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Monday, March 28

What “The Profit” Can Teach Us About Characters and Change

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Character growth can be tough to write, because people don’t change unless they want to, and have to. It’s always an outside trigger that causes it, because people do what people want to do. Unless there’s something wrong, there’s no reason to change.

Creating realistic and believable character growth in our stories requires those outside triggers to force our characters to change. Too little pressure and the change feels contrived, too much and readers start wondering if our protagonists will ever learn.

Crazy as it sound, the TV show The Profit is a fantastic way to study how and why people change, and can be a valuable resource for writers.

The show is simple: Businessman Marcus Lemonis takes struggling businesses, invests and partners with then, and then fixes the business to become profitable. Viewers go through the process with him and see how the owners adapt and react to the changes.

And that’s the fascinating (and educational) part.

The emotional range of how people react to change covers the scope of human responses. Some people are so emotionally invested in what they’re doing they can’t see good advice or the lifeline out to save their lives (or businesses). Others are so lost they don’t know what to do and need help, and are eager for that help. Some fight every step of it, and only after they see the results do they turn around and start to embrace the new. And some see the positive results, reject it all, and walk away, refusing to change even though it’s hurting them.

While this show is all about business, the people are real and the emotional roller coaster they often ride is real. Our characters go through this same roller coaster and feel these same emotions as they face challenges they can barely deal with.

What Can We Learn From The Profit?

1. People ignore reason if they’re convinced they’re right.

No matter what’s said or what proof is offered, if someone feels they’re right they often won’t listen to a thing anyone trying to help them says.

Once business owner was losing $150,000 a month, had never made a profit in the 5 years his business had been open, was $5 million dollars in debt, and he still insisted he had a good business and was a good businessman. And he wasn’t the only owner in this situation—multiple episodes showed blind-to-reality owners in the same denial.

How we can use this: If our characters are sure they’re right (especially if they’re wrong), odds are they’ll cling to that with both hands. Often, the more wrong they are, the harder they resist anything that contradicts their views. This is a great fault to give a character who has logical reason to change but still needs to refuse to do what needs doing to fix their problem and life.

(Here’s more on ways characters can screw up their decisions)

2. The more deeply emotional the investment, the harder is it to let go of control.

The more important something is to you, the harder is it to let others help you with it. A popular trait with control freaks, but it can apply to anyone who is scared of losing something that matters a great deal to them.

Owners who put their hearts and souls into a business or process that wasn’t working were the ones who had the hardest time letting go and letting Marcus make changes. They had to micro-manage every aspect of the business, even if that was the very thing sinking it. Some even took strong, solid advice, agreed to it, then changed it at the last minute to do it their way.

How we can use this: Characters who feel the only way to make sure something is done right is to do it themselves are going to resist help, especially if the problem affects them on a deeply personal level. They’ll attempt to control everything, even if they’re not good at it or don’t know how to control it, and end up making a huge mess of things. This is a great flaw for characters who have been let down before, have a difficult time trusting others, or just want things done their way.

(Here’s more on character shame and how that affects them)

3. Change can occur when people are publicly confronted with the truth that their actions hurt loved ones.

Outside events trigger inside changes—but only if it will cost the person who needs to change. Sometimes we just don’t see how our actions affect those around us. We don’t think of ourselves as “that kind of person.”

Some of the most relationship-horrific owners (and bosses) changed their ways when they were forced to see and admit how their actions were hurting those around them—when they could no longer deny what their actions were doing to spouses and family members. One husband and wife team showed how rude, controlling, and downright misogynistic the husband was being, and by the end of the episode (and his experience), positive changes were made to him being a better man and husband.

How we can use this: Our characters might be on destructive paths, but they’re usually good people. They might not realize how their negative traits are affecting those around them. When they see how their actions hurt those they care about, it might be the kick in the butt they need to change their ways. This is a great flaw for characters who need deep, personal growth to fix a major flaw in their personality. Or a major belief that’s flat-out wrong.

(Here’s more on characters who are too stupid to live)

4. To change, sometimes people need a stranger to tell them the hard truths.

It’s easier to hear hard truths from someone who’s objective and doesn’t know you. It’s not personal, it’s just an outside observation.

Quite often these failing business owners had someone in their employ (or life) who had been telling them what was wrong, or trying to fix things and getting shot down every time. But the owners were incapable of listening because they didn’t believe what was being said—they didn’t trust people they knew to have skills they didn’t have, even if they hired them for those exact skills (control freaks again).

How we can use this: Outside forces and complete strangers can make our characters see, realize, and admit the things they don’t want to face. Sometimes the villain is the very person who can make them wake up and make that change. This is a key element in almost every single character arc—at some point, something happens and the character has that epiphany.

(Here’s more on dysfunctional characters)

Besides the entertainment value, The Profit is a fascinating study of human behavior. Watching people struggle to do “the right thing” gives us examples of what people will do and the dumb (and destructive) mistakes they make. It’s a great resource, even if the situations are vastly different from anything we’d likely be writing (unless you’re writing about a failing business, then this show is gold for you).

It captures the emotional struggles people go through to change what isn’t working, which is basically what every single character arc is about. The details are different, but the emotions are the same.

And we can learn a lot while watching those emotions play out.

NOTE: Tomorrow, Bonnie Randall continues this with the psychology behind change and how we can apply this to our writing. 

Have you ever seen The Profit? What do you think?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. A lot of great tips here, not just to apply to characters but aspects of life as well.

  2. Really great post, Janice. Lots to think about!

  3. I never knew what this show was, but now I've already opened their pages and I'll be watching. Anything that helps make a good character is okay by me! Thanks for the tip!