Wednesday, February 10

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, February 10, 2016 2 comments
We're entering the Lenten season today, a time when some of us prepare for Easter by committing to putting off something--whether it be fasting from desserts or TV. or taking a break from a vice--in order to put on a new spiritual habit.
Image by Seeman,

There's something useful to be learned for character arcs in this.

Making changes in one's life doesn't happen by accident for the most part. There is almost always some volition involved. One commits to change when staying the same becomes uncomfortable and when those with whom we have important relationships require it.

Willpower alone is usually inadequate for lasting change to happen. Lenten practices have built in rituals and community support, two key elements you also find in 12-step programs to break cycles of addiction.

Change involves replacing one behavior or habit with another one. If a positive behavior or habit isn't intentionally chosen, focused on, striven for, human nature is such that change won't happen--or a different bad habit will take the place of the one left behind.

The fact that change is so hard is why it is so appealing, so very necessary for us to see embodied in stories.

Behavioral science researchers have been hard at work to uncover some other helpful tidbits about what does and does not motivate change. As you create and refine those "inner arcs" in which a character grows toward change, keep in mind the following:

  • Giving someone information can make them defensive instead of receptive
  • A person entrenched in a habit needs to be invited to reexamine the stories they tell themselves about it. 
  • We can be blind to why we're stuck, often fixating on only one motivation without seeing the whole picture. 
  • Quick fixes--plowing ahead with a one-sided approach to change--tends to fail or simply not last
  • Change happens when multiple sources of help and motivation come into play:
  • Personal motivation -- the good for me needs to be powerfully appealing, moreso than other things
  • Social motivation -- other people give me positive attention or shame
  • Structural motivation -- there are powerful "carrots and sticks" (rewards and punishments) tied to this
  • Personal ability -- deliberate practice increases skill, just like learning an instrument
  • Social ability -- seeking help from mentors, teachers or friends adds encouragement and accountability
  • Structural ability -- create an environment that aids success, create "carrots and sticks"--especially carrots.

More on the behaviorist approach, which I parsed here, can be found in The 3 Most Powerful Ways to Change People Who Don't Want to Change.

If you're struggling to make a character's inner arc dynamic and believable, take into account these truths of change, and use them to balance forward movement with setbacks.

What aspects of character change do you find most tricky to portray, forward movement or setbacks?


  1. This is really fascinating, Laurel. Thanks for sharing! (And I hope you have a very good Lent!)

    1. Thanks, Faith! That multi-pronged approach to change really opens up plot ideas, doesn't it? A blessed Lent to you too!