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Character arcs – changing behavior and redemption

One of the essential parts of a story is the character arc. People love seeing characters grow or deteriorate as the story progresses. In books, that change is best shown through changing behavior. One of my favorite tropes is a character having to repeat a choice they made early on and then picking the different option after they changed. 

Character growth needs to be executed well. To understand how growth is shown in characters, we need to take a closer look at what behavior is and what that change requires. Let’s dig into the psychology behind behavioral changes. At the end, we’ll discuss one of the best redemption arcs I ever witnessed: Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. We’ll go into why his arc works so well and what psychological concepts are behind it.

Warning: this blog contains spoilers for the tv shows She-Ra and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the books Harry Potter and The Supernaturalist.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

What is behavior

Behavior is defined as the actions and mannerisms made by people, either to or for themselves or their environment. The behavior people show originates from their personal experiences, personality, the environment, and other people. When it comes to writing, behavior can best be seen as a series of choices – not always conscious ones, though. 

What is needed to start changing behavior?

A character may change their behavior after they learn new things, such as skills or information. By having your character’s changing behavior on display, the reader can see how your character is growing.

The four relevant factors in changing behavior are intent, attitude, subjective norms, and self-efficacy. Knowing where your characters stand on these factors throughout the story, you can make all of their behavior make sense. 

The four main questions that apply here are:

  • Values: Does my change make sense?
  • Intent: Do I want to change?
  • Self-efficacy: Can I change?
  • Attitude: Do I show the change?

Let’s take a closer look at these factors.

Values

A character aligned with the enemy has to change their values before they can genuinely join up with your protagonist. If the character’s values don’t change, there often isn’t a need for them to switch sides. One of my favorite tropes that cover this is the bratty Draco Malfoy. He learned from his parents that mudbloods aren’t deserving of the magic they possess. Still, as he sees the horrific lengths to which his parents and the other Deatheaters are willing to go, Malfoy disobeys his parents and joins the good side. His values change as he realizes the weight of his choices. 

For such a drastic change in a character’s behavior to occur, their values must have also dramatically shifted. Without a reorientation of Malfoy’s values, there is no reason for the change to happen in the first place. The sudden shift would feel gimmicky and not realistic. Readers would have thought the change of sides was just a ruse and not genuine.

Still from the Harry Potter movies. In movies, a character that changes their values (often in the form of changing sides) is often seen looking at themselves in the mirror. In story writing, we have to be more creative.

Intent

Intent is a mental state that encompasses a commitment to carrying out an action or behavior in the future. A character’s intent often plays a significant role in stories. When Harry Potter attacks Bellatrix, she taunts him by saying the Death Curse won’t work unless Harry’s intent is to kill her. In the story of King Arthur, only the boy whose intent was not to claim the kingdom for his own managed to lift the sword Excalibur from the stone. In that sense, intent is closely related to a trope called “Only the Pure of Heart”. 

But when it comes to behavior, intent can be so much more. A common storyline would be a group of characters set out with the want to improve a situation, only to unintentionally make it worse. This is precisely what happens in Eoin Colfer’s The Supernaturalist

When it comes to changing behavior, intent shows a willingness in your characters to admit their previous mistakes (not always in as many words). Throughout the rest of the story, they try their best to show their changing behavior. When an intent to change is lacking, that change won’t happen. Similarly, if you don’t show the character’s intentions, a reader may not find the character’s actions believable or realistic.

Self-efficacy

This scientific term is shorthand for ‘do I have the power and ability to change?’ Does your character have the courage to change? Are they able to face their fears, or do they collapse under the pressure? 

Self-efficacy is not the same as confidence. We all know the bad boy trope, and hate it or love it, when a bad boy turns their lives around, they are often plagued with insecurity about their new path. It is that struggle that displays a lack of self-efficacy. 

Another way to look at self-efficacy is from the example of Katniss from The Hunger Games. When she volunteers to take her sister’s place, she accepts that she will probably die. But as her sense of self-efficacy grows. When Katniss first enters the arena, she intends to get away from the action to survive. But as she has to take an active role to save Peeta, she notices that she can change her situation. As a result, she changes her behavior to that of someone who can win. Through it all, she doesn’t lose her attitude; she helps Peeta survive the arena, as well.

Without self-efficacy, a character might be willing to change, but when push comes to shove, they will falter. Imagine a reformed character who faces off against their former friends and then succumbs to their coaxing. It’s self-efficacy that keeps that from happening.

Attitude

Characters can say that they changed or switched teams, but do they show it? Can they walk the walk? Often, in a good redemption arc where a character switches teams, they will feel remorse at first. This is the case for Adora from She-Ra: after discovering she was ‘on the bad side’, she felt terrible. Afterward, she regularly gets confronted by her past, and time and time again, she fights the bad guys. This is how she shows her change.

Attitude plays into something called ‘face validity’ in psychology, and in literature it is called ‘verisimilitude’. However you call it, the key concept behind it is: does this attitude make sense? Is this change (or lack of it) believable? Does the character still make sense? Is this plausible within the world you’ve built?

Behavioral changes often come after a profound insight or reality check. And if that truly impacts your character, can they still act like a selfish asshole? Does it make sense for them to remain a gray mouse in the background? Are they still an asshole, just on the side of good? Or do they show a change of attitude reflective of their newfound knowledge?

Zuko’s redemption arc and changing behavior

The entire Avatar: The Last Airbender story is rife with brilliant character development that shows us how human all of them are. I’ve rarely rewatched a show that often. The premise of the show is that the Avatar brings balance to the four elements. The magic system revolves around being able to manipulate those elements. But in the past century, no one has seen the Avatar. During that time, the Fire nation attacked the other countries. When he returns in the form of a kid called Aang, it’s up to him to restore balance, before the Fire Nation can complete their dominion over the world.

Zuko is the son of the Fire Lord and stands to inherit the throne. His infamous redemption arc starts back in Zuko’s childhood. He shows his tender side by treating animals with compassion and going against a plan that would sacrifice an entire division of recruits. This perfectly showcases his values: every life is sacred. He has the self-efficacy and intent to stand up for those lesser than him, while his attitude is indicative of how angry he can get.

Then, everything changed when the fire nation’s leader, Zuko’s father, banished Zuko. His values had to shift to survive and make his way back home. His attitude grew harsh and his self-efficacy took the form of unwavering determination, which was necessary for him to survive. Zuko’s intent to change into such a hardened teenager also served to aid him in survival. His father sent on a fool’s errand: find and capture the missing Avatar. Zuko is relentless in his pursuit and doesn’t care who he hurts in the process. All he wants to do is return home and restore his honor.

First signs of change

The first inkling that the Zuko we have seen so far is changing is when he protects his uncle Iroh over his chance to capture the Avatar. Zuko’s true values rise to the surface, even though his self-efficacy, attitude, and intent are focused on capturing the Avatar. He isn’t ready yet to face that the past two years of his life were a waste of time. For that to happen, his self-efficacy and intent aren’t strong enough yet.

Then, Zuko learns his family has betrayed him. After Zuko and Iroh escape an attempt by his sister Azula to capture them as prisoners, Zuko realizes that he spent the last two years chasing the sun. Even if he had caught the Avatar, Zuko would not have been able to return home. Unable to change his attitude accordingly, the news makes him lack the intent to change his behavior. As a result, he lashes out against Iroh, and they part ways.

Crossing the Earth kingdom hungry and alone, Zuko shows small changes in his behavior, mostly intent and attitude, in choices that didn’t have to do with the direct plot. He decides not to rob a couple of their food, whereas before he had stolen plenty from people across the globe. Considering the stakes of the overall plot, this can be counted as a small behavioral change and as a sign that Zuko is capable of change at all. 

The change turns into a pattern

With his immediate goal of retaking the throne lost, Zuko no longer needs to capture the Avatar. Zuko’s intent reveals this change; when Aang and his friends encounter Zuko and, albeit reluctantly, join forces against Azula. From the viewer’s point of view, it’s clear that Zuko is changing his behavior drastically. After the battle, Zuko tells Team Avatar to get lost, instead of attacking them. His immediate goal is to take care of his uncle, instead of capturing Aang.

Iroh teaches Zuko how to redirect lightning, the technique Iroh used to save Zuko’s life. Learning how to defend himself against his lightning-bending sister plays a huge part in the development of his self-efficacy. But at the same time, his attitude shows that he wants to learn how to bend lightning for the wrong reasons. Despite Iroh’s objections, fearing Zuko will go mad with power like his sister has, Zuko goes out to find a thunderstorm to practice the technique. 

In this part of his arc, Zuko’s self-efficacy rises to the occasion. Still, his attitude and intent to change are focused on defeating Azula from a selfish urge. He’s not reached the point where the writers want him to be yet, so this endeavor fails.

Still from the tv show Avatar: Zuko and Iroh in their tea shop, the Jasmin Dragon

Changing behavior is not linear

All Zuko wants is to go home and leave the past behind him. A considerable part of his redemption arc centers around accepting his circumstances and how unfair life can be. This becomes clear when Zuko and Iroh own a tea shop in the Earth Nation’s capital of Ba Sing Se. Iroh convinces Zuko not to go after Appa and instead be satisfied with their normal life. This is such a shock to Zuko’s system that he literally gets sick.

Zuko feels inadequate, indicative of a low self-efficacy, and the intent to change came from Iroh, not himself. And though this was a big step in Zuko’s progress, again, it didn’t come from the right place. Humans, as a species, learn through trial and error. While most of that development happens in puberty, significant changes in behavior are often the result of life-changing events that shake a character to their core.

When Azula offers Zuko a way to come home, he accepts, despite knowing that in doing so, he betrays Iroh. This decision is a definite step back and goes against what he learned and how much he changed before this happened. But Zuko’s long-term goal is still to return home, and this seems like a perfect way out. But as Zuko experiences the life he’s dreamed of for so long, he realizes that he has changed. His values have been reshaped by Iroh and Aang saving his life. During his time in Ba Sign Se, he realized the effect of the Fire Nation’s aggression on the Earth Kingdom and how devastating that has been. 

The events we witnessed Zuko go through have substantially changed his values. His intent to alter his behavior grows as he realizes what his father and sister are planning. That alters his attitude, to the point that he faces off against his father: the ultimate display of a healthy self-efficacy. 

Still from the show: Zuko facing off his father.

In short

Zuko’s redemption arc is so incredible because it combines the four basics of behavioral change in different combinations. Each of the factors has a different effect on Zuko and his decisions. Character development is not something that works linear or something that happens after one talk with a wizened old sage. Zuko’s arc portrays how such a change would occur in human beings, and that’s what makes it so powerful. 

Zuko’s changing behavior is interlaced with his changing goals, desires, and needs. By showing the choices Zuko makes and his changing behavior in between those choices, a full-bodied character arc is shown – and in this case, one of the best redemption arcs out there.

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