Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 30, 2023

Mastering Character Evolution: A Powerful Ladder of Choice

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

The picture is of a person sitting midway on a staircase in space. The individual is looking out into the vastness of the universe.

Imagine a book like this.

First page: We see Alex being crowned Ruler of the Empire, it’s thrilling!
Second page: Alex is kidnaped by terrorists from Alpha Centauri, terrifying!
Third page: Alex escapes and an hour later wins the Nobel Prize, amazing!
Fourth page: College roommate leaves Alex a baby to raise, life-changing!
Fifth page: Baby is diagnosed with incurable leprosy, devastating!

When the back-and-forths come this thick and fast, readers can be forgiven for wishing things would—well, just slow down a bit.

Why? What’s the problem with this story?

After all, it’s full of good action, good drama, good suspense, good ups and downs... but you see what’s missing?

We have no idea what makes Alex tick.

Until we have an idea who Alex really IS—both the appealing features we’ll enjoy watching through various situations, and the not-so-appealing ones that’ll lead to trouble until some kind of change takes place—we don’t have a whole lot of incentive to be interested in Alex’s life.

No matter how many back-and-forth, up-and-down events and emotions there might be.

But once we’ve got an idea of who this person is? We’re THERE.

That raises the question of how to show readers who this character truly is. Not just how they’re dealing with the situation at hand, but what got ‘em to that point in the first place... and what they’ll need to change in order to come through Okay (if not a Nobel Prize-winning ruler of the empire) by The End.

Most of us have a quite a few systems for discovering what makes someone tick. There are all kinds of good processes out there, some of which I’ve studied and then either tried or discarded, same as you’ve probably done over the years.

No matter which system/s we prefer, though, they’re all aimed at creating ways to move a character forward and back. Back and forward. Not always in that order, but with enough variety that the story isn’t a constant uphill climb nor a constant downward slope.

There are changes. There are drops. There are heights.

And everything in between.

We know that on this person’s way to their happy ending, they’re gonna face all kinds of hurdles. There'll be setbacks and advances, triumphs and disasters, and at the end they're gonna be a little more battered, a little more wise, and a lot more deserving of whatever their final triumph might be—or their final defeat if they're the villain.

Why? Because they've taken every step, sometimes up and sometimes down, from beginning to end. They've reached the top of what I view as their “personality ladder.”

In real life, of course, we're all climbing ladders all the time. We climb from infancy to childhood; from childhood to adulthood; from irresponsible student to responsible worker; from carefree party-goer to committed spouse...life is full of ladders.

But the ladder our characters climb ISN'T a lifelong one.

It lasts only from Chapter One through The End.

Maybe it's a three-day period of thrilling adventure. Maybe it's an eight-month saga of blooming love. Maybe it’s a twenty-year mission of colonizing a new planet. But regardless of length, it's a ladder these characters climb all the way from the bottom (stasis) to the top (triumph) during the course of this book.

Everyone's got their own seven steps to complete, scene by scene and chapter by chapter, on the way to becoming a stronger and better person who deserves a happy ending. And where they start depends on what kind of person they are at the beginning of the book.

Take a minute and think about your main character. What's this person’s greatest strength? And how is the reverse side of that strength gonna create problems for them at some point (or probably at several points) during the story?

Let's say, for instance, your hero is all about Excellence.

If so, his strengths will be...what? Doing a fabulous job at whatever he undertakes. Refusing to settle for second best. Getting the job done at all costs. Delivering a stellar performance in every conceivable area (OR in just one vitally important area). Being the best he can be. Leading the field. Top of the heap, no matter what the heap might be. And so on.

You can see what the corresponding weaknesses will be too, right? Lots of possibilities: Ignoring others on his quest for excellence. Driving himself too hard. Not taking on anything unless he knows he'll be great at it. Never stopping to smell the roses. Lacking the ability to forgive anything less than perfection. And so on.

So whatever this guy’s heroic strength and troublesome flaw might be, he’s gonna have to climb all seven steps on his personality ladder to reach the victorious finale at the top.

He’ll have to cover each step...

... from Stasis
to Change
through Misdirection
to Recovery
through Reversion
to Realization
then Triumph

This gives you enough back-and-forth, forward-and-back action to keep readers engaged...without feeling like there’s too much melodrama, nor too little credibility.

They’ll get to witness every step of this climb, and celebrate a happy ending for someone who’s not only earned it, but who’s made them root for it because they’ve seen who this person IS. They’ve seen what makes ‘em tick.

Prize Drawing Question
Who’s a character YOU found yourself rooting for every step of the way? If you recall their name, or even their title / author’s name, mention that here and give all of us readers the chance to enjoy remembering (or discovering) some fabulous story!

Somebody who comments will win free registration to “His Personality Ladder,” a November 6-17 email class on the seven steps. On Tuesday evening I’ll have random dot org draw a name and post it waaaaay down at the end of the comments. (Because after all, our characters start their climb at the bottom!)

* * * * * *

About Laurie

After winning Romantic Times’ “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Since then she’s taught online and live workshops including the one at groups.io/g/Ladder, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. With 50+ titles there so far, she’s always hoping for more.

Top Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay

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72 comments on “Mastering Character Evolution: A Powerful Ladder of Choice”

      1. It's a very long book, but if you like historical fiction - or Victorian novels - it's a brilliant one, with many fascinating characters. I do hope you enjoy it.

  1. Hi Laurie, The character that first comes to mind for me isn't from a novel but a TV series--the very flawed, but intriguing Dr Gregory House from House MD.(I just love this character, even when he makes mistake after mistake, I'm rooting for him all the way. I just wish there was a book to continue his story.

  2. Since I just started re-reading the series, I would say the character I've cheered for most from the beginning was Harry Potter. His parents were ripped from his life while he was just a baby, his aunt and uncle mistreated him, and the world's most vile villain, who was also a formidable wizard, wanted him dead. Harry was forced to face the harsh realities of the world around him in ways no child should ever have to face. As adults we're supposed to protect our children from that. The adults in Harry's world didn't even try. As he grew into his own, partly through snark and arrogance, Harry could have chosen an easy path for himself by turning to the dark side. But he didn't. The dark side had snuffed out his family, and through courage, determination and love for his parents--people he did not want to let down--he chose a harsh rocky path full of dangerous detours. And I cheered him every step of the way.

  3. Before the action begins in my novel, the main character had a stable, loving family. He was a promising athlete and an excellent student with a full scholarship to college. An accident turns his life upside down. He is haunted by an accident he cannot remember. He no longer knows who he is and what he can do. His sister, who helped him through his recovery, made him promise he will never give up. She is murdered. "Never give up" takes on a new meaning. He vows he will not rest until he finds her killer. It’s a novel, of course he finds the killer and his place in the world.

  4. The character Don Tillman from the Rosie Project by Graeme Simision. It was one of the first characters I had met in fiction who was neurodiverse. He makes mistakes that could be heartbreaking but he somehow comes out great in the end. I just loved him.

  5. One of my favorite books when I was younger was Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. The main character, Meggie, and her father, Mo, were characters I could root for from the very beginning because they had a unshakeable bond. I could see that if they loved each other that much, I could love them too, and they both make such growth.

  6. In Barbara Hinske's series Guiding Emily we see the main character, Emily, grow from a leader in the workplace with a fabulous fiancé and plans for their future, to an almost-blind woman who believes her world has completely fallen apart. Then she discovers all the things available to help her return to where she began with the help of a guide dog and all new ways of interacting with her physical environment through technology. She ends up being stronger than she was when her journey began.

  7. I absolutely LOVED Lesson's In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. The main character, Elizabeth Zott, is a brilliant female chemist in the 1950's, in a very-male dominated field. I found myself not only rooting for her to overcome all the rejection, struggle, grief and blatant sexism of that time period, but I somehow became her during reading the book! Her character was steadfast, authentic and always stood up for herself and her life's work 🙂 A true feminist. This is also now a series on Apple TV! 😉

  8. Great post, Laurie! I love how you broke down the steps for showing character growth. And that class sounds awesome.

    My pick for character growth is a bit unconventional because I'm choosing the book Suspect by Robert Crais. He has two main characters, a police officer who survived an ambush and the other a military dog who survived 3 tours in the Iraq and Afghanistan. The story is told from both their POVs and they are both suffering from PTSD. Together they're finding their way back to some semblance of normal.

    I was rooting for both throughout the whole book. I've read it several times and still cry at certain parts.

  9. I thought of Elizabeth Bennett immediately from P&P. She begins feeling that she is doing the best she can in life and is doing the right thing. Later she sees her prejudices and changes to find happiness. It is a terrific story because Darcy also changes from proud to be happy. As a contrast Caroline stays proud and ends sad while Mr Bennett so doesn't change and has a somewhat sad ending.

  10. Hi Laurie,

    The "Personalty Ladder" class looks interesting. You have such great classes that teach new ways of looking at story, plot, and character. I'm going to cite Bobby Axelrod of the show "Billions." He was very transactional, going for the kill in business. At one point, he seemingly got what he wanted, but ended up divorced and alone. The writers did a great job of revealing him as a man who gained the world, but lost his soul. Then, in exile because of legal woes, he calemed down, seemed to learn tough lessons...like a wounded, recovering beast. His transactional character focused more on loyalty to others (so.ething that was always there, but this troubles brought them out more).

      1. Yes! Brian and I watched him evolved over 6 seasons (we were late to the show and binged the first 5 seasons). There are parts that I had to avert my eyes (HBO shows it all!). What kept us coming back, though, was the epic battle between Chuck Rhodes played by Paul Giamatti and Bobby Axelrod. The writers did such a great job staying true to the characters, and like your class will teach, used both sides of a trait to grow these characters. Really, really good.

  11. A fantastic post, Laurie! Your classes, especially your braiding class (offered next Sept 2024) forced me to dig deep with my characters and climb into their heads for their upcoming journey. No doubt this new class will be incredible, too.

    From the beginning, I rooted for Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games series because she was an ordinary girl ripped away from everything and everyone she loved, forced to fight for her life, sacrificing herself to protect her sister, but then sacrificing herself at every turn. President Snow appeared as an unbeatable power, but the two of them were more alike than different. It was like watching two masters playing chess—one wise and experienced and one learning and adding skills as she played.

  12. Since Terry Odell mentioned Eve Dallas, I'll go with a character I'm following this year. October Daye's (Seanan McGuire) mixed heritage makes her an outcast from the fey world. But she never hesitates to step up and be the hero when that world calls her for help. And every time, if she fails in her mission, it spells doom for the fey. You've got to admire someone who doesn't let the hurt and disappointment of knowing her chosen world will never fully accept her prevent her from always showing up to protect those who wish she didn't exist.

  13. Minerva Dobbs, from Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me. She has her friends, she has her problems, but from the moment she runs into Cal at that bar (The Lucky Shot? I think?) we're hoping that things will work out for her. What do we learn about her? Well, she's loyal to her friends; she's a bit too cautious in her personal life; she's good with kids; if she gets interested in something she will research the hell out of it; and she definitely deserves better than what life has given her so far. Oh, and she accidentally wound up collecting snow globes.

    1. Michael, I remember when suddenly everyone was talking about this new romance writer who didn’t sound like a romance writer — the fact that she impressed a fantasy writer shows those early critics were right!

  14. I love these steps! It makes it all feel so manageable, doesn't it? (Ah, the Age Old Issue of Plot vs Character...when your plot devices leave your character building lacking.) I've always been drawn to character to create plot--and always struggled because it feels you have to throw in the kitchen sink to please everyone. 🙂 But SEVEN KEY scenes/transitions for transformation (so to speak) sounds very manageable. Makes you focus all your "great ideas" to the best ones.

    Character I Root for All the Way: Good question. There are so many. Harry Potter, of course (and other characters within the series). I read romances a lot--so a few of my favorite "heroes" have been: Mary Balogh's Slightly Dangerous, the Duke of Bewcastle; Eloisa James' Garrett, Earl of Mayne; and Julie Garwood's heroine in Saving Grace, watching that character grow from a terrified abuse survivor to a powerful woman was amazing. OH, and Betina Krahn's book--The Last Bachelor--where the hero comes to the realization of just how unfair life is for women and he has to change his attitude in how he deals with women (rather than accusing them of being all scheming manipulators)--that was a transformation too.

    1. Fran, you’re so right about systems making it easier to keep a character-driven plot moving credibly…thank goodness for tools! And now you’ve got me curious about that Bettina Krahn book; in such a lineup it’s gotta be another winner. 🙂

    1. Beth, I just ordered that one this morning—although I may have misspelled the author’s name—but it sure sounded good. Nice to see it’s one of the favorites here; I’m all the more excited about its arrival!

  15. Ofelia hid when the planet she helped colonize was evacuated. She wanted to live out her life there, and she did, the only human. She eventually became part of the native society, and had to defend them against the next invasion by humans. The book is "Remnant Population" by Elizabeth Moon.

    Elizabeth Moon is brilliant. You mentioned in another comment an interest in books about neurodiverse characters. Try Moon's "The Seed Of Dark." The lead characters are autistic.

  16. I recently read a book called “What We Could Have Been” and I was immediately rooting for the lead character of Blue. The book is by Jess Sinclair. Don’t want to give anything away. Laurie, thanks for another great and interesting post — lots to think about!

    1. Nan, disregard the comment above; I got my buttons mixed up. Now you've got me curious about "What We Could Have Been," and I'm wondering if that's something I can wait to hear YOU narrating? If not, I'll just look for the print version. 🙂

    1. Sher, I'd forgotten the Desperaux movie -- that was a great one! And you're right; never a moment we weren't rooting for him to prevail. There've sure been some good Disney stories over the years, haven't there? 🙂

  17. Hi Laurie. For me, Amir from The Kite Runner (by Khaled Hosseini) is an unforgettable character. The changes in his character go hand in hand with the plot twists and turns in the story. A must-read book!

  18. Once again a fabulous post! You never fail to get my mind racing. I absolutely love flawed characters that really have to overcome their shortcomings in order to achieve their goals. It just really draws me in when the story and characters aren’t too perfect: I’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings again and I just loved how Frodo is able to accomplish everything even though he is gripped with fear. Tolkien definitely knew how to show we all have an inner strength that will guide us if we just believe in that power to overcome, The inner struggle; the being considered the weakest etc yet Frodo proved to be the strongest willed:

  19. Luke Dempsey in Becky Wade's award-winning, "Turn To Me", book three of her Misty River Romance Series. He's just been released from prison and is intent on fulfilling a promise to a late friend from the inside before moving on with his life. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about a main character with a criminal background, but I fell absolutely in love with him. The female lead is intent on helping him forgive himself for past mistakes but he doesn't feel deserving. Such a well-rounded, believable character!

    1. Lori, the system keeps saying "you already said that" so now I'm trying a new opening: I remember that same feeling about a hero from prison -- could that possibly work? I fudged it in my first book, making the arrest a mistake, but it's impressive that someone made it work for real.

  20. Hansen's Disease is the appropriate name. And if the right antibiotic therapy treatment is given and completed, it is curable.

    Using the appropriate terms for individuals with disabilities matters, even in examples. Disability-Inclusive language should be used in teaching to prevent promoting ableist and archaic terminology.

  21. Thanks to everyone who offered examples of characters that keep readers engaged -- it's SO cool seeing how many ways a person's journey can do that!

    And congratulations to Sher Swansby, whose number got drawn by random dot org, on winning free registration to "His Personality Ladder" which starts on GroupsIO Monday...just let me know where to send your invitation.

    Laurie, who's gonna enjoy checking back over the next few days for any other character mentions because I love coming away from a blog full of TBR ideas 🙂

  22. Hi Laurie. Great article, as always. Thank you. A character I root for? Well, today's favourite character will be Eva (the mother) in Lionel Shriver's We've Got to Talk about Kevin. 🙂

    1. Marcy, I like the idea of having a Character of the Day to root for -- way to go on making the most of every book that crosses your path. And that one WAS great; right from the title you know it's gonna be intriguing.

  23. Hi Laurie! It's always so fun to have you here at WITS. I'm bummed I'm not up for your class yet. I love classes like this! But no more than 30-ish minutes of computer a day for about another month - I'm cheating and using my phone so I can comment!

    1. Jenny, I’m so glad you’re up to 30 minutes a day — it’s nice seeing progress in action! And good for you on resisting temptation…this won’t be the last chance for Ladder class; I’ll do it again in 2026. 🙂

  24. Too late for the drawing, I know, but Ijust wanted to say "great post as always." Also wanted to assure anyone who's on the fence about taking your "Personality Ladder" class that it is well worth the time and effort. Exercises are presented in a friendly manner. And Laurie's feedback is honest and helpful, giving explanations of her response without trying to rewrite your story. I always come away from her class's with multiple ah-ha moments.

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