Character development is a central consideration of every tale. Most stories are not just about what things happened, but about how those events changed a character forever. Consider the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. This features a main character, George Bailey, who is miserable in life, tied to a sleepy, little town when he really to see the world and build amazing things. This perpetual dissatisfaction is then amplified by some legal trouble, and in a moment of despair he tries to take his own life.
He is interrupted in that attempt, though, when an angel comes to show him how meaningful his “wasted life” really is. The mission of this angel is to help George regain his fervor for life over the course of an extremely eventful night. Given that this transformation is the core of the story, it occurs gradually, one stirring of the heartstrings after another. Bit by bit George is made to see how positive of an influence he has had on one friend after another, and how much darker the world would be if he’d never been a part of it.
Of course, there is a climatic tipping point, the moment which finally pushes him over the edge. It is when George Bailey sees the love of his life as an old maid, and she recoils from him in horror. This is too terrible a sight for him to hold back his heart any longer, and at long last he pleads for his old life to be restored.
This, of course, is very similar to the journey of the old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Here an uncaring and unfeeling man is shown the folly of his ways through his own eventful night. First he is reminded of the joy that he once held but lost, and then he is shown the genuine mirth that still lives in the world today, but which he has shut himself out from.
Just as with George Bailey, these changes gradually stir Ebenezer’s heart. But also like George Bailey, it takes a final a climatic moment to actually push him over the edge. And so Scrooge ultimately comes face-to-face with his own future death, totally alone and unmourned. If the story had begun with this sight it wouldn’t have felt convincing for Ebenezer to be transformed just like that. But because this revelation is the summation of everything that came before we accept it when Scrooge finally recants his old way of life and is born anew.
From these two examples it seems very clear that a character’s transformation needs to be a gradual, procedural event. It would, of course, be unacceptable if the complete transformation were to occur all at once.
A Different Sort of Hero)
Well, what about the transformation of another Christmas mascot: The Grinch? For virtually the entirety of his tale, the Grinch remains a cynical, bitter, mischievous character. He’s annoyed by the noisy celebrations of the kind-hearted Whos, and one year decides to show them how shallow their mirth really is. He disguises himself as Santa Claus and breaks into their homes in the dead of night, stealing all of their Christmas decorations and presents.
After hours of labor he takes the stolen goods back to his home in Mount Crumpit, and waits in anticipation for the Whos to awake. He is sure that once they find all of their Christmas treasures taken they will collapse in tears.
The thing is, though, the Grinch’s philosophy is based upon a false premise. He believes that the Whos’ joyfulness is a sham, nothing more than the enjoyment of “things,” and by taking away those things he will unveil to them just how shallow they really are.
And so it comes as a great shock to the Grinch when the Whos do not cry that Christmas morning. Instead they join hands and sing a happy holiday tune, not one bit fazed by the loss of the things he stole. Their trappings of Christmas were not the cause of their happiness, they were the outward manifestation of it. And so he may have taken away the wrappings, but the gift of joy remains unbreakable in their hearts.
In short: the Grinch was wrong.
Which realization hits him like a ton of bricks, and the impact of this philosophy-shattering incident is best conveyed by having his character do a complete transformation right on the spot. Having him go on a lengthy pilgrimage to get to the bottom of his muddled feelings would not properly communicate the power of the message that he has just received. No, it is far better to change him in a single scene from a scheming cynic to a believing optimist.
And the Grinch is not the only character to have a sudden shift like this. The same thing occurs to Jean Valjean in Les Miserables when he stops viewing himself as an irredeemable convict. It also happens to Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov when she is healed of her spite and able to embrace genuine love once more. All at once these become totally different characters, but that fits due to the sudden, paradigm-shifting experiences that they pass through.
So, in summary, you often want to show a character’s heart changing gradually, especially when the core of the story is how that transformation occurs. There are exceptions, though, such as when you want to show that a character’s preconceived notions of the world are shattered in a single moment, which is best communicated with an immediate reversal in their trajectory.
And, in fact, there are plenty of stories that utilize both forms of transformation. Jean Valjean’s sudden change in Les Miserables is met with the slower transformation of Javert. Grushenka’s sudden reversal in The Brothers Karamazov is matched by the gradual maturing of her beloved Dmitri.
In my latest story, Covalent, I have been trying to accomplish both forms of transformation as well. On the one hand I have been showing Cace steadily coming into his own in the Ether, growing from a young, impotent boy into a powerful warrior. This gradual change was marked in the last section by some subtle changes occurring to his body: a lengthening of the limbs and his mouth being replaced with a grille.
Rolar, on the other hand, has been absolutely worked over by the events that recently transpired! He was brought to death’s door by a warden beast and could only be saved by replacing large parts of his body with those of the same beast that tried to kill him. As a result, I have subjected him to an immediate and dramatic change, one where his body and intellect were made almost entirely unrecognizable.
Both types of change are helping to communicate the same thing to the reader: that the story is moving into new waters. The strange that became familiar is now eclipsed by a new strangeness. We’ll see just what form that unfamiliarity takes when I continue the story on Wednesday!