Stages of Change and Character Arc

On Kathy Carmichael’s awesome site, she has a form to aid in creating a short synopsis and plotting your story.  You should go download that now.  I’ll wait.

She suggests, on the first page, to list ten events that will help change a character’s core belief and to keep in mind the stages of change.  This opened up a whole new way of looking at structuring character arc for me so I wanted to share what I’d found on the stages of change.

The earliest stage of change is known as precontemplation. During the precontemplation stage, people are not considering a change. People in this stage are often described as “in denial” due to claims that their behavior is not a problem. If you are in this stage, you may feel resigned to your current state or believe that you have no control over your behavior. In some cases, people in this stage do not understand that their behavior is damaging or are under-informed about the consequences of their actions.

via Stages of Change – Precontemplation Stage.

We’re going to be dealing with 4 of those stages, so it would make sense, I think, to divide this arc into quarters.  For example, the precontemplation stage would be the first 1/4 of your story.

During this stage, people become more and more aware of the potential benefits of making a change, but the costs tend to stand out even more. This conflict creates a strong sense of ambivalence about changing. Because of this uncertainty, the contemplation stage of change can last months or even years. In fact, many people never make it past the contemplation phase. During this stage, you may view change as a process of giving something up rather than a means of gaining emotional, mental, or physical benefits.

via Stages of Change – Contemplation Stage.

Of course, our heroes and heroines will make it past this stage because that’s what makes them heroic.

During this stage, you might begin making small changes to prepare for a larger life change. For example, if losing weight is your goal, you might switch to lower-fat foods. If your goal is to quit smoking, you might switch brands or smoke less each day. You might also take some sort of direct action such as consulting a therapist, joining a health club, or reading self-help books.

via Stages of Change – Preparation Stage.

What’s key here is small changes.  Our hero or heroine isn’t ready to full on commit yet, so explore ways to make small concessions to change.

During the fourth stage of change, people begin taking direct action in order to accomplish their goals. Oftentimes, resolutions fail because the previous steps have not been given enough thought or time. For example, many people make a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight and immediately start a new exercise regimen, begin eating a healthier diet, and cut back on snacks. These definitive steps are vital to success, but these efforts are often abandoned in a matter of weeks because the previous steps have been overlooked.

via Stages of Change – Action Stage.

There’s another stage, maintenance, but I think that stage comes after the HEA.

To me, it makes sense to structure your characters change, and that what it’s all about–the character’s journey–in a way that is scientifically proven to be how real people handle change.

Again, you should check out Kathy’s site or follow her on twitter (linked above) because she is clearly brilliant.


  1. Hi Lori, thanks for stopping by today. And thank you for sharing Kathy’s site. There’s some really good stuff there.

  2. Hi Lori! I’m so glad you found my workshop notes helpful! Just found this a year later, but did want to say thanks :)

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