Every book on writing emphasizes that your characters, especially the protagonist, need to change over the course of the story. But change how? What constitutes character change?
In the past, that’s been a sticky one for me. Whether it was because writing books seemed to emphasize the importance of personality flaws that made characters annoying or immoral, or because I didn’t catch the subtleties, I interpreted the phrase character change to mean a change in the characters’ characters.
I think my problem stemmed from my definition of the term character. If I say person X has a good character, I’m talking about that individual’s sense of right and wrong. I see someone with a good character as honest and nice, with a sense of morality born of empathy and compassion rather than dogma. If I say someone has no character, I don’t mean that individual is an apathetic mass of protoplasm, but a person with no moral compass, and since, to me, all true morality stems from empathy, someone who is indifferent to suffering, petty, and who easily rationalizes hurting others for his or her own personal gain. Then there’s the phrase a real character, which refers to a person who marches to the beat of a different drummer—on an alien planet.
Which leads to my interpretation of the term character flaw. When I think of the phrase character flaw, I think of a trait that moves an individual closer to the no character side of the spectrum. So when I would try to give my characters flaws, I thought I had to give them negative character traits (arrogance, selfishness, pettiness). The problem with that is that, though I believe characters certainly can undergo a fundamental change in their nature during the course of a story—a coward, at the beginning of the book, grows into a brave hero by the end, a misanthropic loner learns to love, a greedy miser changes into a philanthropist—it’s not what happens in most of the stories I really love. (I loathe A Christmas Carol and always have.)
I like stories where characters’ worldviews change, their circumstances and knowledge levels change, but not their characters (i.e. moral natures). Who the characters are at the beginning (in terms of personality and traits) is still who they are at the end of the story.
Take J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, for example. At the beginning of the first Harry Potter book, Harry is a nice, empathetic kid. At the end, Harry is still a nice, empathetic kid. His personality (i.e. his nature) and his values did not change over the course of the story. In fact, at the end of the entire series, despite everything he’s gone through, Harry remains a nice, empathetic person.
When reading the sections on character arcs in writing books, I kept asking myself “What initial character flaw did Harry overcome by the end of the book(s)?” and I couldn’t come up with one. That’s not to say I thought he was perfect in the beginning. Of course, he wasn’t. He wasn’t perfect at the end either. (Perfect people are boring and irritating, and nobody wants to read about them.) And Harry certainly had problems, but those problems weren’t character flaws, to me. Lack of knowledge and inexperience is not a character flaw. It’s the base human condition. (Seriously, I don’t care how old we are or what we’ve done in life, we’re all still ignorant about something.)
Then I thought that maybe The Harry Potter books were exceptions, so I tried looking at another story—Billy Elliott (one of my all-time favorite movies). Billy starts out as a good kid. He ends the story the same way: as a good kid with the same personality, just with a different direction for his life and a much brighter future.
Billy’s older brother, Tony, a foul-mouthed hothead at the beginning of the story—who made my blood pressure go into orbit—was still a foul-mouthed hothead at the end of the movie. But during the story, Tony’s worldview changed—in a very narrow way, on one narrow issue—so that instead of opposing Billy’s dream, he became Billy’s ally—in a really hotheaded, foul-mouthed and bossy way. (He was still Tony, after all. That’s my point. Tony never stopped being Tony.)
What is most amazing and brilliant about Billy Elliott is how my view of Tony changed over the course of the story. In the beginning, I wanted to slap him. By the end, though Tony was still the same person with the same personality, I adored him.
I love books where the characters’ natures stay the same, but my view of those characters pivots 180 degrees. In The Girl With All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey, I hated Sergeant Park in the beginning of the book. By the end, I loved him and cried for him—and cried, and cried … (Warning: it is not a happy-clappy story, but it is structured and written brilliantly.)
In trying to get my own feel for what constitutes character change, I’ve analyzed ten of my favorite stories (eight books and two movies—half for adults, half YA), and in only one of them does the protagonist undergo a change of character. In two of the stories, a character other than the protagonist had some change in their nature; one was the antagonist, and one was a secondary character.
Out of ten stories, averaging five major characters each, only three people underwent a fundamental change of character.
So, here’s the net (on my spotty review of 10+ stories that I think are great. You may love very different stories so this may not apply to your tastes):
- Character change equals a change of character (i.e. fundamental nature) for 10 % of protagonists in great stories and 6 % of characters overall.
- Character change equals change in circumstances, change in knowledge and skill level, and change in worldview in 100 % of protagonists in great stories, and roughly 25% of secondary and antagonistic characters come out with changed worldviews.
My point with all this babble is that, if you, like me, thought you had to give your protagonist some major, negative character trait to overcome through the vehicle of the story, you may not have to. You can if you want to, of course, that works too, because a change of character (i.e. fundamental nature) is a subset of character change, but it’s just a small one. (Seriously, 6 % total. That was it.)
I’ll give my characters psychological issues, absolutely—the more messed up, the better. I’ll give them problems galore. But, unless I really feel it, I’m not going to turn myself into a pretzel trying to give my protagonists character flaws. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about the bad guys—it’s fun to make them selfish and mean!)
All I need to do is make sure that, by going through the gauntlet of their individual stories, my protagonists come out the other side seeing someone or something—and it can be a small something—in a different way.
After all, the very best stories are not about the characters changing, they are about changing the readers.