At its best, change can lead a person to a completely positive transformation, where their best qualities are ever more radiant and their inner demons are defeated. At its worst, change can turn someone we knew and loved into someone we barely recognize, by eroding their character from the inside out.
We’ve all seen friends and family members change, either for better or for worse. We know the joy over seeing someone excel and the pain from seeing someone plummet. In both cases, though, our relationship with that person is inevitably affected. Their character change will either enable us to connect with them more deeply or it will sever the connection we once shared.
In the world of narratives, identification is the degree to which we audience members relate to a character on an emotional level. We want them to succeed. We hate their enemies. We celebrate their victories. We mourn their losses. We even care for the people they care for.
Consequently, we grieve with them when a loved one dies in the story. This is perhaps obvious, but I want to point out that there is a different kind of loss that our favorite characters often face, with which we as the audience are also capable of empathizing. Not only can we grieve their losses, but we can also grieve their broken relationships. We witness it when they, or someone they love, undergoes a destructive character change that severs a relationship.
In some cases, we are watching the main character on a downward spiral—which can certainly be sad in its own way. But when someone they love changes beyond recognition—perhaps a character we liked on their own merit—this can hit us emotionally on two levels.
First, we mourn the objective tragedy of that character’s negative outcome. It is sad to watch someone make choices that harden their conscience, darken their hearts, and cloud their judgement—no matter who they are. Seeing a character we once liked fall into this trajectory is regrettable.
But this sense of pain is amplified when the character on the downward trajectory is someone our main character loves. It could be his or her family member, friend, or love interest. As long as the relationship is affected negatively by this character change, we are supposed to mourn that pain not only through our eyes as the audience, but also through the main character’s eyes. Executed properly, this aspect of the story will produce in us a two-sided sort of empathy in which we feel both the objective sadness of a character’s choices and the subjective sadness of the resulting broken relationships.
Why do I write about this?
It gets us to consider people from multiple angles, not just our own. It is easy to regret another person’s choices or changes when it hurts us—after all, we are by nature very selfish creatures. But in our grief over our loved ones’ negative changes, we should not only think of our own pain, but also of the objective damage they are doing to themselves and to others. After all, if we truly love that person, their well-being is just as important to us (if not more so) as our own. So we would do well to remember that the deeper tragedy is what that person is doing to himself or herself—not just what they are doing to us.
I think that this outward-focused mindset—if the person begins coming to their senses—will prepare us to reconcile much more easily than if we get caught up in our own pain.
What do you think?
What are some films or books where you were genuinely sad over how a character changed?
What kinds of character changes do you think are the hardest to watch?