even more when a character is "perfect" from the get-go. As writers, we have to remember to land somewhere in the middle for our readers to stick with us til the end. Great, thoughtful post!

    Stopped in to say hi from the campaign! Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  7. I LOVED this book and Lauren Oliver is now one of my favorite authors.

  8. I actually just finished this book this past week, too!

    I am in your campaign group, and I am coming around to say hi to everybody and introduce myself :) I look forward to getting to know you better!

  9. I think you make a good point. I wanted to respond to this, though:

    "It's unrealistic to have a protagonist suddenly change all their values."

    I'm not so sure about this. People rearrange their values all the time. I think what writers should focus on is understanding why people change, and understanding that instead of focusing on keeping all character changes within a certain prescribed magnitude window.

  10. Hi Kate! Love your blog :) I also write kidlit, and am excited to read more about your story.

    This book looks terrific - will definitely check it out.

  11. I just joined your MG/YA campaign group. This was well thought out. I hope you'll give me some thoughts on my short new book intro, in first person instead of third. I’m a scientist by training and I’d like enough opinions to form a decent sample before I redo the whole book. After receiving some harsh critiques, this intro tells a lot more about future events than before. Along with first person, I’m also deciding which story elements to reveal sooner, later, or dump. Thanks! Http://

  12. I agree. This book really handled the 'popular girl' motif well. I also wanted to let you know I awarded you a Kreativ Blogger Award over on my blog today!

  13. I've had this book on my to-read list for far too long! Excellent review.

    Also, I put up that giveaway I promised!

  14. Hi! I'm in your campaign. Just stopping by!