Thursday, September 2, 2010

When is a change really a change?

(note: my Internet access is going to be a bit intermittent for the next while - I'll do my best to get to comments in a reasonable time but it could be a day or so before I respond - Kate)

We're all familiar with the idea that characters need to change during the course of a story, short or long, but what actually is change? I don't know about you, but I get kind of tired of books where the main character goes through hell but at the end of the book MC hasn't changed a damn thing.

I'm talking - obviously, about the kind of change that's not physical. Scars, lost weight, gained muscle, and in extreme cases missing appendages... those aren't the kind of changes that matter. The character has to have learned something about who they are, and learned it the hard way.

This isn't something to take lightly. A couple of weeks back I commented that almost everyone fights learning about themselves like this, and resists changing. It's going to take a crisis that threatens something the MC cares for to push that kind of change - like in DarkShipThieves, where Athena fights to keep her view of the way things work every step of the way, but it takes her love for Kit to push her to actually change her beliefs.

Or Dragon's Ring, where Meb is left completely rootless, having lost everything. In that situation, traumatized as she is, she's more open to changing her core beliefs because there's nothing left of what she had - and even then she fights it.

The fact is, the open-minded person who examines their beliefs and assumptions and re-evaluates if there's something out of kilter is only a little easier to find than a living dodo. Most people fight thinking about anything, much less anything as personal and close as that.

So how do you push your characters into it? What makes them change?

When you look at what, historically, inspires change in people it tends to be either some kind of traumatic event - not necessarily the end of the world: divorce can do it, as can losing one's job - or a process of little bits of evidence gradually building to the point where something has to give (like a mid-life crisis). Not surprisingly, since the former is more dramatic that tends to be what gets used a lot in fiction.

The usual method is to determine the things that are most important to the MC, and take them away, preferably by either the machinations of the villain or - and this is particularly effective if you can make it work without a plot that requires every character to have the intelligence of a cauliflower (which may be unfair to cauliflowers) - as a knock on effect from something the MC did.

Some examples of well-managed character change: Vimes through the course of the Ankh-Morpork Watch books, and Carrot. (By comparison, Rincewind remains unchanged - he's the Eternal Coward, which makes him funny as all get-out, but best handled as the observer to the character who does change - which is mostly how PTerry writes him).

Athena and Kit, in DarkShip Thieves. Tom, in Sarah's Shifter books.

Meb and Finn in Dave's Dragon's Ring.

Who else can you think of?


MataPam said...

Rincewind tends to step up in the middle, then revert to type at the end. I think just seeing that potential, that complexity, is enough.

I think we need to be careful not to make our characters such losers at first that the reader doesn't connect to them. A little whiny, or immature is all right. And they can gulp and hesitate before they take up the sword. But they do have to take it up, and they can retreat back toward their original state afterwards, so long as the reader sees that it's an environmental response, and the character isn't really like that and is now equipped to handle the situation.

Which is to say, I don't think the characters need extreme stress to grow a bit. It really is going to depend on the story. If the focus isn't the character's growth, I don't think you need to go to extremes.

Kate said...


That's an interesting point - I'll have to come back to this some time when I'm not trying to escape shamefully expensive hotel internet fees.