Character transformation is the life force of romantic fiction.
It guides your plot decisions. It sets up the reader's emotional journey. And it creates the framework for delivering the story's message.
There are three different types of character transformations you can harness, and each one opens up unique story opportunities.
What is a character transformation?
Before we look at the three 3 types of transformations, let's first talk about what a character transformation is. (Already know? Skip on down to the 3 types.)
A character transformation is the change from their original self to their final self in a story. This change is usually drastic enough that their newly evolved self embraces a totally different set of core values than they started their journey with.
In my article on character arcs, I gave an example of a caterpillar who transforms into a butterfly. The young grub has completely different needs, fears, and desires from its future butterfly self. Becoming a butterfly is the caterpillar's transformation.
Character transformation examples
Character transformations aren't always positive, and they're not always big and flashy. We'll talk more about positive vs. negative transformations a little later, but let's first look at some extreme examples.
In the Star Wars prequel movies, young Anakin Skywalker starts out as a sweet, naïve boy who only wants to protect his mother, then slowly begins to walk a darker path after he fails that early goal. He eventually lets his grief and need for revenge dominate his choices, until he becomes a hate-filled shell of a person that even his closest friends don't recognize and won't accept.
But in Episode 6: Return of the Jedi, Anakin (now acting as his transformed persona, Darth Vader) chooses to sacrifice himself to save his son. Through that action, and through his son Luke's example and influence in the movie's events, Anakin transforms himself again. This time, his motivation is love, not hate or revenge, and he dies at peace, as a better version of his previous self.
Anakin's journey in the first three movies is a negative transformation, illustrated through scenes that capture the five character-arc stages in a fall arc.
His evolution from homicidal overlord to protective father during Return of the Jedi is a positive transformation. The specific set of plot moments that enables his positive evolution is an example of a growth arc.
Now that we understand more about what character transformations can look and feel like, let's talk about the writing frameworks that will help you craft powerful character arcs.
Character arcs vs character transformations
In my editing work, I often interchange the terms character "transformation" and character "arc", but there is a difference.
The character arc is the 5-stage framework that defines how the character evolves from their original self to their fully transformed self. The arc is the set of specific stages the character must pass through in order to start and finish the change.
The transformation is the change itself and its scope of personal evolution.
No matter whether your character becomes a better or worse version of themself, they must go through each of the five stages in the character arc framework to become fully transformed.
In today's article, we're focusing on the 3 most important types of character transformations you can tap into as a storyteller and what the stages of those character arcs look like.
Growth arcs, fall arcs, and flat character arcs
Every character transformation is powered by one of these three types of character arcs:
- 1A growth arc
- 2A fall arc
- 3A flat arc
What's the difference? And when should you use each type of character arc?
1. Growth arcs
Most main characters in romantic fiction experience a positive transformation during their story, so their character arc is a growth arc.
In a growth arc, the character realizes they are hiding from a fear and takes steps to face and overcome that fear.
If you mapped out the plot points on a graph, with their emotional journey as the Y-axis, their character arc might look something like this:
Notice how the character's emotional health ends at a higher place on the graph than it started, even though there are some bobbles along the way.
In my Return of the Jedi example above, Vader experiences a positive growth arc even though he is an antagonist in the story. Growth arcs aren't just for the "hero" characters.
Here are the five stages of a growth arc:
- 1Begins the journey unaware of a threat, fear, or need that is holding them back
- 2Has a moment of realization about a specific fear or need that could bring change
- 3Considers making the change or facing the fear but doesn't immediately act
- 4Acts in a way that demonstrates their commitment to facing the fear
- 5Lives fully committed to the change and no longer lets the fear control them
Viewed in order, the stages of the character's transformation may seem easy. All they have to do is progress from one stage to the next, right?
But in reality, there are temptations and failures between each of the steps above. That's why the example graph above isn't a simple, straight line.
You can craft your character's growth arc as a roller coaster of highs and lows or weave it into a warm-sweater hug of a story. The way you connect the 5 stages in the character's transformation arc to the 6 steps on their Emotional Transformation Ladder determines the intensity of the transformation journey.
2. Fall arcs
In romantic fiction, fall arcs are usually reserved for the antagonist of the story.
In a fall arc, the character starts out with good intentions but begins making compromises that erode their ethical foundations. Over the course of their transformation, they sacrifice the pillars of their moral compass to gain power, wealth, control, or some specific out-of-reach goal.
On a plot-point map, the emotional journey of the fall arc could look something like this:
The five stages of a fall arc are similar to those of a growth arc, but the first and final stages are reversed.
- 1Begins the journey with a stable, healthy mindset. They may be aware or unaware of their fear, but it does not tempt them from their path.
- 2Has a moment of realization about a specific fear or need that could erode their stability
- 3Considers making the change or giving in to the fear but doesn't immediately act
- 4Acts in a way that protects them from the fear and begins changing their moral belief system to justify their new path
- 5Lives fully committed to the change and embraces being controlled by the fear by convincing themself it was the best or only way
Anakin Skywalker's journey from Jedi to Sith is a fall arc.
3. Flat arcs
Flat arcs are as prevalent in romantic fiction as growth arcs, but because they don't depict a significant change from the character's starting self, they're often overlooked as a storytelling tool.
The two main ways romance writers use flat arcs for the protagonists of their stories are:
In both examples above, the character may have already transformed. Or the story may be establishing their pre-transformed self.
A hero with a flat arc might experience temptations and have on-page highs and lows, but they end their character arc in the story in roughly the same psychological, emotional, and/or physical state as they started: untransformed.
Questions and comments
Which of these character-arc types is right for the most prominent three characters in your WIP?
What we covered in this article is just a starting point to guide your storytelling decisions, so think about ways you can use the framework of a character arc to craft a truly transformative story.
Leave a comment below and tell me what's tripping you up in your current WIP's character arc.