How does a WWE Superstar change their character?
In the pro wrestling universe, the industry moves forward when new characters are created.
Unfortunately, when it comes to creating something memorable, the performers who embody these characters don’t always strike gold in their first attempt. Believe it or not, legends like The Rock and Hulk Hogan had different "gimmicks" before skyrocketing to success with their legendary personas.
A more recent example is Cody Rhodes.
The son of Dusty Rhodes debuted in 2007, and as time went on, he’d make multiple persona changes, hoping to catapult to the top.
Rhodes grew a fancy mustache, put paper bags over people’s heads, wore a Phantom of the Opera-like mask, and ultimately became the infamous Stardust — a play-off of his brother’s iconic Goldust persona.
But none of it seemed to work, and in 2016 Cody, requested his release from WWE in public fashion.
As Rhodes later put it, he needed to go from "undesirable to undeniable."
While out on his own, the boisterous young star came to embrace his family legacy by adopting "The American Nightmare" persona, and over time, became the most-true version of himself yet. In fact, he got so comfortable in his skin, he even tattooed his own logo across his neck.
But what about the WWE Superstars who don’t take that route?
One example is Elias, who recently underwent a complete character overhaul on TV by becoming his younger brother Ezekiel. Another is Nikki Cross, who transformed into a superhero-like character named Nikki A.S.H.
A question often asked is, who decides when it’s time for a Superstar to undergo an extreme change of character?
According to former WWE managing lead writer Tom Casiello, the answer to this question is quite simple: "It’s usually Vince [McMahon] and the wrestler agreeing something isn’t working."
At that point, things can go a number of ways.
Some talent meet with writers to pitch their own ideas. Others wait for a member of the creative team to think of something new for them. The ambitious ones, however, attempt to take matters into their own hands.
An example of that is former WWE Superstar Bray Wyatt.
After a forgettable start, Windham Rotunda (then known as Husky Harris) reinvented himself in NXT as "The Eater of Worlds" — a horror-inspired character with lore and a backstory.
"[Bray Wyatt] got it," Casiello explained. "He understood you were creating a character, an experience, a mood, as cheesy as it sounds.
"He came to us with a speech pattern, with videos he shot himself. We all watched his presentation and thought ‘Well, g*ddamn. It’s all right here. Sign us up!’"
This led to a rebirth on TV, marquee matches and great success.
Wyatt then did the same thing in 2019 and rose to even greater heights as The Fiend.
A similar situation played out last year when Nikki Cross had an idea for a superhero-like character to connect with younger women.
Rather than just pitching the idea to creative, Cross explained last year on "Out of Character with Ryan Satin" that she came equipped with data.
"I looked into the research," she said. "What were Wonder Woman’s numbers like at the box office? We know it was successful, but how much money did it make? How much money did Captain Marvel make?
"The female-led franchises and the female-led movies was what I wanted to really, really focus on and show that there’s been such a huge success."
That got the character of Nikki A.S.H. greenlit for TV, and while it’s no longer inspirational-based, she’s still being used on a regular basis.
Another example of someone who underwent a successful transformation was WWE Hall of Famer John "Bradshaw" Layfield, back in 2004.
What you may not remember, though, is the gimmick’s rocky start.
After his tag team partner retired from in-ring competition, the former Acolyte mutated into a suit-wearing, arrogant, rich businessman, and began his first main event push in the company as a singles star — but the whole thing wasn’t clicking.
One specific story helped change that.
"It didn't work for a few weeks and failed miserably," JBL said of the gimmick change via email. "The angle with Eddie Guerrero's mom having a heart attack made it work.
"We went from not selling any tickets to selling out the Staples Center (and I was told at the time it was an attendance record). That angle jump-started everything."
JBL would go on to win the WWE Championship using this new Texas-elite persona and hold the title for 280 days.
He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2021.
"Without the connection, character development is impossible," JBL later added. "Whether [gimmicks] are real or not, makes no difference — it's whether the fans buy them."
As you can see, there are multiple ways a change of character can come about on WWE TV. What it all boils down to is audience reaction. Creative can have a great idea and talent can execute it to perfection, but if it doesn’t get over with the crowd, the whole thing is dead-on-arrival.
When asked how to recognize if something isn’t working, former WWE writer Tom Casiello gave a blunt answer.
"Cheers are great. Boos are great, too. It's deafening silence that is a knife in the chest."
John Layfield can be heard weekly on the "Stories with Brisco and Bradshaw" podcast, alongside fellow WWE Hall of Famer Gerald Brisco.
Tom Casiello is the current narrative director for Gravity Well, an independent game studio working on an unannounced original IP.