Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
Before we talk about how to go about changing your characters at the heart level, I want to touch on how the logical path that we talked about last Monday can break down.
As said last week, labels are caused by our actions, which are born out of our thoughts, which are reflective of our heart. But sometimes this isn't true.
Here's one example. My son has epilepsy, and we've had times when he's on a cocktail of medications to control his seizures. As you might guess, medication that messes with the brain can have some other fun side effects like slower processing, irrational anger, or moodiness. There were times over the years where, if you hadn't understood Connor's situation, you might have labeled him as a rude, grouchy child. Or if you'd seen me with him on the playground, you might have thought of me as a over-cautious parent.
This is just one example of how the pattern might get messed with. If you're wanting to find a disorder for your character, make sure you do your research! I was given The Writer's Guide to Psychology for Christmas. I haven't had much of a chance to use it yet, but it looks like a really good place to start.
Now let's move on to the meat of today's post—creating change in your characters at the heart level.
Probably most of us already know that story is about change. For a story to feel satisfying, a change needs to take place. With characters, we want to feel like they've really, truly changed. Not just that they're dressing differently or putting on a different show, but that change has occurred in their heart.
If we want to create change in our character's heart, we first have to look at the dark wounds or lies that they've stored in there.
I'm going to use examples from a couple different genres. Let's start with Sarah Dessen's contemporary YA novel, This Lullaby.
Thoughts: This belief has led Remy to think, "Relationships don't last. It's best to not get attached."
Actions: Those thoughts cause Remy to have casual, surface-level relationships that only last a few months.
Labels: Because of that, Remy gets labeled as a heart breaker.
Let's do this again with Anna from Frozen:
Thoughts: This leads Anna to believe the only place she can find love is outside the castle walls.
Actions: When Anna meets someone and he expresses interest in her, she jumps into a hasty engagement.
Labels: When others (Elsa and Kristoff) hear about Anna's actions, they label her as having poor judgment.
What's interesting about this is that these labels reflect a truth about the character, not a misunderstanding. Anna really is doing something stupid. Remy really is a heart breaker.
Sometimes when we think about creating a lie for our character, we think we need to make up something for them to believe that's completely wrong. The most convincing lies are the ones that are arrived at with logic. If you're 18 and your mother is on marriage number four, of course you don't think relationships last. If you're Anna and you've been isolated by everyone's secrets, of course you don't think there's anyone at the castle who truly loves you.
Once we've identified the lie they believe, how do we create an opportunity for them to change?
We can't just try to slap a new label on our characters, right? This Lullaby would be a very disappointing story if Remy decided she no longer wanted to be viewed as easy or as a heart breaker, so she just isn't going to date anyone anymore. That's not change at the heart level. That's just impression management.
Remember how Shannon talked about try/fail cycles? This is one way you can implement that in your story. Your characters can be trying to change, but they're failing because they're only trying to change at the label or actions level.
For our characters to change at the heart level, they must be confronted by a truth that they can't ignore. This can come at any point in the story. Anna can't ignore that Elsa has ice shooting out of her hands and that she didn't really understand her sister's situation. Anna now has to rethink what she's believed about Elsa shutting her out for "no good reason." When Remy meets a boy who has even more step-dads than her, but who continues to believe in true love, she must rethink her view of the world.
Let's look at Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone for another lie that gets changed at the heart level.
Thoughts: Harry thinks that if he's just quiet and obedient and stays out of the way, he can scrape by. That's the best he can hope for.
Actions: Harry never complains about the excess his cousin gets, and he gratefully takes anything given to him.
Labels: Harry's clothes are never the right size, his glasses are taped together. Harry is unwanted.
Truth that he's confronted with: When the owls bring letters from Hogwarts and Harry learns the truth about who he is, the lie in his heart—that he's unwanted—will get rooted out.
Once again, it's easy to see why Harry believes what he does. He really is unwanted and considered insignificant rubbish by his aunt and uncle. In Harry's case, I think it's particularly interesting that his label is the same as his heart. You could apply other labels to Harry, of course. Poorly dressed in too-big clothes, broken glasses, crazy hair, lightning bolt scar. But a lot of those (other than the scar) can be summed up in poorly cared for.
Another thing to take note of—the lies the characters believe are all there at the start of the story. The lie has been worked into the marrow of the character's bones over years, and it'll take significant events to change what they believe about themselves.
What lie does your character believe? What truth is your character confronted with that helps them change?