Character Change vs. Revelation

Joe Forrest looks at an important difference between characters. On the one hand there are those who change over the course of a story and then those who don’t change,  but instead discover or reveal hidden traits deep within their personality.


Some films have characters who fundamentally change. They were bad, and the events of the story ask of them to change, to become good. In screenwriting terms, they have to change because of their flaw, to meet their true inner needs, to be reborn, etc.

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is a miserable, cynical man who sees the worst in everything. As he repeats the same day over and over again, he moves through greed, depression, helplessness and near insanity, eventually coming out at the other end a new man, able to appreciate life in all its beauty.

In The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a decorated war hero who finds himself drawn into the “family business” that he was never supposed to be a part of. The assassination attempt on his father, killing the man responsible and the accidental murder of his love turn his heart cold. By the final act he is ruthless man, capable of terrible actions.

I think of this kind of character moving along a timeline,
arcing as they go along.

When I’m studying or planning out a character journey, I think of this kind of character moving along a timeline, arcing as they go along. I mark out the key events that hit them and the key changes in personality that occur as a result.


Other films have characters who don’t necessarily change, but instead are revealed to be more complex than presented at the start of the film. The chain of events in the film reveal to us (and perhaps to themselves) that there is more to them than meets the eye. These characters can be harder to empathise with sometimes, but when it’s done well the intrigue pulls you in. The secrets and lies that we keep from others lend themselves well to the voyeurism of cinema.


An extreme example would be A History of Violence. Tom Stall, a likeable family man, has his diner held up by two sadistic men. Tom springs into action and expertly kills both men. The ordeal brings more bad men Tom’s way, who accuse him of being someone else. They provoke Tom, getting too close to his family and briefly kidnapping his son. The more pressure put on Tom, the more layers are peeled away, until the dark core of his personality is revealed.

The secrets and lies that we keep from others
lend themselves well to the voyeurism of cinema

In The King of Comedy, a nervous wanabee comedian does his best to get a break into show business. He pesters the studios and agencies, and doesn’t have much luck. When things don’t work out, he resorts to kidnapping his favourite comedian.

When studying characters who reveal themselves, I tend to draw a circle with smaller circles within it. The timeline moves from the outermost circle to the innermost circle. As more pressure is put on the character, more circles are stripped away to reveal deeper, maybe darker aspects of their personality.

When studying characters who reveal themselves, I tend to draw a circle with smaller circles within it

This technique of character revelation is used to great effect in many television series – see The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Dexter, or pretty much any half decent American show.


The key difference between these two character types boils down to the question a writer should ask when working out their journey.

In the first type you might ask simply, “How does this character change?” You can then throw everything at the character that will incite that change. Betrayal, murder, love, etc.

In the second character type you could ask, “What is this character capable of?” Then you can work out what events are going to force the character to show their true character.

Both models are perfectly valid. But is it important for a screenwriter to know which of these two models their character fits into (if at all)? If a character murders someone at the midpoint of the story, is it important for the writer to know whether the character was always capable of such an act, or whether this is something new to them.

Do your characters change or reveal their true character? Or neither?

-Joe Forrest

Joe Forrest is a graduate of the Northern Film School in Leeds, England, where he specialised in documentary and screenwriting.  Since graduating in 2008 he has worked as a researcher for both drama and documentary. Joe has made several short documentaries and written a number of short films, and is currently researching new projects.

Creative Commons License photo credit “Evolution”: kevindooley

Creative Commons License photo credit “House” & “Angels”: Kay Kim(김기웅)

2 thoughts on “Character Change vs. Revelation”

  1. Hi Joe, this screenwriting business is damn hard, as you know only to well i was watching Bridge on Madison County last night and had the script on the other screen. It makes you realize just how long a film really is , at least if you are the writer. It seemed to take for ever. I have a question for you because i am new to this. If i have a young likable rogue a hoodie type who has an accident and because of that he becomes a different person a good kid later in the film is he a protagonist or an antagonist as he raises money at the end of the film for a charity. There is also another character who trys to mentor him and finally manages to do so. So are there two heros or two protagonists or one antagonist the boy and one protagonist the man… It may seem simple to you the answer but it is very confusing to me. I also wondered if you could mention any worthwhile boks

    Best wishes for your future

    • Hi Pat,

      From what you have said about your story, it sounds like your “young likeable rogue” is your protagonist. For one thing you have said he is likeable, and so I am assuming you want your audience on his side and routing for him.
      Look for examples in films you like where the protagonist/hero is a bad guy who turns good.
      The other character you mention, who mentors the rogue, is just that – a mentor. The obvious example is Yoda in Star Wars.

      So to clarify, it sounds like you have a protagonist, and a mentor. Your antagonist is the character who stops the rogue getting what he wants. This might be one big bad guy, or several smaller characters. Just make sure you make it difficult for the rogue to get what he wants.


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