Story is about change, be it big or small, and it’s usually the main character who embodies this change—she lives through it and dramatizes it by experiencing challenges and setbacks, successes and failures, blind spots and insights.
But how much will your character change? A little or a lot? Does she grow to such a degree that by the end of the story she has a completely different personality? Or has she expanded her perception in a minor way, yet remains essentially herself?
Change that occurs through learning and maturing unfolds as a progressive evolution—the character becomes a better version of herself. But sometimes the change is a transformation—the character appears to become a different version of herself.
Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, grows in understanding of his peers, society, and justice, but he doesn’t fundamentally change his beliefs or modes of operating in the world. Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol, changes completely.
In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors is a different person at the end of the story compared to the beginning. Like Scrooge, he grows so much over the course of the story that, by the end, he is a changed man.
If your character’s degree of change is small or medium, think of your character being on a journey of evolution. If it’s a large change, which involves a fundamental shift in perspective, consider the character undergoing a journey of transformation.
Character arcs involving transformation usually deal with the uncovering and dealing with an old, deep wound. This healing often includes some kind of personal redemption for the character.
Most transformation stories bring up the past, but not all do. Scrooge and Phil Connors go through similar transformations in personality, but in A Christmas Carol, we gain insight into Scrooge’s deep wounds when the ghost of Christmas past visits, whereas we don’t go into Phil’s past at all.
Evolution arcs tend to address what appears to be a “lack of maturity.” It’s as if something is missing in the character’s awareness and the story encourages the kind of growth and change that can fulfill this lack, usually by learning new things, stretching beyond personal limitations, and confronting past mistakes.
In Casablanca, Ilsa learns to integrate the free spirit she was in Paris with the self who is both responsible for and devoted to revolutionary causes with her husband, Lazlo. When we first meet Isla she has separated these two aspects of self, and the story provides the opportunity to bring them together.
Rick’s arc involves a greater degree of change that leads to his transformation. He was heartbroken by Ilsa’s disappearance in Paris and he has held onto his anger and a belief that she’d never really loved him. This wound makes him callow and self serving, but when it’s healed—when he understands Ilsa really did love him—his personality and behavior change significantly. He seems like a different person at the end.
Transforming characters do evolve as they change in big ways, while evolving characters change in smaller yet important ways without undergoing a full transformation.
Each story, and each character, is unique, and so the degree of change will be particular to your character and story situation. Once you determine the degree of change your character undergoes, evolution or transformation, you will be clearer about your overall deep story design.
A character undergoing a personal change is what’s most satisfying to readers. It doesn’t always matter whether the change is small or large, so long as there is a shift of some kind.