Bad Habits Make Good
by Jason Black
Bad habits make good character growth
Many character arcs hinge
on transformative moments: event or experiences that change the
character. The moment may be a realization that something she
thought was true isn't. It may change the way she thinks about life
or how she interacts with other people. Whatever change she
undergoes, afterwards readers knows one thing: this character is
going to behave differently than before.
when a character grows and becomes a better person, can be deeply
profound and moving. That is, if you make them dramatic. If you
show them well. It doesn't work to simply tell the reader that your
character has changed, like this:
Jane decided she'd had enough of bad boyfriends. She'd was tired of
being stuck in bad relationships simply because she was too afraid
of facing an ugly breakup scene. That's it, Jane thought.
Enough. I'm going over to Carl's place right now to end
This describes a deeply
transformative moment—a character seizing an opportunity to start
actively controlling her life—but pardon me while I yawn. I see
this all too often in my clients' manuscripts. Transformative
moments pass by in little ripples when they deserve a tsunami.
How do you make the
transformative moment dramatic? You show it, rather than tell it,
and for this purpose nothing beats a habit. Especially a bad
habit. The trick is to link the bad habit to the aspect of the
character that will change. Use the habit as an external
representation of the internal character trait. Then, changes in
the character's behavior concerning that habit signal to the reader
that the underlying trait is changing too.
Suppose Jane has a smoking
habit to accompany her bad boyfriend habit. How do we link them?
We can let Jane smoke as an avoidance mechanism. Rather than facing
uncomfortable situations directly, Jane dodges them by going outside
for a smoke. That's the trait Jane needs to change in order to grow
as a person: stop avoiding, and start confronting. Smoking isn't
really her problem, it is only a manifestation of her tendency to
run away from conflict.
Making cigarettes a
representation for what Jane needs to change can work wonders for
your story, but you must set it up well ahead of time. You can't
spring this representation on the reader by telling them about it
just prior to Jane's breakup scene with Carl. You have to show it,
early and often, as your novel progresses.
Readers must see several
instances of Jane engaging in this behavior earlier in the novel.
Show her going outside for a smoke rather than sitting down to the
unpleasant task of paying bills. Show her lighting up rather than
calling her mother for an inevitable earful of questions about when
she and Carl are going to get married. Show her taking a
smoke-break at work before a meeting where she's supposed to present
a project that isn't quite finished, and show her ending up late for
the meeting because of it.
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010
None of these situations
have any bearing on Carl, but they do plant a firm connection in
readers' minds between cigarettes and Jane's avoidance problem.
With that setup, let's revisit the breakup scene:
Jane stepped out of her car, pulling her overcoat tight against the
chill night air. She walked up the path to Carl's door, and stood
on the doorstep. Soft lumps of cigarette butts, old and flattened,
pressed against the sole of her shoe. How am I going to do this?
What am I going to say? She stared at the doorbell,
Jane reached into her coat pocket for a cigarette, drawing one out.
She held the thin paper tube in one hand, staring at it. She looked
down at the butts littering the doorstep, dirty white against
charcoal black smudges. Too many to count. Her lip curled as she
flicked the unlit cigarette away from her. It tumbled through the
air, beyond the reach of Carl's porch light, vanishing into
darkness. I know exactly what to say. Jane rang the
doorbell, listening to its muffled, low sound behind the door. I
just have to say it.
First, readers see the
familiar habit coming into play again. They recognize the situation
as one Jane would rather avoid. They see the evidence that she has
often stood on this doorstep, smoking to avoid arguments with Carl.
They're expecting her to do it again, to see her stand there sucking
down a cigarette until she loses her nerve for the confrontation.
But then she doesn't. She
catches herself at that moment of avoidance. She doesn't let
herself succumb to the delay that will kill her nerve. She doesn't
light up, but rather throws the cigarette away unsmoked. She does
not avoid, she acts. She summons confidence and determination
instead of insecurity, and rings the doorbell.
That is the power of
Jane's transformative moment: to dramatically show Jane rejecting
passivity and seizing control. Now, when Jane confronts Carl, we
almost expect him to say "What's come over you?" Character growth,
Carl, that's what. The manifestation of her character arc.
Habits, especially bad
ones, are wonderful tools for showing a character's growth because
they give the reader an external symbol for what would otherwise be
internal and invisible character traits. Once the habit is well
established—once that symbolic connection is drawn—all you have to
do is change the habitual behavior to signal a change in the
character's deeper self.
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Jason Black is a freelance
book editor who actively blogs about character development. He
recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers
Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at