People change. Who you were as a young teenager is hopefully different from your adult self. Perhaps you changed and grew into a more mature, self-confident, and accomplished person thanks to your experiences in life. Or maybe you went through a nasty divorce and now can’t trust anyone. And think about the physical changes you’ve gone through since childhood.
So it’s safe to say most people change. In real life, they often change for reasons we don’t fully understand. Seriously, how well do you know someone?
It’s the inexplicable nature of change that makes us fear it. That’s why a good story will explain character transformation in ways readers understand it. Let’s look at three ways to handle character transformation.
1) Your protagonist doesn’t really change
Yes, this happens, albeit rarely. Consider Anne in Anne of Green Gables. She came to Prince Edward Island fully formed as a unique character that changed everyone else around her.
Or maybe your character doesn’t understand herself at the beginning. As she travels through your story, she learns who she really is. Thus, there is no overt change because by story’s end, your protagonist is living her authentic self. Ayn Rand’s novels were wonderful creations of people uncovering their true natures and living their best selves.
Detective and crime series have protagonists who don’t transform. It's too difficult for a character to change in each book of a series. By the end, he would be completely unrecognizable as a character. Besides, this genre is more plot-driven than character-driven.
2) Outside forces change your protagonist
Consider how competing in the Hunger Games changes Katniss Everdeen. Or perhaps the best example is the profound transformation of Scrooge after being visited by three haunts in one night.
Then there are scientific means to change your protagonist’s character, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Fly. Plenty of horror stories include a transformation that turns a character into a monster, but rarely is the protagonist forcibly changed.
Finally, consider stories like the movie My Fair Lady based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. They show how someone can fundamentally change into a different class or type of person through coaching and teaching.
3) Your protagonist goes through an inner transformation
Your main character transcends who they were and become better versions of themselves. For example, say your protagonist's family was sexist, racist, and thoroughly uncharming. But through exposure and empathy, he changed to an open, affirming, and accepting individual.
Inner transformations are powerful, regardless of which way they happen. Exploring how a character can go from good to bad, or faithful to deceitful, or independent to dependent, can evoke powerful emotions in readers. You don’t always need to show a protagonist who goes from weakling to warrior.
Regardless if your protagonist goes through one or more of the above types of change, you must justify it to your readers. Consider how boring your story would be if your main character experienced a nasty divorce and was completely unchanged by it at the end. Unless you can justify why he or she didn’t transform.
You must justify the changes your characters go through to your readers. Otherwise, they’ll throw your book against the wall and refuse to read more. For instance, say your main character was unchanged by the nasty divorce. You could show his friends and family as surprised and unbelieving that it had no impact on him. Explain both outer and inner transformations. Show your readers why your protagonist changed…or didn’t.
The bigger the transformation, the more you must justify it in your novel. You can’t have someone change so fundamentally as Scrooge did without the bigger part of the story being about what made him change. There must always be a reason your character changes. It’s what readers expect and how we make sense of the world. Literature has always sought to help us understand seemingly inexplicable transformations.
Finally, you don’t necessarily need to show the cause for the change before it happens. But you need to give your readers a heads up it will be explained in time. For example, your main character likes a glass of wine with dinner, but suddenly stops drinking. You must explain later that she thought she might be pregnant or some other reason for changing her behavior. Maybe she felt her drinking was getting out of control and she wanted to be a better version of herself—someone who doesn’t drink to excess.
There are many reasons you could find to explain why your protagonist changes, but explain you must.
Transformation need not be large and melodramatic like Scrooge. You can write change with a subtle hand that’s just as effective. Consider how your protagonist’s inner journey evolves along with the external forces that are moving him or her toward the climax. This transformation in the face of everything they’re facing gives your readers peace of mind knowing change is explainable—at least in fiction.