Characters are supposed to change.  That’s what drives a plot, I’ve always been told.

Often, that change is for the better, sometimes for the worse.  Either way, the struggle is the same: how to make it believable?

I’ve read books where I didn’t believe it when the character changed, where it seemed more like a random plot device thrown in because the author needed something to happen a certain way, rather than something driven by the personality and experiences of the character.  I’ve also read stories where the character’s change, especially for the better, that even though it was someone I had thoroughly disliked, I still found myself cheering them on.  But I never could put my finger on exactly why I believed some changes, and not others.

Then a couple of recently renewed acquaintances demonstrated the difference.

Not too long ago, I was reunited with two guys from different parts of my past, but who had inspired similar negative feelings the last time I had seen them.

Guy #1 goes way back into my past.  When I first met him, he was nice, friendly and outgoing.  One of the first guys that I ever had a crush on.  But the natural talents he was born with, and the constant acclaim he received for them, soon turned him conceited and arrogant.  I was no longer good enough to associate with, and I wasn’t the only one suddenly cast aside.  He hurt a lot of people with his complete lack of concern for their feelings, often insulting them directly with bitter put-downs, but once in a great while, there would be the tiniest glimmer of the nice friend he had been.  Yet it never lasted long, and the subsequent bad times always seemed to outweigh the good.

Guy #2 is an ex-boyfriend.  I guess in some ways, I should have known that he would be trouble, long before I dated him.  We were friends first, and I knew all about his ex-girlfriends.  I think he once boasted that he’d had fifteen of them in a single year.  But I was fooled by his outer charm, and ignored his inner jerk.  For a while.  Like the first guy, he was talented in a way that was just made for public display, and the attention went straight to his head.

More than ten years of separation from both of them made for a lot of changes, in all of our lives.

I have to admit, I had some extremely mixed feelings when Guy#1 contacted me.  I remembered how I’d once felt for him, in the very beginning, but the unresolved hurts I’d received along the way made me wish to believe he was still a jerk.  Every conversation proved otherwise.

Guy#2 is a friend of a friend, and that was how we came back into contact.  I wanted to believe the best in him, after all, there had to be some reason for our mutual friend’s loyalty.  Every conversation, however, only proved that he had not changed at all, despite claiming to have become a better man, and even that he had “found” religion.

I think that was the real difference.  That the first guy showed that he had changed, without coming right out and saying that he had.  His words and actions proved it.  I also knew that he had paid for his earlier arrogance (through other mutual acquaintances, over the years), by losing one of the things I knew he loved most in his life to a brutal act of violence, whether caused directly by his attitude at the time, though, I don’t know, for certain.

Guy #2 claimed to have lost something he loved, a child, but no one can even confirm that he ever had one.  With his past history of stretching the truth into outright lies, to suit whatever he thought would get him what he wanted, I’m just not inclined to believe him.  I could not give him the same sympathy for his “loss” as I felt for the other.

With this new insight, I went back and reread some of the stories I had tried to analyze before, and the patterns in my recent reunions held true throughout the fiction.  The characters who were “redeemed” had suffered incredible loss, often through their own actions, and were actively trying to act in a better manner without calling attention to it.  The unbelievable characters never seemed to pay a price for their evils, and/or would only tell people how they were different, but it sounded like they were trying to manipulate others with their so-called “change.”  They rarely learned from their mistakes, or blamed others for their misfortune.

That’s how I see it, anyway.  What do you think?