The character’s personal story is a fundamental part of writing, and yet is often overlooked. Their journey is as important as plot, dialogue or characterisation. And it’s not the beginning or the end of the story that counts in this case, but rather what happens during the story.
Every main character goes on a journey, whether it is an emotional, spiritual, physical, moral or a mental one. He or she will be a different character by the end of the story; they will have changed somehow because of what they have experienced or what they have done during that time. You character must always evolve.
In real life, certain experiences change us – we may change how we think or act, our personalities might change, it may be that some incidents never leave us and have a profound impact on our lives – whether those are good, bad or indifferent. Life constantly changes and shapes us.
The same is true of your characters. Their lives inevitably change; they are directly impacted by what happens around them and therefore they must adapt to their situation and surroundings accordingly.
There are a number of different ways that your character can change by the end of the novel:
Realisation – a recognition or understanding. This could be any number of things. It could be spiritual awakening, a new found belief in God perhaps. It might be recognition of personal flaws - perhaps your character comes to realise that hating someone with a different skin colour only brings turmoil. Or maybe it’s the realisation that those less fortunate sometimes have more to offer us than we realise.
An example of this is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Beneath the obvious theme of racism within the story, the main character, Scout, also faces her own prejudices of others, in the form of the mysterious Boo Radley. Ultimately she learns from these prejudices; it changes her outlook for the better.
Physical – receiving an injury or impairment during the story might change the character’s perspective, or they way they do things to affect their outcome. An example of this is Stephen King’s Misery. Paulie, trapped by the demented Annie, suffers physically (as well as mentally), when she hobbles him with a lump hammer, but it is this torture that drives him to find a way out of his imprisonment and resolve his situation
Mental – Psychological impacts cause trauma of varying depth. Perhaps your character has endured terrible mental or emotional pain and distress. This will undoubtedly change them and cause untold problems beneath the surface. The changes might be for the good, or they might be the opposite.
A fantastic example of this journey is told in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Randle Murphy’s institutionalised journey is retrograde – he starts off pretty sane and clever, but then ends up insane because of what happens to him.
Moral – Honesty and goodness might play a part in your character’s changing psyche. Perhaps your character starts out rather horrible towards people, but eventually finds his or her inner morality because of what happens during the story. Personality, behaviour and character qualities might change by the end of the story. They might come out the other end a much better, nicer person. Or, conversely, they might not!
An excellent, simple example of character morality is Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge. He turns from miserable miser to a charitable and joyful man, thanks to his dark journey with the three spirits who show him the error of his irascible ways.
His journey is very much part of the story arc, however the changes that your character goes through do not have to be so apparent; they can be subtle or slight, as long as the reader understands that by the end of the story that your character has changed for the better, or learned something, or become a better person etc.
You are the writer; therefore you decide how the characters change. But it’s important they change somehow. If they don’t, then their story arc won’t succeed. Their journey forms part of the story, and if you think about real life, we always react to what happens around us, even when we think we don’t. We change.
Study other writers to gain an understanding how their character’s change over the course a novel. Sometimes it’s subtle; sometimes it’s very obvious, sometimes it’s hidden, but each one undergoes some change.