Characters change emotionally in two ways. First, they change their beliefs internally. Second, they demonstrate this change of belief by taking action that others (including the audience) can recognize.
The general emotional change of any character looks like this:
- Current emotional state defined by a faulty belief
- Sees others act like the way he or she will behave in the end (hope)
- Take action to demonstrate that he or she can change (doubt)
- Finally commit to change by embracing a new belief
The heart of emotional change centers on the character’s belief about him or herself, which must gradually change over time. In “Legally Blonde,” the hero’s change looks like this:
- Elle (the hero) is a smart woman but believes she needs a man to be complete
- Elle uses his intelligence to get into Harvard law school, demonstrating she’s strong on her own although she doesn’t even realize it (hope)
- Elle is smart enough to get picked to help her law professor although she later learns that he picked her for her looks (doubt)
- Elle, on her own, defends a client in the court room and wins the trial, accepting
The four stages of emotional change go from a faulty belief to hope of a different way of life to doubt that change is possible to finally embracing a new belief altogether.
In “Legally Blonde,” Elle goes from believing she needs a man to realizing she’s strong enough to be without a man.
The conflict arises by challenging her beliefs. Just as Elle believes she’s smart enough to get into law school, the other students and her law professor makes her feel stupid. Then as Elle gets picked by her law professor to help in a court case, her law professor reveals he picked her for her looks, making her feel like she’s not smart enough to succeed on her own. Conflict isn’t about just blocking the hero from her goal but in challenging her beliefs about herself.
In “Star Wars,” Luke believes he’s not good enough. Once he’s in a seedy bar, two goons try to attack him, forcing Obi-wan to save him. This lets Luke see what he could be by watching Obi-wan, but also shows how far he has to go.
Then as Luke is trapped on the Death Star, he starts showing he’s changing by deciding to rescue Princess Leia and saving her from storm troopers. However, there is a moment of doubt as he’s trapped in a garbage compactor and nearly gets crushed to death.
Finally at the end, Luke barely survives an attack by a TIE fighter and embraces the Force, enabling him to destroy the Death Star. This shows that Luke has not only changed his belief by trusting himself, but shows how he destroyed the Death Star by trusting himself and the Force as well.
When writing your own screenplay, focus on where your hero starts in his or her belief and where he or she winds up. Then in between, show the hero gradually changing through both hope and doubt.
Emotional change is the heart of every story. Without it, you just have meaningless action (think “Atomic Blonde”) or special effects that mean nothing (think “A Wrinkle in Time”). Make your hero and all your major characters change emotionally. That’s what makes a story worth watching again and again.