Six impossible things

Characters and change

One of the current fundamental tenets for writing fiction is that in order to be a “good book,” the central character in the story has to change as a result of the events in it. If one attempts to question this “requirement,” one is informed that if the events of the story are truly important, they must have a major impact on the central character, who will inevitably be changed by whatever he/she has gone through. Such characters are termed “dynamic” or “round” or “believable,” and are often held up as the ideal – and after all, if earthshaking events don’t change the protagonist in some way, the character isn’t realistic and therefore the story is seriously lacking.

This is hooey.

For starters, the argument ignores several genres of stories, like murder mysteries, Westerns, and action thrillers, in which few if any of the protagonists change in any way other than their circumstances. James Bond isn’t changed by foiling Goldfinger or any of the other villains he faces (nor by hooking up with any of the women he crosses paths with). Sherlock Holmes isn’t changed by the murders he investigates, except perhaps to be less bored for a while. There are, of course, mysteries and action-adventure novels in which the main character is changed by the events of the story, but the existence of Bond and Holmes and other wildly popular detectives and action heroes who do not change argues very strongly that the protagonist’s change is not necessary to writing a “good story.”

This “rule” also ignores the sort of tragedy in which it is precisely the main character’s refusal to change his/her opinions or course of action that brings about his/her downfall. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind remains self-centered and convinced that she’ll get her own way, even after Rhett walks out on her on the last page. In George Bernard Shaw’s original version of Pygmalion, Henry Higgins’ refusal to change results in the loss of the woman he has come to love (audience reaction made him change the ending). And finally, the “must change” idea ignores the sort of story in which the protagonist is sorely tempted to betray something – whether that’s a person, a country, or a set of personal values – and resists.

Looking at it another way, there are four paths that a protagonist can take:

  1. The protagonist changes for the better
  2. The protagonist changes for the worse
  3. The protagonist refuses to change, which is the Right Thing To Do
  4. The protagonist refuses to change, which is the Wrong Thing To Do

If you really want to be thorough, you can add two more, in which the change or refusal to change is ambiguous as to whether it is the Right Thing or the Wrong Thing, or is Right on one level, even though it is Wrong on another. For example: The protagonist is a rigidly principled politician, who up to the climax has refused all attempts at bribes or influence…and who is faced with a choice: give up his/her principles and do a favor for a corrupt corporation, and they will make a contribution to the local children’s hospital that will save it, or continue to refuse to compromise his/her personal principles by doing the favor, and let the hospital go under. Whichever decision the protagonist makes is “the right thing” in one way and “the wrong thing” in another; it’s up to the author to show the reader which is which in this particular story situation.

When you break the possibilities down this way, you can see that in terms of the story, the possibly-important thing is not whether the character changes as a result of the story events, but whether there is a point where the character is faced with a choice that could result in this kind of personal change (good or bad). The character makes the choice, change or no-change, and the rest of the book plays out the consequences, showing the reader whether the character made the “right” decision or the “wrong” one according to the results.

If the story is a strongly character-driven one, focused on the protagonist’s spiritual journey and/or the growth and lessons they learn, this decision point is often the climax of the story. If the story is plot-driven, the decision point is usually right before the action climax, when things are at their darkest and the character is tempted to give up, or even at the mid-book turning point when the character finally figures out what’s up and starts heading downhill to the climax. It doesn’t have to be in any particular spot, though. The decision point also need not always be emphasized. In some stories, the point where the character has to make a potentially life-altering decision is a major scene; in others, it’s so far under the radar that the reader doesn’t even register the half-sentence where the protagonist thinks “Maybe I should have become a chef, like Mom wanted…Nah.” It can be a single major epiphany, or the slow accumulation of small choices.

In other words, how the writer handles the protagonist’s potential for growth and change and choice depends on the story and the writer’s choices and preferences. As usual.

8 Comments
  1. There is also, over a long story or series, a sort of change in which the reader/viewer finds out more about the character/s in question, which simulates a sense of forward narrative progress. Not necessarily “Everything you knew was wrong,” but “Wow, did not see that coming, that explains that.” This — not a change in the character, but in the reader’s perceptions — can actually be rather powerful.

    Ta, L.

    • I’d put Aragorn from Lord of the Rings in that category. He doesn’t become the Man Worthy Of Being King, but rather is slowly revealed as such. And because he didn’t actually change, he didn’t lose the ability to be “Strider the Ranger” when it suited his purpose.

    • And very like real life, where getting to know someone can reveal more and more about them, whether or not they are changing in the process.

  2. I think of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, and the like as “inverted Little Taylor” characters. They don’t change and grow, but rather cause the antagonists to change and shrink.

  3. There are also stories like “The Lady, or the Tiger”

    It’s been too long since I’ve read it, but I vaguely remember the results of the choice not being given, since they weren’t the point. Apologies if I’ve remembered wrong.

  4. Robin D. Laws calls your type 3 (unchanging-positive) protagonist an “iconic character”, and gives several of the same examples; I think most of the classic pulp serial heroes are in this category, as well as many early superheroes. Many serial leads have a tendency to end up this way: the reader canonically wants “another book just the same, only different”.

    Many film writers are thoroughly bound up in this idea, and that’s one of the reasons for the popularity of origin stories: going from “not a hero” to “a hero” is a big obvious change.

  5. C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower comes to mind. He goes through a long series of events, which sometimes worsen and eventually better his condition, but he remains the same person: intelligent, oversensitive, mathematically gifted, and incapable of ever being happy no matter how many successes he has.

  6. Nit to pick:
    Shaw did not change the ending to Pygmalion. He wrote a long afterword defending it.
    Lerner and Lowe changed the ending. They also changed to title.

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