Narratives are all about change – protagonists changing their perspectives as they see, hear and learn new things, choosing to do things differently as they get put through trial after tribulation. In my post Why Readers Read we learned that story was our first virtual reality. That we’re drawn to story on a primal level because it’s how we can learn life’s lessons with zero risk to ourselves. In an evolutionary sense, that’s plain smart. So when we open those paper or digital pages, we subconsciously want to see our characters learn and change, so we can vicariously do that too.
And because psychologists love to research and label, they’ve managed to come up with a whole model of what we humans can go through when faced with the need to do things differently. Originally conceived in the health psychology field, the Stages of Change theory was proposed to understand addictive behaviours – initially alcoholism, but later for issues such as smoking cessation, drug addiction or health improvement behaviours like exercise. So if you have a character struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, this post is particularly pertinent to you, but the fascinating part is how we can take this understanding of human behaviour and apply it to all our characters.
Let me show you.
A character in the pre-contemplation stage of change is not even thinking about changing; they may not see they have a problem, or they think that others who point out the problem are exaggerating. The problem isn’t them, it’s their world.
What’s even more interesting is that there’s different types of pre-contemplators:
- Reluctant pre-contemplators: are those who through lack of knowledge or inertia do not want to consider change. The impact of the problem has not become fully conscious.
- Rebellious pre-contemplators: are invested in their current state and are resistant to being told what to do (sounds a little like my teenage son…).
- Resigned pre-contemplators: have given up hope about the possibility of change and seem overwhelmed by the problem. They may have tried to change and failed.
- Rationalizing pre-contemplators: these logic users have all the answers — they have plenty of reasons why there is no problem, or why others have a problem and not them.
If this is your protagonist, this is where we are likely to find them at the outset of your book. Alternatively, a secondary character that remains stuck in this stage can provide a fabulous contrast to a character that’s about to move onto the next stage…
Something, or someone, oh, like a catalyst, a call to action…can have your protagonist considering that maybe, maybe they have a problem, and that possibility offers hope for change. At this stage though, they are often highly ambivalent. They’re on the fence. Contemplation is not a commitment, not a decision to change. They know they have a problem, and they often have a list of all the reasons that the current situation isn’t working for them. But even with all these negatives, they still struggle to make a decision to change. At this stage you want your character to consider the pros and cons of their behaviour, and the pros and cons of change (I suggest setting up some nice little plot points demonstrating what they could gain by changing, or why staying stuck isn’t such a good idea).
Determination: Commitment to Action
This stage is all about making a decision. All the weighing of pros and cons, the debating of risks and rewards, finally tips the balance in favour of change. When your character reaches this stage, they’re ready for change and committed to action.
This stage represents preparation as much as determination, and making a plan. They will need to identify the resources and skills they will need to succeed. They may need to rally supporters. They will certainly need to try and anticipate any barriers or hurdles (translation: plot twists) that may come along. Or maybe they don’t…and risk moving backwards instead of forwards…
Action: Implementing the Plan
(Is anyone else hearing ‘Act 3’ right about now?) It’s at this stage that your character will put their plan into action. The title is pretty self-explanatory, they’ve acknowledged the need for change, they’re determined to see it through — so they do it. They discover how much easier it is, and how much harder it is. They discover all the benefits of this new way of living, along with any associated costs. Along the way your reader gets to experience the inspiring process that human change is.
Maintenance, Relapse and Recycling
This stage demonstrates the reality of change. In human terms, change requires building a new pattern of behaviour over time. If your novel starts with a character in the ‘Maintenance’ stage, it’s important to acknowledge that change takes time to become firmly established. Sometime we can relax our guard, or test ourselves, and begin sliding back. When this happens, the threat of return to old patterns is a real possibility. Your character may maintain long-term change (and the longer they go, the more likely they are to achieve this), or they may relapse. In this case, returning to their new state of being (whether it be sober, skinny or single) can strengthen their determination…or have them starting the cycle all over again.
What do you think? Do you see any of your characters at any of these stages? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Have a wonderful week,