Must Characters Change? How Much?

character change don draper

Theorists have been interested for a long while in the question: What makes a story? Aristotle noticed in The Poetics that a plot must allow for a significant change in the fortune of a main character.

But you’ve surely read stories in which characters don’t seem to change at all. Perhaps that’s why you’re here, reading this.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: Not all characters change in stories, but some sort of change must happen.

End-of-History Illusion: We’re all works-in-progress that view our current selves as our final selves. This blinds us to the possibility of our own growth. Realize your potential by remembering you are not set in stone, and you never have to be who you were five minutes ago.


As someone recently diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, one thing that’s been helping me grapple with the intense shame I have over all my “wasted potential” is accepting that potential doesn’t exist and never did.

This sounds so harsh, but please bare with me.

I procrastinated a lot growing up. I still procrastinate today, but less so. And yet, I got good grades. I could write an A+ paper that “knocked [my professor]’s socks off” in the hour before class and print it with sweat running down my face.

I was so used to hearing from teachers and family that if I just didn’t procrastinate and worked all the time, I could do anything! I had all this potential I wasn’t living up to!

And that’s true, as far as it goes, but that’s like saying if Usain Bolt just kept going he could be the fastest marathon runner in the world. Why does he stop at the end of the race??

If ANYONE could make their top speed/most productive setting the one they used all the time, anyone could do anything. But you can’t. Your top speed is not a speed you’re able to sustain.

Now, I’ve found that I do need to work on not procrastinating. Not because the product is better, even, but because it’s better for my mental health and physical health to not have a full, sweating, panicked breakdown over every task even if the task itself turns out excellently. It’s a shitty way to live! You feel bad ALL the time! And I don’t deserve to live like that anymore.

So all of this to say, I’m not wasting a ton of potential. I don’t have an ocean of productivity and accomplishments inside of me that I could easily, effortlessly access if I just sat down 8 hours a day and worked. There’s no fucking way. That’s not real. It’s an illusion. It’s fine not to live up to an illusion.

And if you have ADHD, I mean this from the bottom of my heart: you do not have limitless potential confounded by your laziness. You have the good potential of a good person, and you can access it with practice and work, but do not accept the story that you are choosing not to be all that you are or can be. You are just a human person.

everyonehasamnesia on Tumblr

You don’t know anyone at the party, so you don’t want to go. You don’t like cottage cheese, so you haven’t eaten it in years. This is your choice, of course, but don’t kid yourself: it’s also the flinch. Your personality is not set in stone. You may think a morning coffee is the most enjoyable thing in the world, but it’s really just a habit. Thirty days without it, and you would be fine. You think you have a soul mate, but in fact you could have had any number of spouses. You would have evolved differently, but been just as happy. You can change what you want about yourself at any time. You see yourself as someone who can’t write or play an instrument, who gives in to temptation or makes bad decisions, but that’s really not you. It’s not ingrained. It’s not your personality. Your personality is something else, something deeper than just preferences, and these details on the surface, you can change anytime you like. If it is useful to do so, you must abandon your identity and start again. Sometimes, it’s the only way.

Julien Smith, The Flinch

I know that as historians, we’re generally supposed to emphasize the big shifts and changes in societies over time, but I’ve always been fascinated by the lingering threads that endure in depressingly predictable fashion.

— Dr. Jarret Ruminski

I’ve come to think that paying too much attention to change has led historians to underestimate the power of political/cultural continuities like these. Obviously both continuity and change are always part of the story…it’s just a matter of how we weigh their relative salience. Telling a story about change is much easier plot-wise, but it may draw attention away from the underlying continuities that more powerfully shape peoples’ experiences.

— Seth Cotlar

The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998
The Best Of Fred by Rupert Fawcett, Headline Book Publishing, London 1998

Michael Hauge uses the term ‘transformation’, and not every transformation is a character arc for the main character (however that is defined).

This transformation will occur on four different levels. The first three are:

Your hero’s external circumstances will change. She (or he) might be wealthier, more powerful, more successful, more admired; she’s is in a new relationship; she is no longer threatened by the villain or demon or disease she overcame; or (if she was unsuccessful) she might be alone, or disgraced, or deceased.

Your hero has changed internally. The arc of her inner journey might have made her more courageous, more loving, more moral, or (whether she succeeded or failed) wiser.

The world around your hero has changed. Her courage and sacrifice has made those around her safer, happier, wiser, more loving or more courageous themselves.

The fourth transformation may be harder to recognize and achieve, but will be just as powerful: you, the storyteller, will change.

Michael Hauge
World War 2 poster plan ahead allow for growing
World War 2 poster showing two boys, one smaller: “Plan ahead. Allow for growing”.

But here’s a little secret for you: no one is ever the same thing again after anything. You are never the same twice, and much of your unhappiness comes from trying to pretend that you are. Accept that you are different each day and do so joyfully, recognizing it for the gift it is. Work within the desires and goals of the person you are currently, until you aren’t that person anymore, and everything changes once again.

Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 75, “Through the Narrow Place” 

Useful Concept: Range Of Change

How much does your main character change over the course of the story? This needs to be determined at the start of the writing process.

If studying a character rather than creating one, it’s a useful aspect to consider.

Bear in mind that some authors, famously Chekhov, do not create main characters who change, and this is the very point. Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has said the same thing about Don Draper, making the point that in real life, unlike in most popular stories, people just don’t change all that much.

how do people change, Tony Kushner, Angels in America

The Two Forms Of Character Development In Fiction

While Michael Hauge provides us with a useful taxonomy of storytelling transformation, others divide character development into two separate categories:

  1. A text can provide new information about a character that causes readers to see the character differently and in more depth
  2. Or the events of a story can actually change characters, make them more complicated.
The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer


Character Change And The Development Of Novel Plotting

Ford Madox Ford, quoted by James Wood in How Fiction Works, pointed out that in older novels — especially those from England — the novelist would begin at the beginning and work chronologically through their character’s life, telling us all about their education and other influences.

But a new development in the novel meant authors avoided starting ‘at the beginning’. When it was discovered that novels in characters could change, it was interesting to depict that change on the page rather than explain it. Ford Madox Ford describes this new type of novel by explaining how “you meet an English gentleman at your golf club. He is beefy, full of health, the model of the boy from an English public school of the finest type. You discover, gradually, that he is hopelessly neurasthenic, dishonest in matters of small change, but unexpectedly self-sacrificing, a dreadful liar, but a most painfully careful student of Lepidoptera and, finally, from the public prints, a bigamist who was once, under another name, hammered on the Stock Exchange … To get such a man in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past.”

The Influence of HBO

Brett Martin explains how cable TV change the way characters (don’t) change:

Nate [of Six Feet Under] has good intentions, but he’s an amateur jerk. He’s a selfish narcissist. And the tragedy is that he never transcends that. He never grows up,” Ball said.

That inability is another defining theme of TV’s Golden Age. If man’s big struggle with his inner demons defined The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and their descendants, they also drew a crucial dose of their realism from the tenacity of that big struggle—the way their characters stubbornly refused to change in any substantive way, despite constantly resolving to do so. […]

It’s no coincidence that addiction is one of the major tropes of the Third Golden Age. Likewise, psychotherapy, with its looping fits and starts of progress and regression. Recidivism and failure stalked these shows: Tony Soprano searches for something to fill the gnawing void he feels; he fails to find it. Jimmy McNulty [of The Wire] swears off the twin compulsions of booze and police work; he goes back to both, while the rest of The Wire’s most zealous reformers find themselves corrupted. The specter of Don Draper’s past infidelities comes to him in a fever dream, in the person of an old conquest. And though he literally chokes the Beast to death, we, and he, know she will be back. […]

“Everything changed” after 9/11.”

“‘I’m going to be different. I’m so lucky to be alive. I’m going to value things more, do things differently….’ That’s what it was all about,” said [David] Chase of the period immediately following the terrorist attacks. “But then it sort of faded away.” Or as Tony Soprano morosely put it, “Every day is a gift. It’s just…does it have to be a pair of socks?” […]

the goal of a TV show, unlike that of a movie or novel, no matter how ambiguous, is to never end. One way to address that basic economic mandate is to create a world in which there is no forward progress or story arc at all, just a series of discrete, repetitive episodes—In other words, the procedural. But if you’re interested in telling an ongoing story while remaining true to your own sense of the world, it helps for that worldview to be of an endless series of variations in which people repeatedly play out the same patterns of behaviour, exhibiting only the most incremental signs of real change or progress.

Brett Martin, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad


To know that one is being taught a lesson or at any rate given a message leaves one free to reject it if only by dismissing plot or characters as cliches. But I had not realised how far the moral assumptions of film story-telling had sunk in, and how long they had stayed with me, until in 1974 I saw Louis Malle’s film about the French Occupation, Lacombe Lucien.

Lucien is a loutish, unappealing boy, recruited almost by accident into the French Fascist Milice. He falls in with and exploits a Jewish family, becoming involved with – it would be wrong to say falls in love with – the daughter, whom he helps to escape and with whom he lives. Then, as the Liberation draws near, he becomes himself a fugitive and is eventually, almost casually, shot.

The stock way to tell such a story would be to see the boy’s experiences – witnessing torture and ill-treatment, falling for the Jewish girl – as a moral education in the same way, for example, that the Marlon Brando character is educated in On the Waterfront.

That would be the convention and one I’d so much taken for granted that I kept looking in the Malle film for signs of this instruction of the school of life beginning to happen. But it doesn’t. Largely untouched by the dramas he has passed through, Lucien is much the same at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, seemingly having learned nothing. To have quite unobtrusively resisted the tug of conventional tale-telling and the lure of resolution seemed to me honest in a way few films even attempt.

Alan Bennett, from Untold Stories


Milepost character. A character who is absolutely unchanging throughout a story. A focus character’s different perspectives on him or him show us, in emotional parallax, how the focus character has changed. Examples include Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield and Bill Ferry in Lord of the Rings.

Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction

Another example is Don Draper of Mad Men. As soon as Don Draper starts to show he’s really undergone any sort of epiphany, the series ends. Don’s unwillingness to get with the times serves to underscore the massive changes experienced by Peggy and Joan.


Stories about character change are called ‘character driven’. The inverse is ‘plot driven’.

There has…been a notable shift in Western children’s fiction, beginning in the 1960s, toward a more profound interest in character, toward psychological, character-oriented children’s novels. In many contemporary novels for children, we observe a disintegration of the plot in its traditional meaning; nothing really “happens.” There is no beginning or end in the usual sense, no logical development toward a climax and denouement; the story may seem to be arbitrarily cut from the character’s life, or is even more often a mosaic of bits arbitrarily glued together.

Maria Nikolajeva, Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

This isn’t to say plot is no longer of central concern.

From What Publishers Look For In A Children’s Book: An Editorial Perspective from Tina Nichols Coury


Travel time. A component of pacing. Characters don’t reverse important decisions in their personalities overnight. The emotional distance a character travels should generally be proportionate to the amount of travel time — measured in words — the change requires.

A Glossary of Terms Useful In Critiquing Science Fiction


When the [character] “change” feels beautiful … I think it’s because the character has confirmed what we’ve hoped or suspected all along. Maybe the character hasn’t changed at all, but rather has finally been put in a situation where her truest self can be revealed. … Stories, to my mind, are never about change. They are always and only about the possibility of change.

Bret Anthony Johnston

If you’re in the middle of writing something and find that you’re second-guessing your thumbnail character descriptions, see The Always/Only Test by Andrea Phillips and realise you’re not the only one.

The stages of character change as broken down by psychologists, from Psychwriter

Why People Don’t Change Their Spots from Social Learning

In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Easter egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time

Robert Penn Warren

When Writing Epics

Humans are actually terrible at predicting and controlling how they will react and feel at some later date, but we keep trying anyway, we keep promising anyway, and loving anyway, and it’s beautiful, really, I love that about us, but it means that people change their minds about important things all the time, especially as we age and our limitless potential is slowly replaced with a series of actions which can be double-checked against our words.

Captain Awkward


Symmetry matters more to writers of fiction than readers consciously perceive.

David Lodge

Next time you’re reading (or writing) something, you might think of character change in the form of a mirror.

  • Change is the root of all drama.
  • Some characters have a deficiency of knowledge rather than a ‘flaw’ or a ‘moral shortcoming’. This is particularly true of child characters, whose main ‘flaw’ is being young and inexperienced. It is also true of a character such as Inspector Morse who knows nothing of a killer at the beginning of his journey but everything by the end. Child characters are quite similar to genre fiction characters.
  • At the midpoint main characters start to really understand the nature of forces against them. This is when the identities of baddies are revealed, usually, if they’ve been hidden at the beginning.
  • At the midpoint the main character holds the solution to the mission in their hands. If it’s a detective film, this information changes the story completely. If it’s a thriller the midpoint marks the end of the ‘outward’ journey to achieve the goal and marks the beginning of the journey back.
  • The midpoint of each story is the moment when each main character embraces for the first time the quality they will need to become complete and finish their story. It’s when they discover a truth about themselves. In an archetypal (three dimensional/memorable) story, that truth will be an embodiment of everything that’s the direct opposite of the person they were. The main character will embrace that truth and attempt to assimilate and understand it in the second half of the tale. The character learns what they themselves are capable of.
  • In what John Yorke calls a ‘two dimensional story’ (that would include ongoing series such as Courage the Cowardly Dog or Seinfeld), the main character learns the truth about the adversary.
  • All stories at some level are about a search for the truth of the subject they are exploring. Just as the act of perception involves seeking out the ‘truth’ of the thing perceived, so storytelling mimics that process. The ‘truth’ of the story, then, lies at the midpoint. The main character’s action at this point will be to overcome that obstacle, assimilate that truth and begin the journey back — the journey to understand the implications of what that ‘truth’ really means.

If the main character in a story doesn’t change, there’s no story.

ADAPTATION: Tom Perrotta and Mark Wollaeger Go from Page to Screen

Novelist, screenwriter, and HBO showrunner Tom Perrotta joins his old friend Mark Wollaeger (who also happens to be a top scholar of modernism) for a wide-ranging conversation about literature, television, and everything in between.

Tom reveals that he has been reading a most peculiar self-help book: Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce. Mark then shares some juicy Joyce anecdotes before getting into the nitty gritty of style and craft. We discuss balancing difficult themes with accessible prose and debate whether a therapeutic model of novel-writing (where characters grow and change) can translate into a therapeutic model of culture (where social and political norms can grow and change). Speaking of growing and changing, adaptation is at the center of this episode as we revisit Tom’s amazing work on The Leftovers, Mrs. Fletcher, Little Children, and of course, Election.

Mentioned in the Episode

  • James Joyce
  • Ulysses
  • Finnegans Wake
  • Richard Ellmann, James Joyce
  • Stephen King
  • Philip Roth
  • Alexander Payne
  • Jim Taylor
  • Damon Lindelof
  • Reese Witherspoon
  • Matthew Broderick
  • Hillary Clinton
New Books Network

On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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