Reader Question: Is a character’s transformation dictated by events or reactions to them?

“Change is not just what goes on inside a character, nor just what happens in the plot. It’s both. They are inextricably linked.”

Reader question from @filmwritr4 from a #scriptchat session:

I’ve wondered about character transformation in movies. Is their change dictated by events or reactions to them?

Both. This speaks to the dualistic nature of a screenplay universe.

There is the External World of the physical journey, what we see and hear through Action and Dialogue.

There is the Internal World of the psychological journey, what we intuit and interpret through Intention and Subtext.

An event happens in the External World.

The character has to process that event. As writers, we can think of them doing so in the Internal World, their psychological and emotional being.

Their reaction to the event causes a shift in their attitude and beliefs which in turn leads to make a choice.

That choice evidences itself in the External World.

Thus they go along until… another event.

Now they have to process this… that causes a shift… and leads to a choice… which manifests itself in the External World… which alters the plot… which leads to another event… which they have to process…

And on and on and on.

This is, of course, a broad generalization. But it speaks to a dynamic common to all movies:

Event — Reaction — Shift. Event — Reaction — Shift. Event — Reaction — Shift.

What we’re seeing there is the very essence of Transformation.

Consider The Silence of the Lambs.

EVENT: Clarice offered the gig of visiting Lecter. She goes and presents questions to him. He sees through it and ‘reads’ her. She starts to flee. Semen flung on her by next inmate. Lecter gives her a clue.

REACTION: Clarice has Flashback #1 of she and her father as he arrives home.

SHIFT: Clarice goes to storage unit and discovers severed head.

EVENT: Clarice returns to Lecter.

REACTION: He presses to learn more about her personal life.

SHIFT: Clarice opens up a bit.

EVENT: Clarice at funeral home of Buffalo Bill victim.

REACTION: Flashback #2 where she recalls the funeral of her father.

SHIFT: She rises to the occasion of the autopsy and discovers a key clue (moth).

On and on it goes, this intricate ‘dance’ of External and Internal Worlds signifying the transformation of this character wherein Clarice eventually confronts her shadow self — by recounting the nightmarish experience on her uncle’s Montana farm, the spring slaughter of the lambs — then the physicalization of her deepest fears — the Boogeyman in the form of Buffalo Bill — and emerges at the end having gone from Disunity to Unity, or at least a movie approximation of it.

Bear in mind when we watch a movie, at least good ones, this all plays out organically. However as writers when crafting a story, we can think rather intentionally about all this. For example, at every step of the way when working out a story, we can ask questions: What would this event mean to this character? How would they react? What choice would they end up making? How might that impact the plot? What next plot point could I brainstorm to challenge the character and stimulate more of their metamorphosis?

Change is not just what goes on inside a character, nor just what happens in the plot. It’s both. They are inextricably linked. That’s why character and plot by rights need to be closely aligned in the story-crafting process, and why relying on a formula and focusing primarily on plot is — in my view — a wrongheaded way to go.

Begin with character. End with character. Find the story in between.

How about you, GITS reader? What comments might you have about character transformation?

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