On Transformation of Character
By James N. Frey
James N. Frey is one of America's leading creative writing teachers. For over ten years, he conducted the popular Open Workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers annual conference. He's taught and lectured at dozens of other schools and conferences, including the Oregon Writers Colony, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, the Heartland Writers, the University of California Extension novel writing workshop, the California Writers Club conference, and others, both in America and in Europe.
Frey is the author of the widely read How To Write A Damn Good Novel, How To Write A Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques, and The Key: Writing Damn Good Fiction Using The Power Of Myth. He is an award-winning playwright and the author of nine novels, including The Long Way To Die, which was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America, and Winter Of The Wolves, a Literary Guild Selection.
This article was originally published in the German magazine TextArt: Magazin für Kreatives Schreiben (The magazine for creative writers) in a question/answer column.
Usually the nature of the transformation comes as a surprise to the reader. A surprise, yet the reader should not feel that it does not come from no where, that it is consistent with the way that the character is presented to the reader from the beginning.
When creating a character for a thematic story as you suggest, you need to have in mind the kind of transformation the character is going to experience. On the theme of "love is blind" you might, say, want to create a character who is blind to his lover's infidelities, who refuses to believe she is being unfaithful at every opportunity. Or perhaps the lover is blind to other character defects, such as selfishness or bitchiness, or whatever. You would then create the backstory of the character that would result in a character with a blind spot.
As an example, you might create a character, Detrich Bonhoffer, who is orphaned as a child and grows up wary of people because of the mistreatment he receives in a series of foster homes, but is secretly yearning for a great love. He's a steady person, hard working, a brilliant mathematician, who, though he yearns for a great love in his life, believes in his heart he will never achieve it. He fears giving his love for fear that his love will be spurned, hence, he is a lonely man, often depressed, sometimes suicidal. His dour, cynical attitude puts people off, which further isolates him.
The key to creating characters is to make them come alive for you, the creator. The above sketch of Detrich's backstory is of course an abbreviated version of what I'd recommend a writer do to create a major character for a story. I would suggest that the backstory information cover several pages so that the writer would understand this character thoroughly, how he looks, acts, and thinks.
I also recommend strongly that the writer create a journal in the characters own voice to aid the writer in getting into the character's head:
Yes, I have had a good life here at the university. My career has gone really rather well. As you know, I am known as the man who has solved Wexley's Conundrum. In the world of mathematics, I'm very well known. I'm known by my students as a difficult, serious person, but fair. I believe that mathematics is a difficult field and no one should be in it if they don't have the aptitude. My textbook is doing well and the money allows me to travel, which I enjoy.
Even though this character was created with a theme in mind, he has, in these short paragraphs hopefully started to come alive, to be real and individualized.
Now then, as to the theme, "love is blind." Let us say he falls in love at age 51 with 33 year old Uta Mann.
Let's just say she needs to be created in such a way that she will both love our hero and want to have an affair with another man. She plots to murder Dietrich, but even when conclusive proof of this is shown to him, he continues to love her because he needs to love her, it comes out of his character.
The transformation in the man is that he goes insane over her, such as the blindness of his love and speaks to her of them spending eternity together, which she goes along with hoping that he means she's going to help her get out of prison, but what he means is they should die together in each other's arms.
Ah, the tragedy of it.
The important thing is that the lover's blindness
is a result of the character's development so
that the reader never gets the feeling that the
actions are a contrivance of the author.