Your Characters Don’t Have to Change to Be Compelling

I recently finished watching the first season of Star Trek Discovery. When I was only a few episodes in, I felt a little betrayed, as it seemed this particular Star Trek iteration was discarding what I loved about the show: its idealism and optimism for the future. But I stuck with it, and eventually realized the show was inspecting the very existential roots of how Star Trek (or Starfleet) ended up that way in the first place.

As part of that inspection, we see two different versions of a few key characters: a Starfleet version and then the “evil” version. But regardless of whether we’re watching the “good” or the “evil” version, it’s clear that the character, at their core, is the same. It’s just that the forces that have been applied to them over time have created different outcomes.

Which brings me, in a rather roundabout way, to Bret Anthony Johnston’s insights into how to know your character. He says:

When the [character] “change” feels beautiful … I think it’s because the character has confirmed what we’ve hoped or suspected all along. Maybe the character hasn’t changed at all, but rather has finally been put in a situation where her truest self can be revealed. … Stories, to my mind, are never about change. They are always and only about the possibility of change.

His thoughts about character development feel particularly appropriate for our times. Read the entire essay.

For more from the latest Glimmer Train bulletin:

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Posted in Creativity + Inspiration.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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