The Four Stages of Change in Character Development

Every major character needs to change. The hero’s change is the main story, but the mentor and ally also need to change to help reinforce the story’s theme. If you divide a screenplay into four Acts, you can see how the hero changes within each Act in four separate stages.

The easiest way to define your hero’s change is to start at the beginning and end. In the beginning, your hero behaves one way and by the end, the hero behaves a completely opposite way whether you’re writing a happy ending or a tragedy.

In “Titanic,” Rose starts out as unsure of himself but by the end, she’s supremely sure of herself.

In “The Godfather,” Michael starts out trying to stay out of the family organized crime business, yet by the end, he embraces it as the new godfather.

In “Harold and Maude,” Harold starts out feeling suicidal, but by the end, he’s fully embraced living.

The beginning and end of your story defines opposite states of your hero. So if your hero is happy in the end, he or she must be sad in the beginning, which is the character arc for the old man in “Up.” If your hero is sad in the end, he or she must be happy in the beginning, which is the character arc for many horror stories where the hero gets killed in the end.

Once you know that your hero’s arc involves opposite emotional states, the next step is to define how your hero gets there. The second step is usually where the hero is torn between two worlds and often embraces a false identity to hide in this new world. While exploring this new world, the hero learns the advantages of a new way to live.

Then the next step is that the hero suddenly finds life turning against him or her because they’re now seeing the drawbacks to their old way of life. So the four stages of character change look like this:

  • Act I: Hero is a certain way
  • Act IIa: Hero learns a new way of life
  • Act IIb: Hero sees the problems of the old way of life
  • Act III: Hero is the opposite way than in the beginning by embracing the new way of life

Look how this works in “Titanic”:

  • Act I: Rose sees no future for herself as she’s pressured to marry a man she doesn’t love just for the money.
  • Act IIa: Rose meets Jack, who shows her how to be carefree and enjoy life.
  • Act IIb: Rose wants to be with Jack but her fiancĂ© wants to kill Jack.
  • Act III: Rose survives the sinking of the Titanic and becomes a stronger woman who will take charge of her own life.

Act IIa is all about the hero learning a new way of life from a mentor while Act IIb is about the hero seeing how his or her past life is holding them back. Then Act III is about the hero’s final choice whether to let the past hold the hero back or whether the hero will choose a better way to live.

This is how this works in “Harold and Maude”:

  • Act I: Harold sees no future for himself and prefers death to life.
  • Act IIa: Harold meets Maude and learns how to enjoy life.
  • Act IIb: Harold wants to marry Maude but everyone from his past is against it.
  • Act III: Harold chooses life over death and sees a future for himself.

To define your hero’s change, start with the opposites that define the starting and ending state of the hero. Then the starting state will haunt the hero in Act IIb while the ending state will be introduced in Act IIa.

When you break down the hero’s change in these four stages, it becomes much easier to define the change in your other main characters as well. It’s all about defining the starting and ending states as opposites and the two middle stages as hints of both the starting (Act IIb) and ending (Act IIa) states.

Make your hero change from one extreme to the other. Then your story explains how this drastic change occurs.

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