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Emma vs Hamlet: Two Approaches to Dramatizing Character Change

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No question so focuses the mind of a writer beginning to draft a scene—or the series of scenes that will comprise their story—as what do the characters want. The question instantly begs a slew of others: Why do they want it? Do they themselves know? How? With what degree of clarity, certainty, or honesty? What if they’re mistaken? Worse—what if they’re actively deluding themselves?

Or, as two of my favorite writers put it:

More often than not, people don’t know why they do things. ―William Trevor, “The Room”

She’d gone into real estate, she claimed, because she liked helping people find what they wanted, and she seemed blithely innocent of the fact that most people had no idea what that was, especially the ones who were defiantly confident they did. —Richard Russo, “Intervention”

This of course brings up all manner of murky ruminations about the role of the unconscious in behavior, the influence of denial, the insidious effects of bad faith, the power of persuasion—and barely have we begun than we find ourselves wandering the weeds.

The solution for a great many writers is to simplify by making the character clear about his desires, but making them extremely difficult to achieve. The question is never what the characters want; rather, it’s will they prove capable of obtaining it. This is especially true in stories where the major struggles are exterior, as in mysteries and many adventure stories, or in love stories where the interpersonal element minimizes the self-doubt aspect of the pursuit of the loved one.

In stories where a significant share of the drama plays out in the internal sphere, however, a fog all too often descends. This results from the fact that, absent a need to act or make a decision with real-world consequences, characters—like their creators—all too readily spin their mental and emotional wheels trying to figure what they want, what they should do, and why. This struggle is part of the drama, of course, and can be among the most affecting aspects of the story as long as it doesn’t digress into mental meandering or tedious navel-gazing.

In either event, the trajectory of the character pursuing some ambition, goal, or desire, regardless of how consciously, wisely, or honestly they do so, is what we often refer to as that character’s arc

As a practical matter, many writers (and not a few writing guides), follow a format that has the character at the story’s outset wedded to a wrong idea of what she wants or why, and allowing the struggle of its pursuit awaken the character to the folly of that desire and then discovering what it is they truly want, with the end of the story providing a gauntlet of reveals and reversals as the character now pursues her true desire with clear-eyed resolve.

Is it really that simple? Let’s discuss.

Generally speaking, the story arc dictated by the kind of thinking I’ve just described observes the following general format:

  • The Protagonist enters the story in a state of Lack, in which she tries to strike a balance between her ambitions and frustrations, her achievements and setbacks, her joys and heartbreaks; that balance defines her way of viewing the world and her life.
  • Something happens that prompts the Protagonist to act—specifically, it creates a problem she needs to solve. This may take the form of an opportunity reather than a misfortune, but soon enough hte pursuit of that opportunity will prove problematic.
  • The Protagonist’s state of Lack creates a mistaken understanding of the problem, what she needs to do to solve it, or both. This is because the Lack, rooted in a past typified by compromise, takes a greater account of those aforementioned frustrations, setbacks, and heartbreaks that hope for a genuinely better future will allow. It is often grounded at least partially in defeatism, cynicism, or the kind of “realism” that all often translates into: Grow up. The world isn’t fair. The only people who get what they want are cheaters, liars, and thieves. It may reveal itself in mere timidity, ambivalence, even “niceness,” but underneath there’s at least a shaky faith in the promise of life, if not outright apostasy.
  • This mistaken understanding of the story’s core problem, or how to go about solving it, is sometimes referred to as the “Misperception” or the “Lie.” It is also often what is implicitly referred to when writers are advised to make what the character needs different from what he wants, i.e., what she wants is based on a misunderstanding of what she truly needs.
  • This misunderstanding is rooted in the character’s fundamental resistance to change.
  • By pursuing this mistaken understanding, the Protagonist takes many false steps, wanders down blind alleys, suffers many setbacks, and otherwise endures a series of failures, near misses, or half-successes that leave the core problem of the story unsolved. The educational process created by this series of mistakes and wrong moves is often referred to as “success through failure,” and forms the basic trajectory of the character’s arc.
  • This series of missteps and setbacks ultimately leads to a moment of such drastic failure, often including the loss or death of a loved one or a close ally, or the prospect of death for the Protagonist herself, that it seems like total defeat is at hand. In the resulting “dark night of the soul,” in which the Protagonist searches her heart and mind for one last solution to the story’s core problem, she experiences an insight that reveals the nature of her original mistaken understanding.
  • This new insight may include a greater awareness of her own personal investment in that misunderstanding, i.e., why it seemed so true and convincing and why she embraced it so wholeheartedly. If so, it is not merely her understanding that will change, but her own internal nature. She will realize that she herself must change to solve the problem. This revealing moment of self-awareness is often called, unsurprisingly if somewhat melodramatically, the “change-or-die moment.”
  • This new awareness will prompt a decision by the Protagonist to change methods, change allies, and/or change herself in order to get one last chance to solve the problem. From that point forward, the question at the heart of the story will no longer be: What must be done? That is settled, at least as far as the Protagonist can determine at that point. The core question from that point forward becomes: Will the Protagonist succeed? That question will be answered in the climax.

The Protagonist may of course have more than one moment of transformative insight in the course of her numerous missteps and failures and partial successes; if so, they should intensify in depth, intensity, and surprise as the story proceeds.

The key such insight, the one that prompts the greatest change, technically can appear anywhere in the story, though it usually appears two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the plot; otherwise the reader or audience may begin to wonder, if the Protagonist possesses sufficient insight into the problem and herself to make a decision as to what should be done, why it is taking her so long to do it? A reluctant hero’s dallying can be endured only so long.

The answer in such situations usually lies not in the difficulty of knowing what to do or lacking confidence in oneself but rather the number or severity of the obstacles in her path, i.e., the difficulty of the task or the ferocity of the opposition she faces from other characters. That said, one needs to be wary of merely stacking up dragons before the castle. Repetition undermines tension, and there are only so many struggles of similar type the reader or audience will sit through before growing restless.

This is why, normally, the greater amount of narrative time and space is spent depicting the Protagonist’s struggle to understand the problem, overcome her doubts as to what should be done and whether she is capable of doing it, subdue the internal forces holding her back from the challenge of positive change, and devise a plan for going forward that stands a decent chance of success. That effort offers the prospect of greater variety in action, emotion, and reflection, thus providing broader opportunity for variation in scene and thus surprise.

The preceding outline of a generic character arc enjoys the advantage of both sufficient clarity and flexibility to prove adaptable to most story types.

A classic example: Jane Austen’s Emma. When Emma, the match-making busybody, realizes that she is wildly mistaken in her beliefs about the other characters, she descends into a paralysis of self-questioning doubt. Mr. Knightly kindly guides her toward the truth, and the story comes to a happy end, with multiple well-paired marriages.  

However, as gratifying as this format can seem, especially in the hands of a master like Jane Austen, it nonetheless has several obvious limitations. Put differently, if you are one of those who finds Emma’s transformation from supercilious meddling know-it-all to happy bride a bit magical, you’re not alone.

First,who among us would not be thrilled to learn that the solution of merely one problem or the correction of one mere misunderstanding cleared all storm clouds away and ushered us into an endlessly sunny future? Is this true to life, or just “true to stories”?

Second, by focusing on misunderstanding as the factor leading the character astray in her attempt to solve the core story problem, this methodology suggests that her error is fundamentally conceptual, i.e., one of belief or perception.

However, a character’s problem at the story’s outset typically goes beyond what she thinks; it is embedded in her behavior. And that behavior is itself embedded in habits that have been developed and engrained over time. They are second nature, often deeply unconscious, and changing them will require more than a new perspective or attitude.

Certainly how the character interprets her problem is part of that behavior, but it also encompasses how she treats others, how she acts under duress, how she responds to stress, frustration, anxiety, uncertainty, confrontation, terror—as well as how she handles kindness, assistance, trust, and support from others.

It is seldom the case that a single factor accounts for the character’s problem with her past. Rather, whatever weaknesses, wounds, limitations, or flaws she possesses often interact, influencing and enhancing one another.

Amplifying that point, pinning a character’s behavior to a single factor tends to diminish her in the audience’s or reader’s eyes. Rather, whatever problem she faces has to be seen to emerge from the whole of her personality.

As long as by misperception we include this broader concern not just with interpretation but behavior, the interweaving of influences, and the full complexity of the character’s nature, incorporating not just her thoughts or feelings but her physical reactions and habitual behaviors and moral worldview, the standard character arc outlined above can serve our purposes. But it will requires a bit more heavy lifting than its tidy outline suggests.

By now, however, I’m certain some of you will have already noticed another limitation of the character change format outlined above—if only because of my inclusion of Hamlet in the title of this post.

To the extent stories provide reassuring certainties in a world of relentless conflict, disruption, confusion, dislocation, etc., we should not bemoan too loudly our tidy formats and neat conclusions.

This is not mere escapism; by convincingly exploring what might occur, despite the odds to the contrary, we expand our ability to imagine what is possible. And to the extent our ability or willingness to act in the present largely rests in our hope for the future, imagining the possible is no small matter.

However, it is also true that in embracing the tidy and the conclusive, we turn a blind eye to what constitutes the real experience of the vast majority of humanity. Problems that get solved routinely engender new problems. Corrected misperceptions give rise to new views that, on further scrutiny, reveal their own shortcomings. Just as plans never survive first contact with the enemy, and scientific breakthroughs invariably suffer at the hands of subsequently observed data, so too with personal insights—no matter how clear-cut and incisive they might seem at first, reality has a way of dulling those sharp, shiny edges.

It might even be said that the desire for tidy conclusions is a socially acceptable form of death wish, because only death puts a conclusive end to things once and for all.

Instead, we all too often find ourselves in Hamlet’s shoes, weighing incompatible options, unable to decide, all too aware that whatever we choose the consequences are to some extent unpredictable, and that nothing will put a definitive end to our “problem.”

A more modern example is the film Michael Clayton, written and directed by Tony Gilroy. The eponymous main character is faced with a crucial moral test he at first fails, then he rectifies his error with a climactic confrontation with his adversary. And though the audience gets its catharsis, the character does not. The final scene shows him disobeying his detective brother’s advice to stay near and instead getting in a cab and asking for “fifty dollars’ worth.” We then watch him alone in the back seat of the cab as it traverses the streets of New York. His facial expressions reveal a cascade of conflicting emotions (similar to those of the Bob Hoskins character in The Long Good Friday, the ending of which provided the inspiration for Gilroy), telling the audience that the story is far from over—he might regress, he might face a slew of crushing circumstances from a number of directions because of his decision “to do the right thing,” he will forever be looking over his shoulder.

The arc in such stories often tracks with the one discussed above, except that the element of doubt never evaporates. Instead of Emma’s, “Oh now I see,” the character instead thinks, “What if I try this?” Good news—it’s by no means less suspenseful. Like the character, the reader will be wondering if the new path will lead somewhere useful, not the edge of a cliff. But there will be readers who find even that modicum of ambiguity unsettling. If they want uncertainty, they can look out the window.

Final observation: Although Emma is a satire, a genre known for its artificiality, that alone does not explain or justify its use of a simpler, more direct dramatic format. Tragedy can do the same—ask Oedipus, or Tosca. Form alone does not dictate to what extent ambiguity and uncertainty play a part in the degree to which a character changes. That’s entirely up to you.

How do you go about portraying your characters pursuing the wrong thing, or pursuing it for the wrong reasons? Have you used the “misperception” character arc? Specifically, how did you show the character “succeeding through failure”? What form did that success take? How did that approach work for you? If it didn’t work, why? How?

Have you ever made your main character’s decision-making more ambiguous or open-ended? How did that turn out? Did you find yourself getting pushback from readers, agents, or editors, who wanted a more clear-cut process and a more conclusive ending?


About David Corbett

David Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.


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