After getting the message, "There is data for this field in the database. The field settings can no longer be changed." while trying to extend the character limit for a text field in a Drupal 7 instance, I used the code below to increase the character limit. It modifies the relevant parts of the database to allow more characters. I ran the SQL code through a content node with the PHP Code Text Filter enabled, but it could also be run in a custom module.