Character growth is one of the most powerful tools you can use to hook your readers, deepen your characters, and add drama to your narrative. Almost everybody wants to change something about his/her character, whether it’s to be more generous, or mindful, or to stop gambling compulsively. But it’s a very difficult thing to do given the relative immutability of our personalities. Seeing a fictional character change makes us feel hopeful about our own lives, and gives us a character we can root for, even if it’s someone we wouldn’t want to be friends with in real life.
Not long ago I saw the movie Dallas Buyers Club. It tells the story of Ron Woodroof, a Texas rodeo cowboy and small-time drug dealer who contracts HIV. Ron has a certain charm, but overall he’s a dislikable character, until he goes through a great deal of growth following his diagnosis. The way the movie portrays that change offers a wonderful example of how to approach character growth in your own story. Here are some of the key lessons.
Give your character a long road to travel. At the beginning of Dallas Buyers Club, Ron is as macho and homophobic as they come. He rides bulls, he and his buddies make gay slurs, and he sees women as only good for sex. After his diagnosis, he’s forced to interact with gay characters who also have HIV. He’s repulsed by them and won’t even shake their hands. His personality flaws seem insurmountable, which heightens the drama as he’s forced to change in order to survive.
Character growth takes time. A Christmas Carol is a beloved classic, but Scrooge’s overnight transformation from selfish miser to generous benefactor doesn’t happen in the real world. Ron takes a long time to accept that he needs LGBT persons, for economic self-survival and as friends so he’s not completely isolated by his disease. It’s a struggle for him, and it keeps us glued to our seats as we watch him slowly see them as human beings. Which leads us to…
Your hero should be dragged kicking and screaming towards character growth. Changing our character is painful. Even if we want to do it, the process is long and difficult, with many setbacks. Ron has no desire to change. He begins interacting with LGBT persons so he can sell anti-HIV drugs. He is forced to bring on Rayon, a drug addicted, HIV positive, trans woman because he needs a partner whom the gay community trusts. It takes much longer for Ron to accept Rayon and other LGBT persons as friends, people he cares about it a way he never could with his macho buddies.
Offer clear signs that a character is changing. There are many of these in Dallas Buyers Club. One of the most memorable for me is when Ron first turns away two gay men who don’t have enough money to buy into the club. But he becomes increasingly concerned with helping people instead of just making money. We see this when the two men return. This time he tells his assistant to give them the drugs for free.
Character Transformation Should Never Be Complete. I believe we all can change, but we will never turn into completely different people. The same should hold true for your hero. While Ron goes through a remarkable transformation, we still feel like his old character traits are there. In the dramatic courtroom scene at the end, he argues for the legal right to take Peptide T. Yes, he wants all AIDS patients to have access to the drug, but we also recognize that he has a strong motivation in getting it and selling it himself. At the end of the movie, Ron has overcome many of his character traits, but they haven’t entirely disappeared. We know they will stay with him through the rest of his short life.
I hope these thoughts are helpful to you when you’re developing your next hero or heroine. Good luck and remember, anybody can change.