Character development: the bubble model

The lifeblood of so many stories is in their characters. An unsympathetic, unrelatable protagonist can easily drive readers away, and writing believable, sympathetic characters can pose real challenges. Not least among these is the question of how our characters change from beginning to end. How do we write believable, authentic change in our characters? How, in other words, do we bless them with the human quality for growth?

Human psychology: how (and how much) do people change over time?

I think the key starting place for this discussion has to be real human beings. How do real people’s personalities change over time? What forces prompt us to evolve, and what does that evolution actually look like? Recent research suggests a few trends in personality change that are (while not terribly surprising) important to remember as we’re writing:

1. Much of our personalities remains unchanged

Even as our character evolves, some traits must remain stable, at least to the point of recognizability. A character who shifts too much is not believable or relatable.

We sense this about people in real life: when we encounter again a person we have not seen for many years, we search for the familiar in them, and if that familiar is not there, then perhaps this is not really the person we once knew.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad deftly demonstrates this idea. Sasha, one of the book’s central characters, enters the novel as an unrepentant kleptomaniac. In story after story, Sasha’s compulsion to steal leads to loneliness, disconnection, and hopelessness. Fast-forward twenty-odd years, and Sasha is, at first, unrecognizable. I first wondered, in fact, whether Egan was introducing us to a new character also named Sasha, until there: Sasha builds sculptures of found objects, and the way the character studies each one, finds a place for it, it is the same as the Sasha from before. Although the character has transformed many aspects of her life, core parts of her remain, and I was excited to follow her.

2. Personality change is real and can be dramatic

In the final scene of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, protagonist Pip meets his erstwhile unrequited love interest, Estella. Although Pip recognizes her instantly, Estella is surprised that he does. “I am greatly changed,” Estella says. Indeed, Pip can see these changes in her:

The freshness of her beauty was indeed gone, but its indescribable majesty and its indescribable charm remained. Those attractions in it, I had seen before; what I had never seen before, was the saddened, softened light of the once proud eyes; what I had never felt before was the friendly touch of the once insensible hand.

Estella’s humility and kindness, Pip learns, are lessons hard-learned through difficult life experiences. “I have been bent and broken,” she continues, “but—I hope—into a better shape.”

The dramatic changes in Estella’s character, coupled with some recognizable, stable elements, make her real. We feel for Estella (as we did not feel for her early in the novel, when she was doing everything she could to hurt Pip), and we can only hope that the new direction her personality has taken will enable her to find happiness after the book ends.

Dramatic changes in a character are powerful in our writing. We can use them to flesh out themes, to impress on readers the impact of an experience, and to show vividly the marks of time.

3. Personality change is incremental: more gradual than abrupt

So far, I’ve been discussing character change over long timespans, but what about in the more intimate, closer times in which many of our stories take place? The dramatic changes in Sasha and Estella seem that way because we have not seen the characters for many years. Personality change is, in reality, gradual, slow, halting, backpedaling–and when the character in question is our protagonist, whom we follow from beginning of the story to the end, we must show that change carefully.

My favorite example, and perhaps I’m thinking of this now too because I’m currently teaching it to my second-year students, is The Color Purple. While there are many things to love about this book, what stands out to me is the development of Celie, its protagonist. Rising from the depths of abuse, self-loathing, and loneliness to a tower of strength, love, hope, and connection, Celie’s transformation is dramatic in the long view, but its incremental, careful construction is the real triumph. Looking at beginning-of-the-novel and ending Celie side by side, they might be as unrecognizable as Sasha. But Walker shows the transformation gradually, and I believe this is what makes it both believable and powerful.

How to do it: the bubble model

I like to think of each of my characters existing in a bubble of potential actions:

Doodle 1: the bubble

The bubble represents all of the actions, thoughts, and feelings that are within a character’s scope, and the bubble is circumscribed, usually, by that character’s personality traits.

Doodle 2: inside the bubble, a range of expression

Within the limits of the bubble is a whole range of ways your character might act or think or feel. They may be thrilled, afraid, sad, talkative, etc. but all of these ways of being are mediated through established personality traits. The character remains recognizable at every state, because the core of who they are has been established. As long as the character stays within the realm of their bubble, she or he develops complexity, roundness, and believability. They seem human.

But what happens when the character leaves their bubble? Leaving the bubble happens when a character behaves in so strange a way, so unlike what readers have seen before, that believability is broken. “Cynthia wouldn’t do that,” they might say, or “Why on earth is Yiying not upset?” The verisimilitude is broken. Suspension of disbelief caves in. Our character loses their life-giving sympathy with readers, and the story fails.

The bubble and character change

So what does this mean for character development over time? If a character is largely confined to this bubble, how are they actually changing?

As characters evolve and their range of “normal” shifts, we can envision the bubble moving:

Doodle 3: bubble on the move

As the bubble moves, new reactions, expressions, and feelings become possible. At the same time, others fall away. They no longer fit for the character in her new state.

Sometimes, the bubble moves because the character pushes it. The character recognizes a weakness in themselves, and they work to expand and push their boundaries as they discover new strengths and new ways of being that, before, would have fallen outside her bubble.

Other times, outside forces drag that bubble against that character’s will. Traumatic experiences, existential challenges, all kinds of conflict might force change on the character’s personality, and the character might find that she no longer even knows herself.

In most stories, both phenomena occur. A character finds themselves changed in response to conflict, and she or he must then push the bubble in one direction or another to discover a happier way of being in the world. The Color Purple, discussed above, exemplifies both kinds of change, as Celie’s abusive father and husband pull her bubble first into a place of low self-esteem, and over the course of thirty years, Celie slowly but resolutely pushes that bubble back the other way. In Great Expectations, Estella’s bubble has similarly been dragged far away from its earlier domain. In this case, however, Estella’s experiences, while traumatic and terrible, have also helped her build empathy and kindness. She has, perhaps, pushed her own bubble off a side path rather than directly against the external forces (this is, of course, conjecture; we know very little about Estella’s subjective emotional journey. We learn only a few details from her conversation with Pip).

Central to this model, however, is that the change comes gradually. Celie’s journey to self-love is a wavering course. She takes two steps forward, one step back, and it can be helpful here to look back again at Doodle 2. At every point along the character’s developmental journey, a range of actions is possible. A character may push their bubble for a while, then get stuck. Even when the bubble has in fact moved, enough of their old self might still be within it for them not to notice the change. Who the character is becomes a statement of averages, perhaps. We all evolve, but we do not change overnight.

A couple more bubble applications

The bubble model can help us envision other aspects of our characters. For example, major and minor characters might be thought of as having bubbles of different sizes. The main character of a story might need a large emotional range, a variety of traits, flaws, and experiences that make them complex and believable. Minor characters, by their very nature, might need less range, yet they are not confined to the role of mindless automatons. Minor characters might still possess a limited range of possibilities, and they too can push and ride the changes of their bubbles.

It can also be useful to think about various conceptions of a character’s personality in the minds of other characters. In a way, we are always trying to identify the bubbles of the real people we know. As we learn more about a person, we develop a better sense of how they might react in different situations. Our characters are doing the same thing: as they meet one another, they develop ideas about how their fellow characters exist in the world. Those ideas, just like our own in real life, have varying degrees of accuracy. We might consider what one character thinks of another, and whether they’re right or wrong, to what extent the bubbles overlap.

Last thoughts

These bubbles are not revolutionary. If anything, I hope they reinforce our common writing sense. Character evolution must be gradual to be believable, and characters who don’t evolve at all have learned little from their experiences. Where are the boundaries of the bubble? How far beyond their norm can a character venture before they drop into unbelievability? It varies from story to story and from reader to reader. Play with those limits. Experiment with the moving bubble. Expand it and shrink it, split it or stretch it. Best wishes. Happy writing.

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