“A leopard can’t change its spots.” It’s a surprisingly prevalent attitude. That people don’t change.
Maybe that’s why one of the most powerful story structures is the character change arc. Not every story has one. Not even close. But those that do have a tendency to pop up on the box office charts and the award circuits.
Because even those of us who don’t believe people can change, WANT to believe it.
How many ads begin with something akin to, “I never thought it would happen to me,” or “I was a 98 pound weakling,” or “Let me tell you the story of my life before I discovered the secret of ____?” That’s because marketers know the power of the character change arc. Do they execute the arc with grace and finesse? Often not, but I believe that’s because most don’t know the key points on the arc. A true character arc story involves a push and pull that are constantly being recalibrated. I can’t go through all of it, but I can give a taste.
Meet Protagonist. Maybe they’re doing great in life. Maybe they’re struggling. That doesn’t matter so much. Because even if they’re doing great, there are hints that things aren’t quite so great. Hints that a reckoning is coming.
Because Protagonist has a FLAW. Like all of us, they’ve been making it through their life with a certain strategy, and it’s gotten them this far.
But it won’t take them the distance. No. They’ve reached the point in their life where the tradeoffs for the life they’ve led are coming to collect. Maybe they’re a workaholic who have dominated in the business world, but they’ve been blind to the toll that has taken on those close to them. Maybe they’re a modest homemaker who have played it safe all their lives only to start to feel like they’re suffocating.
Whatever it is, they’ve reached the end of what their current formation can do for them. Something has to die, in order for something new to be created. And like a 2-year-old getting their hair cut for the first time, it will feel like a piece of them is being ripped apart.
They are going to resist this change. They’re going to resist hard, because it will feel more than a little bit like they’re dying. But the outer story, the plot, will help in this regard. Because what they’re going through will serve to highlight what’s not working for them anymore.
And in the end, they will kill off their flaw, and embrace a new STRENGTH. One they never knew would be possible for them. And that strength will act like a superpower, to resolve the plot in a positive way for them, to strengthen their bonds to their allies and lovers, and to give them clarity to the right and wrong facing them.
This story is everywhere. In ads, books, movies, and life itself. It’s everywhere for a reason. Because while it is painful, and at times it may seem nigh impossible, leopards can change their spots.
They can change them for the better.