Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Character Change, or Discovery?

I was talking recently to Domey about one of his stories, and we were discussing the idea of character change. It occurred to me that, possibly, I don't actually believe in change. I don't believe in "developing characters." I know, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but bear with me. This isn't a revolution; I'm not offering to throw out character arcs, but I have maybe a different way to think about character arcs.

So there's a general expectation for a lot of fiction that the protagonist will have a different worldview at the end of the story than he has at the start of the story. The protagonist will have changed. Usually in genre fiction this is couched in terms of character growth. Often in literary fiction this is couched in terms of the character learning a bitter lesson about life. Either way, external forces come to bear upon the protagonist and he seems to change.

The character in question in Domey's story was not the protagonist, but Domey still needed to find a way to justify what looked like a dramatic shift in his behavior. Which got me thinking about the idea of character change.

My current theory is that characters don't actually change. The way they are at the end of the story--the endpoint of the character arc to which we're moving--is actually no more and no less than how the character really is, already. His true self, if you will, is already there, but it is hidden or repressed somehow. The dramatic action, the primary conflict of the story, is created because the protagonist is unable to express that true self. Or, it can only be resolved once the protagonist expresses that true self.

Yeah, this sounds very much like new-age bullshit, but I think it's a useful intellectual construct. Let's attempt to illustrate what I mean by falling back upon that ancient tale of the hero's transformative journey: George Lucas' Star Wars.

Star Wars (by which I mean the original film, not any of the five awful sequels/prequels) tells the story of Luke Skywalker. Luke does not know it, but his true self is a Jedi Knight, a guy who is attuned to the primal energies of the universe and a force for good. Hey, that's pretty cool. The trouble is, Luke's true self is wrapped in layers of adolescent snottiness and annoying low self-esteem and a kind of general stupidity about life. The character arc of Star Wars is Luke learning to shut the hell up and accept that some folks are smarter and more experienced than he is and that life is about more than his desire to go fly rocket fighters. He is only able to destroy the Death Star at the end of the film (and resolve the outer dramatic arc of the story) when he listens to the disembodied voice of Sir Alec Guinness: "Let go your conscious self; trust your feelings." Luke lets the Force take over, becomes a Jedi and blows up the bad guys. The end. He has not changed at all; his behavior has changed. Luke has stopped acting like someone who he is not.

I sidestep the entire Aristotelian debate about whether action is in fact character and say that "we are what we do" is not as true as "we are why we do." Motivation is everything, and what motivates a character is her true self.

So think about that and see if it's helpful with your own stories. Let me know if you think this is a Bad Idea or just completely off-base and nutty.


  1. It's neither bad nor nutty, but spot on, and extremely helpful to me where I am right now in my novel.

    I was struggling with the 'flaw', as in 'what is my character's flaw that she has to face/heal?' and it wasn't gelling. However, becoming who she really is does!

    Thank you.

  2. I think you're dead on Scott. It's even cornier than your new age perspective, but for some time I've really seen most of my character arcs like this:

    At beginning, we have a brazil nut, sitting around all brazil nutty.

    Then comes the traumatic introduction of the nut cracker and all the crushing, destructive force it wields.

    And through a process of torture and attrition, the shell is finally removed.

    And at the end we have a brazil nut sitting around being all brazil nutty, but without the shell.

    For me, character arcs are not so much about development but are more often about the refining or amplifying of the existing positive or negative or mixed character state underlying the the facade the character initially operates within.

    I'm not sure if that's entirely just discovery and not change, but it's not the usual way of thinking about development, I don't think.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree. We often don't know a character completely because they haven't had a particular experience...YET. So the character doesn't change, so much as finally gets the opportunity to live through something he or she hadn't had the chance to yet...

  4. It's a Bad Idea, *and* it's completely off-base and nutty.

    Okay, not really. It's rather an interesting take on the notion of character change. I'm not convinced you're 100% right, of course. If pushed to an extreme, that viewpoint could take us past Aristotle and straight back to Plato, where there's the ideal "form" for this character, his or her true nature, out there waiting for the character to discover it. I'd prefer to think of things in terms of an amalgamation of your idea and the conventional "growth" concept.

    Yes, we (and our characters) might well be a certain way just because of who we are (though I get shifty when notions of determinism creep in), but we're also molded by our circumstances and the poor decisions we make due to character flaws and weaknesses...which are also part of who we are.

    Point being, I believe there're elements of truth in both ways of looking at character. The issue comes down to which way you find most helpful in your own writing.

  5. You know, in fact, I'm going to back off a little from my uncertainty, and suggest that it actually is a form of change.

    But then I'm not sure discovery isn't always a form a change...

    Even if you allow that you could maybe have discovery without change, the more I think about it, the more it seems that a story of simple discovery would often be unsatisfying. It's not enough for Luke Skywalker to say, "Inside me, there be a jedi, and that jedi is me."

    He has to accept what that means and incorporate that discovery into his sense of identity, and it seems that this is in a very real way a change in worldview.

  6. This isn't a bad idea or nutty at all, Scott. In fact, all that stuff you said about Lilian being the true main character of MONARCH makes about 100% more sense now than it did before.

    I like this new idea of discovery rather than change because, honestly, I haven't known one person my entire life who has ever TRULY changed. They discover new things about themselves and oftentimes become a better person, but they don't change into a completely different person. Talking about characters changing seems to me a little off base. Discovery is more like it, so I love what you're bringing up here. It makes a lot of sense for the stories I write, anyway. Cinderella at the end of CINDERS is still a selfish, confused being - but she has learned to start seeing things differently, and that creates a hopeful future for her, I think, no matter what people say about not liking the end.

  7. I think this is a very helpful way of thinking about character. I'm with Simon--I think it's usually a little of both. A good character doesn't just turn into someone/something else at the end of the book; nor does he/she stay exactly the same. I think both discovery and change play a role.

    This makes me think of Kung Fu Panda, where the Secret Scroll is a mirror. The protagonist and antagonist both discovered things about themselves by the end of the movie, but they also learned new external things along the way, which I would consider a form of change.

    Michelle, I loved the end of Cinders. I can see how it could be off-putting to people who are geared to think of the fairy tale heroine as a perfect person who receives nothing but reward in the end, but I like the literary twist you've put on it... because I'm into that sort of thing. In a novel (or novella), unlike a fairy tale, the MC can't be one-dimensional and perfect, just waiting for everthing to work out. She needs to have some things to discover about herself and some things to change.

  8. I'm going to vote for 50% change! We, as individuals, change based on our experience. If we have a bad behavior, realize the reprecussions of said behavior, we have a choice: stay bad or make a change for the better. Maybe it's the 'discovery' that a change for the better is, well, better, but, in the end, most people make a conscious choice towards altering the behavior.

    So, while growth is about discovery, I don't think you can eliminate the fact that people do, in fact, change over the course of time . . . or discover that said behavior isn't the best option and choose another path.

    Still, love the concept and will have to explore it with my characters.


  9. I'm with Simon, Jeannie and Scott M. I think this 50% covers it. Or, perhaps, this covers most of the characters I can think of at the moment, so perhaps it's greater than 50%. (I'm not a mathematician.)

    I think the arc for a lot of characters is this discovery as you describe, Scott GF B. Whether or not this is change is a matter of semantics. I'd say many of my major characters all fall into this camp.

    But, I think a character that changes does appear every once in awhile. Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate comes to mind. That look at the end of the movie captures change to me. Like what some of the others say, life experience can cause change. And, maybe the learning of a lesson causes change. I wonder if maybe what is making Daniel a difficult character to capture is that--while Vincent is uncovering what was always inside of him--I wanted this other type of change to happen with Daniel. I didn't want it to be a matter of tracing back down to his past, but a new discovery, perhaps made too hastily.

    Great discussion!

  10. Big D: Don't you think that at the end of the Graduate, Hoffman is merely just no longer trying to fit into his repressed upper middle class society and is acting the way he wants? I don't really see that he has changed internally at all.

    Anyway, as I said, this is really just a different way of looking at character arc. I'm sort of sick of the way we writers are supposed to be psychoanalyzing the people in our books. In real life, people do all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons that are never made clear. When did fiction become no more than the search for motivations? Chekhov would've laughed at all of us. I feel a rant coming on, so I'll stop now.

  11. Ah, see, I skipped the whole "character must change" thing in my novel by giving my protagonist a very peculiar form of amnesia where he literally becomes the person he was all along as he remembers his past. The fun was in having him resist it every step of the way.

    Now that I think about it, the whole book is about people discovering who they really are.

    I do like the notion of discovery better than "change."

    -Alexandra (Alex) MacKenzie

  12. Crap, I'm supposed to be psychoanalyzing my characters?

    "In real life, people do all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons that are never made clear." - I agree 100% with this and think that, in some cases, we don't need to spell things out for our potential readers.

    "When did fiction become no more than the search for motivations?" - Amen, Brotha! I'm sorry, but sometimes characters (i.e., people) do things without a great deal of motivation. Sometimes motivation isn't this great big thing, but rather a small desire that propels a character (person) on an adventure.

    After all, why did Frodo actually head to Mordor to destroy the One Ring? Was it to save Middle Earth? Possibly. Was it just because he felt it was the right thing to do? More likely.

    If the second instance is true, than where is the grand motivation? It's not there at all . . . at least not in my opinion. Frodo was just a stand-up kind of Hobbit who knew the right thing to do and did it. End of Story!


  13. Alex: What I like about "Immortal Quest" is that Nick doesn't even know--before Marlen shows up--that he should be asking "Who am I?"

    Michelle: I don't know anyone who's ever really changed, either. I am having a hard time coming up with a story where there is an actual change in a character. Bildungsromans don't count, because that's not really change, either.

  14. Scott: Yes, every single action your characters take has to be foreshadowed, backstoried and believable to every reader! Where Tolkein went wrong was not giving the reader enough about Frodo's mother and father and the systemic imbalances in Hobbiton's economic structure.

  15. Scott B: LMAO!

    Wasn't Frodo's father Drogo a drunk? Didn't he and his wife die in a boating accident? Geesh, talk about issues. Freud would have loved to get his hands on Frodo.


  16. Scott: Frodo just wanted out, out, out of Hobbiton! Freud would call the ring a mother-symbol (though sometimes a ring is just a ring). Frodo of course blames himself for his father's alcoholism and his mother's drowning. A very sad case, but it explains his need to use Gandalf as a father figure and his need to create trust with Smeagol, upon whom he projects his own feelings of low self worth.

  17. I'm increasingly baffled by this notion of unchanging people and unchanging characters. It doesn't sound like you're talking about change, which is something becoming different than it once was. That includes a 1% or a 0.5% difference.

    It sounds like you're talking about something much more extreme, like a 100% change -- which would almost be a substitution of one person or character for another, not a change within the original.

    I never understood there to be an expectation of that kind of dramatic wholesale switch, just change.

    If I or my character become from yesterday to day, wiser and equipped to make better choices or sadder and blinded a little to everyday hope... That's change, as far as I know.

    For those of you who are opposing the notion of change, what's your definition? I'm just honestly trying to understand the conversation, because I feel like we're just talking about different things.

  18. Nevets: I don't know if there's really any widely accepted definition of change that states how much of a change is necessary. But there is the idea that characters are either "static" or "dynamic" and that "dynamic" characters undergo significant change or growth during a story and that "dynamic" characters are better than "static" characters.

    Certainly in a story, something has to happen. A story is a narrative that recounts an event, isn't it? But I begin to have my doubts about the idea of dynamic/static characters. Was Don Quixote a dynamic character? Who is/are the dynamic character/s in "Moby Dick?" Or in any good fiction? I begin to not believe in them at all. If anything, this idea of character change is a naive way to talk about characters that oversimplifies and obscures what actually happens. And a lot of the way fiction is discussed does the same thing: oversimplifies and obscures. Don't get me started on "theme."

  19. Nevets: Hey, I never actually answered your question. Here's the thing. People can change the way they interact with the world. People can do this at will. But I don't think the underlying personality changes. Maybe. It's also possible that I just think too much is made of the idea of character change, as if that's the point of good fiction. It's also possible that my own ideas about fiction are become so ideosyncratic that I can no longer communicate with others about it. I don't rule that out at all. But it might change how much I blog. Hmm.

  20. I am supposed to be hunkering down with my novel to get it ready to send. But I am glad I sneaked over here to read some intelligent and wise comments that will spur me to think deeper.

  21. @Scott - I just used this analogy with Michelle and it seemed catchy so I'll use it again here. I'm thinking thinking, "There's been a change in the rate of bone growth." You're thinking, "I need to change the baby's diaper."

    I'm sure there are people who argue for that kind of dramatic, wholesale change, but I've always taken it to mean another way, "Something happens and at the end of it the character is somehow different."

    To oversimplify my own thesis to the point of sounding childish:

    If stuff happens to somebody and there's the same after it as they were before it, it was probably not very interesting stuff.

    Theme is an abomination best dealt with on its own pyre.

    Now as to your other points:

    No, I don't think the underlying personality usually changes in most cases.

    Yes, I do think this idea of character change can be and often is over-emphasized.

    And, yes, I think you can have a great story without having character change.

    I love The Stranger.

  22. Hmm, and it just occurred to me, at the risk of losing what slim literary cred I have, that maybe this is one of the real divides between literary readers and genre readers.

    Perhaps (speculation!), genre readers are more likely to walk away from a book with little or no character change saying, "So... nothing happened?"

    Something I'm mulling over, anyway...

  23. Nevets: I think you're asking "How much change is change" and I'm saying "Change in behavior is not the same as change in personality."

    Or, possibly, I'm saying that that the way we've been talking about "change" is backwards. Surely something has to be different at the end of a story than it was at the start, or there's no story. But the difference doesn't have to be (and, in my showing, isn't at all) in the protagonist's personality. Shakespeare wrote 36 damned fine plays wherein nobody significantly changes (except them folks who died, which probably affected their day-to-day existence pretty heavily). Billy Shakes knew what he was about, too. Chekhov wrote 600 or so damned fine stories that have nothing to do with character change. Doctor Anton was no hack, either.

    Davin: I think the problem with Daniel's change is just that: it's a a problem. I don't think it's possible. I think he had to incline toward his final decision to start with. But again, maybe it doesn't matter to the reader. We don't know why our friends, lovers, parents, or coworkers do the things they do. Why should we have more knowledge of made-up people than we do of real ones?

    I really need to stop talking about this. Or someone needs to show me a character in fiction who really demonstrably changes. In a meaningful and believable manner.

  24. Nevets: One big problem I'm beginning to be aware of is that writers talk a lot to other writers, but not as much to readers who don't write. We writers all have skewed ideas about what "works" in fiction. Readers who don't write are better judges, I think.

  25. "Change in behavior is not the same as change in personality."

    Who said anything about change in personality, though? Change in behavior, in perspective, in world view, in attitude, in goals, in aspirations, in action... Those all seem valid.

    I'm not sure there are examples of people changing personality in the sense you mean it, and I'm not sure we're being asked to do it.

    If someone's out there saying that every story needs to have a character undergo a fundamental shift in personality, e.g. from ENFJ to INTP, then I agree that person is cracked.

  26. @Scott - You're right about us sometimes becoming way too insular. We talk to writers, editors, agents, writing professors...

  27. Nevets: Okay, how's this: In one of my books, the protagonist stops believing some falsehood about himself. Is that a change in behavior? Yes. Is he a different person? No, not in my opinion. I have been talking about the latter type of change today. I don't really know where this idea of "growth" comes from.

    Anyway, it's possible that all I'm really talking about today is foreshadowing. More and more, I think a story is a bunch of foreshadowing and then an ending. You set up an ending and then you give the ending and then you're done. Voila! Pulizter!

  28. Scott B: Frodo’s angst is suddenly so clear to me now . . . thanks to your expert bit of psychoanalyzing the poor Hobbit. LOL! Of course, from what I hear, Frodo’s mother had the hots for the old Gaffer . . . who wanted nothing to do with her. In a fit of pique, she ran off and married that no good Drogo and – allegedly – trapped him into marriage with the whole “I’m pregnant” thing, even though Frodo wasn’t born until two years later. I guess Hobbits have a long gestation period.

  29. Within the psychic of a persona is a mask, the one a person wears to hide the reality or deal with circumstances. When this mask is peeled off there is a change, well not really, the real person shows up, hence the illusion of change.
    A personality can change based on a significant emotional event of some type. With this major event there is a real change of person.
    A character can easily change depending on the thread that is written.

  30. I think Mr. Larter wins today, with "The issue comes down to which way you find most helpful in your own writing." This is just a different way of thinking about what happens to your character during your story.

  31. Simon wants a prize. What does he get? Come on down, Simon!

  32. Interesting! Characters don't "develop" as much as they simply get out of their own way. People can be like that, too.

  33. Simon: I will email you a pony! What color?


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