We’re all familiar with fitness-related transformation photos (search #transformationtuesday for examples ;-)). They feature a less-than-flattering “Before” picture on the left, and an inspiring, sometimes envy-inducing, “After” picture on the right.
The “Before” photo depicts an individual in their pre-transformed state. He or she is usually either far too thin or overweight and wears a half-hearted smile, if they’re smiling at all. The “After” photo, on the other hand, shines with the unmistakable markers of progress, namely a trim, muscular body, radiant smile, strong, confident posture, and perhaps a spray tan, just for kicks.
Lengthy, emotional captions often accompany these photos, explaining the state of the currently happy and healthy person before they decided to become, well, happy and healthy.
“It was a long journey,” the captions say, “full of ups and downs, twists and turns. There were times I was sure I was going to fail, and in fact, I fell on my face on numerous occasions. But, I picked myself up again, dusted myself off, and kept going. I refused to give up on my goal.”
The road from “Before” to “After” isn’t an easy one, needless to say. Anyone who’s ever made a major life change, such as starting to eat well after years of feeding their body junk, or going to the gym after decades of being sedentary, knows this to be true. Many people don’t make it, but instead turn back when the going gets tough, never getting to see the “After” version of themselves smiling triumphantly in the mirror.
Seeing a few Before-and-After’s recently got me thinking about storytelling, and more specifically, character development.
Before we sit down to write a new novel, we need to have a clear image in our minds of who our main characters are, and who they’re going to be by the final chapter. Great stories are about great journeys, and you can’t have a great journey without characters who undergo significant transformations along the way.
There are countless ways to construct our characters. Some writers encourage a pre-writing phase in which you write detailed background stories on all your main characters to help you, the author, get to know them before you start writing the novel itself. Other writers stand by simpler, more straightforward character sketches that outline each character’s physical description, personality traits, backstory, internal and external conflicts, conscious and subconscious needs, their motivation, goals, and what’s standing in their way.
I don’t know about you, but I’m very visual person. I have a hard time learning and conceptualizing subject matter merely by listening or reading about it. I prefer to see it via some sort of demonstration, how-to video, drawing or photograph. That’s why thinking of my characters in terms of Before-and-After photos is so appealing to me. I can envision them each has having a “Before” photo, which shows them as they are when the story commences, and an “After” photo, in which they’ve just completed their journey and crossed the finish line a stronger person.
Even though I only recently drew this parallel between character outlines and fitness-y “Before-and After’s,” I’ve still been able to apply it to my novels during the editing phase. I’ve taken a character, looked at who they were at the beginning and end of the story, and established whether they’ve undergone a transformation by evaluating whether or not they:
- Had a clear objective in mind
- Wrestled with whether to progress toward that objective
- Exited the Ordinary World and stepped into the Extraordinary World (metaphorically speaking, of course)
- Had a mentor (or mentors) helping them along the way
- Experienced major turning points which further complicate their journey
- Had a subconscious objective which was initially clear only to the reader (the character realizes it around the midpoint of the novel)
- Had obstacles blocking them from their objective
- Received a revelation regarding their subconscious need
- Experienced a clear, well-defined climax in which readers see why the journey turned out to be worth all the trouble
- Experienced a resolution that serves as a bookend to the novel’s opening, tying everything together with a neat little bow and displaying the character’s brand-new, hard-won Truth and new Ordinary World
If there’s any part of my “After” photo that’s the exact same in the “Before” photo, I know I need to go back and make some revisions. My characters (particularly the protagonist) should look different enough by the end of the book to leave a lasting impression of awe and hope on the readers, and hopefully inspire them to embark upon their own transformative odyssey, just like real-life Before-and-Afters do!
I hope you’ve found this post helpful! What are your favorite ways to create and outline your characters? Tweet me and let me know @dandersontyler or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you!