Tuesday, March 29

The Wheels of (Character) Change

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)


This week Janice and I are tag-teaming on a theme: change, and how difficult it is to do things differently.

The most compelling characters are the ones who are flawed, and flaws are often borne out of deeply-cast deficits—weaknesses that could be different if only the character were willing to make different choices. As an addictions counselor, I have intimate knowledge of the process of change and the six distinct stages a person visits when they embark on (and succeed at) doing things differently (because sometimes they get stuck—and your most interesting characters will too).

Allow me to introduce you to what is—pretentiously, perhaps—known at my day-job as Prochaska & DiClemente’s Transtheoretical Model of Change (or, more simply, The Change Wheel).

Stage I Pre-Contemplation


People who are pre-contemplative haven’t a whit of clue that their behavior is a problem, and they certainly don’t want to hear it from you. They rationalize, minimize, cast blame, and make excuses. Their behavior or circumstance—no matter how unhealthy it obviously is to the outsider—works for them; they derive pleasure or comfort from the status quo of where they’re at no matter how destructive that might be. An excellent example of a pre-contemplator is Annalise’s philandering husband Sam in How To Get Away With Murder. Sam’s behavior cannot get much more dysfunctional yet he justifies, he lies, he distorts the facts…he digs his hole.

Why do people get stuck in Pre-Contemplation? Because what they are doing meets their needs. Period. Sam loves sex, being desired, and being pursued. He’s getting precisely what he wants and the consequences are negligible because he is not even considering them. People—and characters—who are pre-contemplative are typically oblivious, defiant and defensive. They can also be arrogant, callous and selfish.

Stage II Contemplation


This character is fully aware that their behavior is destructive, yet they are not entirely convinced they should change. They are in a head space where lots of cost-benefit analysis is going on, yet are still leaning hard in the direction of continuing to do the things they do. I secretly call this ‘The Devil You Know’ stage, because even though there is lots of awareness within the person that they should do things differently, they still feel they have too heavy an investment in how they’ve always done things to make a change. Giving up their old ways—be it a substance, a lover, a food, or a fetish—evokes fear, grief, and panic. How will they cope without ______?(fill in the blank). They don’t know, yet are aware they need to find out. A super example of a Contemplator is Joshilyn Jackson’s Nonny in Between, Georgia. Nonny knows she needs to divorce Jonno—he’s given her syphilis, for God’s sake!—but the sex is great, he understands her whacky bond with both her birth and adoptive family….Nonny teeters on the fence, knowing Jonno’s toxic, yet knowing also that Jonno is the ‘devil she knows’.

Internal conflict is richly mined in the Contemplation Stage, and it’s important to note why people get stuck there: Because what they are doing still meets their needs and they are not convinced that doing things differently will. People stuck in contemplation are often sad, anxious, indecisive and plagued by inertia. They may engage in wildly polarized behavior like ‘binging’ on their destructive behavior one day and piously abstaining the next. Contemplators are thinkers in the truest sense of the definition.

Stage III Preparation


Here is a character who has reached a decision: Things must change. Yet they are also aware that in order to make an effective change, they need to plan accordingly. This is the ‘getting one’s ducks in a row’ stage. For the person leaving a relationship, this might look like calling a lawyer, opening new bank accounts, or apartment hunting. The drinker may amass a list of AA meetings or be meeting potential sponsors. Josh Malerman created a great Preparation Stage character when he crafted Malorie in BirdBox. Malorie has made the momentous decision to venture (with her two pre-schoolers) out of the house for the first time in years, knowing there are monsters outside, and keenly aware that she and the children will be annihilated if they so much as see them—ergo their entire escape must be done blindly. Malorie spends the middle chunk of BirdBox preparing for this quest—and it is painstakingly fraught with tension as her venture seems so impossible.

Why might someone get stuck in Preparation? Because change is scary, and there is such a thing as being over-prepared—especially when one over-thinks it.

Stage IV Action


Here’s a character actively doing things differently. They’ve given up the dope, they’ve ended the affair, they’ve cut the cord with potato chips and are Weight Watchers disciples. New habits are being operationalized and they are no longer just practicing their refusal skills—they are using them. The Action Stage may sound like the end of the novel, but it can also be a way to jack tension in a story; when a character changes, it puts pressure on those around them to change too and, because change is hard and scary, said others might not be too thrilled with that. So we can look at a show like The Killing and see that Linden has quit policing….but that her partner, Holder, is not so ready to let her go. He presents her with case after seductive case even though she is firmly in the Action Stage of change, living on her island and calmly working for the Forestry there.

Why do people stay stuck in Action? Because they like their life now that things are different. Ah, but why do loved ones sometimes sabotage Action? Because misery loves company, baby. We hate to sit in our sinking ships all alone.

Stages V & VI Maintenance & Termination


No examples needed, this is obviously the Stage most fitting to end our stories: here Action has become Habit and the character has now broken free of the dysfunction that led him or her through the Stages of Change in the first place. Maintenance still means practicing a new way to live, but this gets easier and easier as new ways become the ‘old’ ways— after all, time has a way of making even new skills a reflex, and pretty soon it’s been years since we had a drink, wore our fat-pants, or shucked our pants to be with that lover who was oh-so-charming…but also oh-so poisonous.

A handy chart of Prochaska & DiClemente’s Stages of Change is here 

and I’d like to close with a beautiful poem I keep a stack of copies of and give to all my clients who are ‘stuck on the change wheel’. It’s by Portia Nelson, and now it is yours to reflect on:

“I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn't my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It's a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.” – Portia Nelson

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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10 comments:

  1. Bonnie's insight is amazing as well as Portia's poem. Thanks Janice for bringing us this blog.
    Pam

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  2. Bonnie's insight is amazing as well as Portia's poem. Thanks Janice for bringing us this blog.
    Pam

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    1. Thank you so much - I love the poem too and reflect on it often myself

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  3. These are helpful additional items to bear in mind in working with building a flawed character that readers can identify with.

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  4. LOVED the poem. Recapped it so well.

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    1. I love this poem too. There's a melancholy resoluteness to it that moves me

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  5. Great post! I heard that poem around a year ago and I still love it. Though someone a long time ago brought up that there should be a sixth step where you cover up the hole so no one makes the same mistake.

    ~K.A.C.

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    1. Ah, but then we'd rob people of a necessary (albeit painful) piece of their journey....

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