Readers love to see a character grow. To see them learn something, realize their goals, or overcome a deepfelt pain, misbelief, or fear.
But how do you track that growth effectively over the course of a story?
My preferred method is outlining their character journey in four steps:
- Establish the Struggle: Convey your character’s core emotional struggle near the beginning of your story.
- Push your Character with Plot: Use the plot points of your story to push your character to confront their struggle incrementally — making small realizations and victories, maybe having a setback, and so on.
- Build to a Moment of Crisis: Continue pushing your character until they reach a moment of emotional crisis, where they’re forced to either overcome their struggle or succumb to it.
- Demonstrate the Change: After the crisis (which is often the climax), make your character take an action that demonstrates their change.
Here’s what that looks like in an outline.
1. Establish the Struggle
- Sara is a talented singer-songwriter who’s always lacked confidence; but now, after an envious boyfriend/co-writer tore her down during a messy breakup, she’s lost nearly all confidence. She no longer performs in front of crowds or writes music.
2. Push your Character with Plot
- Late one Saturday night, Sara goes to her college’s empty music hall, sits at a piano, and sings a song she wrote before the breakup. Katherine, a music student who’d fallen asleep drunk in a nearby practice room, wakes up, barges in, and scares Sara off as she tries to tell her how great she sounds.
- Katherine runs into Sara again on campus and apologizes for scaring her. She asks a bunch of questions, and Sara admits she used to write music. Katherine asks to hear more of her work, but Sara refuses.
- The following Saturday night, Sara gets cornered by Katherine again in the music hall, but Katherine has a new tactic: she asks Sara to help her finish a song she’s been working on. Sara tentatively agrees.
- Katherine performs the song they wrote together at an open mic, and the crowd loves it. Sara seems to gain some confidence, but refuses to admit her capabilities.
- Still, later that night, alone in her apartment, she grabs her roommate’s out-of-tune guitar from the closet (Sara sold her own after the breakup) and starts playing around with a new song.
- A week later, Sara shows the song to Katherine, and Katherine loves it. She records the performance on her phone, shows Sara how happy she looks performing, and convinces her to join her at an open mic.
- They perform together in front of a small crowd. It goes well.
- As the story progresses, maybe there’s drama with the ex-boyfriend, maybe there’s romance with Katherine, etc., etc. But wherever the story goes, everything continues to push Sara forward (with maybe a temporary setback or two) on her journey to grow and overcome her struggle.
3. Build to a Moment of Crisis
- Sara has come a long way in regaining her confidence, now writing and performing regularly. But that confidence is still fragile.
- The college’s end-of-year talent show arrives, and Sara and Katherine perform together. In the final round, Katherine surprises Sara by backing off the stage and having her sing her original song alone. Sara begins the performance beautifully, but then some drunk guys in the front row distract her, she fumbles, and the song falls apart.
- Sara runs offstage, mortified and angry at Katherine — vowing to never do any of this again. But then, someone from the crowd approaches and tells her how much the song connected with them, and that makes Sara pause.
4. Demonstrate the Change
- Katherine doesn’t hear from Sara for two weeks. She fears she’s given up on music. But then she goes to a local bar for open mic night, and there’s Sara onstage — with a guitar in hand and a nervous, but determined, smile.
Some concluding notes.
There you have it! An easy way to show character growth in a four-step outline. But before you jump into using this structure, here are a few caveats and words of advice:
- You can show a character’s growth in various ways; this is just one method that’s clear, straightforward, and often quite effective. (You’ll find a similar approach outlined in my post about how to use Joyce’s epiphany.)
- When using this structure, be careful not to oversimplify complex issues (such as mental illness) by using the “crisis” as an overly simplistic fix/cure. Always give the subjects of your story the depth and complexity they deserve.
- Remember, life is an ever-continuing journey, so if you write a longer story or multi-book series, know you can use this structure repeatedly to continually evolve your character.
Good luck, and good writing, everybody!
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