Monday, January 18, 2016

How To Change The Heart Of Your Characters

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of 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.

Heart: Remy has watched her mother go through failed relationship after failed relationship. This causes Remy to believe that lasting love doesn't exist.

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:

Heart: Anna is wounded by her sister ignoring her for years. She's
even more isolated when her parents unexpectedly die.

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.

Heart: Because his parents died in a car crash (or so he's been told), Harry is raised by his aunt and uncle who don't want him and who, at best, tolerate his presence. Harry believes he's nothing special.

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 heartthat he's unwantedwill 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 ofthe 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?


  1. Thanks for this series of posts, Mrs. Morrill. I need to start thinking of this stuff for my new WIP.

  2. This is fascinating! Thanks Miss Morril!
    I'm currently writing an espionage thriller about a hacker with Asperger's Syndrome. I'm basing his display of the mental condition on my own experience with it (I was diagnosed when I was about eleven), so he's very antisocial, sometimes bordering on misanthropic, and awkward around other people. One of the lies he believes is that other people are as irritated by him as he is by them, and so he never spends any more time around people than he absolutely has to. Working for a government agency, he is teamed with another computer specialist, who is so extroverted it's not funny (or rather, I hope it is funny). She tries continuously to help motivate him when he's suffering from depression, and it eventually works. At first, she has such a bubbly, hyper personality that at first it drives him crazy, but over time, he finds that she helps him function better. She sympathizes with him, and helps him make multiple breakthroughs in tracking a serial killer (and figuring out his identity).
    The main character gradually realizes that there are other people (few, but they exist) who care about his wellbeing, despite his excessive turtle-like behavior.

  3. Hey, I'm wondering how to introduce multiple lies that my protagonist(s) believe in over the course of a trilogy. They can't all have their back stories account for this lie because their back stories already did that in the first book. So what could I use for the second and third books?

    1. You can have your protagonist have multiple lies either using the back story to provide more (which you don't think you can do) or you can use your first lie to invoke other lies by
      A. The readjustment from finding the truth leads your character at the opposite end, going too far into their new truth. (Example: an uptight character who learns to loosen up a little could become too lose or become a daredevil in order to make sure they don't fall back into their rigid schedule).
      B. Or the character could cling to some of the smaller lies which resulted from the big lie. (Example: a character who is obsessed with revenging their past backs down so they can enjoy the future, however, being alone so long they are still not team players and are still paranoid about the people they let in which creates new problems to solve).

    2. Another thing which can happen is the events in the story, after they recover from their lie, such as some traumatizing event, can cause new lies to form as the character is sent reeling.

    3. Since I have multiple POVs, and I plan for several books, I have also encountered this problem, and I personally just take turns with the different characters. This way the reader is always witnessing change even though I only need one major lie for each character.

    4. This is really great advice. Sometimes the results of book one help feed another lie. In my first Ellie Sweet book, Ellie's friends are awful to her. But it really isn't until the second book that Ellie deals with her part in the mess. So sometimes the material for the lie has already been introduced in the previous book and it comes to the forefront in the next.

  4. I love how you break things down for us :) So helpful. I find seeing examples from stories I know is how I actually learn and have it stick!

  5. Oh, fun! I have to give this a shot. Here goes.

    After Dorlin's parents died in an arson, he was taken in by the Emperor. The Emperor was a harsh personality, and often tortured Dorlin when he did not perform. This seeded a fear of failure in him. (Heart.) He realized that failure was not an option, and he started to learn, and to be hardhearted when necessary. (Thoughts). He now strove to perform, to be impeccably meticulous and cold in his work (Actions.) This made people take Dorlin as tough, self-sufficient, and thorough. But when he unites with an old warrior called Borifas to hunt down Servus Strife, a childhood friend turned rival back from the dead, he develops a bond. When he fights Servus and fails, he realizes that he doesn't have to be perfect all the time, or so aloof. The two unite then to stop Hel, the goddess of the underworld, form invading the mortal world.

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  7. I love this. I think I'll use your breakdown here and slide some of my characters through it. Perfect to use while drafting!