Take a moment to think about the characters in stories with whom you feel the most connection. Who are your favorite characters, and what makes them so compelling?
You may like characters who are funny, kind, or snarky. Maybe you have a preference for the heroic type, or the “bad ass with a heart of gold”. When taking into account the entire story being told in a narrative, however, what makes you say “that is my favorite character”?
Let’s look at longer stories, for instance, like HBO’s Game of Thrones. Regardless of what you thought of the ending, you probably had a few characters who you liked the most. Maybe you most enjoyed watching Jon Snow change from bastard son of a lord to Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, to King of the North. Or perhaps you found yourself surprised by how much you ended up caring about initially unlikable characters like Theon Greyjoy or Jaime Lannister. Both of these characters are broken down and remade into something more honorable, more sympathetic throughout the story. What about Daenerys Targaryen, who remains a sympathetic character all the way until she makes her final decision about ruling through fire and blood?
Now, imagine all of these characters never changing. Imagine Jon Snow never becoming a hero, or Theon Greyjoy or Jaime Lannister never being redeemed. Imagine if Daenerys had never embraced her inner voice telling her she deserves to conquer the world. No matter what characters you care about the most, you undoubtedly love watching these characters grow and change throughout their journey.
All good storytelling contains a healthy amount of character changes. When you break it down, the essence of a good story is change, itself.
I recently watched the movie Downsizing. While this movie was not terribly well received by critics and audiences, it is a fantastic study of character change. The soul of Matt Damon’s character, Paul Safranek, is that he doesn’t feel he has an identity, something he desperately wants. Even though he is loved by many people as a physical therapist, he neglects to see the value in that. When he convinces his wife that they should undergo a procedure to permanently change to become just inches tall, he does so because he wants to gain some kind of new identity. The fault of this decision is that he does so in a selfish manner, which ultimately leads his less-than-convinced wife to back out at the last minute, leaving him alone in a new world.
Paul’s identity struggle is underscored throughout the movie by the mispronunciation of his last name. He gives feeble attempts to correct the mispronunciations (suh-FRAH-nek, not SAFF-ra-nek) before ultimately surrendering and accepting that people will continue to get it wrong. Where he once had some kind of identity, now he has lost it all because of his impulse decision to throw all of it away and start anew. He is punished further by the fact that his wife divorces him and he is left in a home he didn’t originally choose, because he can no longer afford the one he and his wife chose to live in together.
Paul’s loss of identity and the negative state of mind that follows manifests itself in the form of an uninteresting date with someone he had seen a few times. When he tries to push the relationship to the next level by asking to meet her son, she rejects the notion. This is not Paul’s purpose, and he is dejected again.
When he decides to give up his struggle for a night by going to a party hosted by his eccentric European neighbor Dusan Mirkovic, played by Christophe Waltz, he soon gets rewarded for trying so hard to find his identity. After the party, he attempts to help one of the cleaning crew members, Ngoc Lan Tran, who has a faulty prosthetic leg. This act of selflessness is the first step in Paul’s redemption.
Over the next few weeks, Paul helps Ngoc Lan Tran do her job and learns about her life. She lives in a slum outside of the Utopian society, and cares for the poor and down-trodden. This is her purpose in life, but Paul doesn’t see it as his, at least not yet. Yet, he does it selflessly because it’s the least he can do after he accidentally breaks her prosthetic leg.
Traveling to Norway to visit the original small community with Dusan and his boatman friend, Paul and Ngoc Lan Tran have a chance to grow a budding romance. Just as things are looking up between them, they learn that the original community is all planning on going deep underground in a self-sustaining shelter to weather the coming climate catastrophe. Paul, still believing he has no identity, sees this as something that he feels he needs to do, initially missing out on the irony of the situation completely.
Paul’s crisis comes when he asks Ngoc Lan Tran to join him in going with the community deep underground. When she refuses vehemently, saying her purpose is to help the downtrodden back home, Paul has to choose between going forward with the community or giving that up and being with Ngoc Lan Tran, even though it will surely mean suffering. It’s worth noting that Ngoc Lan Tran is the only person in his entire journey who pronounces his last name correctly, even though she speaks poor English. It becomes a fine example of having to choose between two irreconcilable “good” paths.
And this time, Paul realizes he must turn back and go with Ngoc Lan Tran, because if he were to go into the tunnel any further, he would be repeating the exact same mistake he made at the beginning of the movie. Because he makes this choice, he eventually finds his identity, helping the people who need him along with Ngoc Lan Tran.
We see the setup at the beginning of the film showing Paul’s egocentric yet self-doubting nature when he makes the decision to give his life away to being small, and then we see him make the opposite decision at the end of the film, a perfect juxtaposition that spells it out for us: this character has changed, he has grown into a much more humble and less selfish person who is less susceptible to caving to his fears. In the end, instead of running away from the things that scare him, he turns around and literally runs toward the danger and the fear. Paul has changed. His story is worth telling because of this.
When thinking about the stories we consume, or telling the stories ourselves, consider what changes your characters undergo. The best stories are the ones that have the characters overcoming their worst character flaws, being able to make a better decision later in the story than they ever could have at the beginning.