Changing a Character’s Identity

For the last ten years, I have been recognized and identified as a high school English teacher. I have taught literature and writing, how to do well on an ACT test and a few life hacks, knowing that my students would be leaving me to enter into the hallway that leads to adulthood.

But that part of me isn’t going to continue for very long, as I have taken a job in a different area. I will no longer be going to the high school, I will no longer have an opinion about who would make a good student body president, know whether the prom queen is kind, or follow the progress of the local sports scene like I have because I taught someone on the team.

While there were significant tears shed in the process of realigning my identity, there were even more moments of self-reflection, with serious considerations of whether my present situation aligned with what I wanted my future to be.

As is the case with many writers, this real-life, stomach-wrenching, soul-searching situation has led me to consider characterization.

When we get right down to it, I think most people read because they want to take a journey beyond their own experience. For me, I like to watch the emotional realizations and development that take place in the hearts and minds of characters, fictional people who are usually old enough to have learned life’s lessons, but experienced enough life to make them uncertain. I love an inciting incident that provides a character with a quick splash from the bucket of reality, and forces them to go through the same process I recently endured.

There is a danger, however, in creating a character that changes too quickly: it can seem like a politician who hates chocolate until funding from a chocolatier is on the line. It leads to a flimsy plot, fake characterization, and unsatisfied readers.

So, how do we depict the changing identities of characters? I have some thoughts.

1. Provide a reason for why the character as he/she is at the beginning. 

This requires a little backstory, but not of “In the beginning” proportions. If we can see a second son in a 1600’s royal family, we bring our own understanding that he’s not first in so many ways. A character who has been left out and mocked since grade school lends itself to validation for a solitary existence. A woman who was jilted TWICE is justified in her distrust of men. It can be small, it can be subtle, but it is necessary for the reader to connect with the character as is.

2. Reveal a character’s loyalties. 

This is the opportunity to let the reader be sympathetic for the character’s present situation. We tend to be understanding of a character who doesn’t pursue business ventures when we see an ailing mother relies on his support. The woman who has several young children elicits compassion from readers who learn of her constant frazzled exhaustion. Readers can’t help but understand a teen who sleeps through class and barely turns in homework when we learn he works 40 hours a week to help his single dad pay the mortgage. The revelation of loyalty will often work later to depict the cause of a character’s stagnation.

3. Allow the character a glimpse of both a status quo and/or a change. 

This is the small slap from the character’s reality. If the successful lawyer who bills 80 hours a week misses an anniversary dinner, a kid’s birthday, a parent’s last moments, or faces the physiological consequences of his decisions, he may be prone to self-evaluation. A kid who doesn’t mind getting high every once in a while could have a close friend OD (death or not of overdose determined by the cruelty of the writer), calling to attention the seriousness of her own addiction. A person working a job that he is good at, but for which he has no passion might need only small glimpses of an alternate path before reconsidering how he is spending 40 hours a week for the next 20 years.

4. Make the change hard. 

One of the reasons changing identities can be so difficult is because it is who our characters have been recognized as, who they have introduced themselves as, who they were when they formed memories and reputations and social circles. Routines are easy and breaking them is equally difficult. All a writer has to do is look at our own resolutions, and how many times the same resolution has made the list before it becomes automatic or discarded. Trust and change and love and confidence and loyalty are some of the most prominent themes in books and some of the most difficult qualities to master. Let the readers take the journey with the characters, see them struggle so that a final victory is, in fact, laudable.
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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids living in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

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