On Transformation of Character

By James N. Frey

This article was originally published in the German magazine TextArt: Magazin für Kreatives Schreiben (The magazine for creative writers) in a question/answer column.

How can I start a story, when I have to write about a special motif, a special theme ("love is blind" for example). Sometimes writers have to work with such themes because the editor wants it for a special anthology. How can I create strong characters in this case? How can I avoid coldconstruction (do you know what I mean?) How can I use your method?

All good stories are about transformation of character. In a novel, full length play, or screenplay, that transformation should be profound. Such as in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a heartless, cruel miser becomes a Santa Clause. In a short story or one act play, the transformation will naturally be less profound, often simply what James Joyce called an "epiphany." In other words the character will come to realize something about themselves or there relationships, or life and so on.

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.

You (this is addressed to the writer) have asked me to speak of my childhood, which I'd rather forget. At one of my foster homes I was fed only mush for three years and had to put cardboard in my shoes because of so many holes in the soles. I was given my own room, which the law demanded, but it always smelled of the rendering plant across the street. I hated it. I was a always lonely. I used to watch the girl in the next house brush her hair every night. She had long blond hair that she wore in braids during the day and she brushed it for an hour every night while she hummed to herself. She knew I watched her from my darkened room and I think she liked it, knowing she was admired. I used to dream of her. I called her Hilda to myself, because that was the name of a girl in a book that I had read. I never knew her real name even though she lived right next door. She was two years older than me and went to the Catholic school...

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.

[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]