Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Character development: REALLY? by Nicola Morgan

The other day, I was discussing with my family whether people can change. Actually, it wasn't so much a discussion as me posing a theory, them agreeing, and then all of us providing more and more evidence. Which is pretty much my favourite kind of discussion, at least while on holiday.

My theory was that it is very difficult, very difficult, and relatively rare, for people to change themselves. (And this has an implication for novelists, as you'll see.)

Of course people do change. We know that. Any individual changes a tiny bit each day, imperceptibly, adding up to large changes over decades. Sometimes, changes can be more sudden, especially during the growing up years. Various landmarks change us: leaving school/university, having children/not having children, close bereavement, major changes of circumstances. These bring changes to our personalities over the years, and changes to our habits.

But these changes tend to be a) gradual b) an adaptation to changed surroundings/ environment/ people around us and c) largely involuntary. They do not answer the question: CAN people change? In other words, can they change when they want to? Can we often change our behaviours when we see a negative consequence, or, indeed, a positive one? (I know that people sometimes can - change addictive behaviours, for example - but they generally need a great deal of help and intervention.)

The reason I was thinking about this was because I am hopelessly useless at changing bad behaviours. How many times have I looked at the bathroom scales and said that I was going to eat less, exercise more? (Twice today, anyway.) How many times have I made resolutions to drink more water and less wine; eat more fruit and less sugar; not buy ice-cream "just in case one of my daughters comes home unexpectedly"; do an hour's writing before answering emails; say no to speaking engagements; spend less time at my desk; enjoy weekends properly; be less of a workaholic; get less cross when people are stupid; not snap at my husband (no link there to the previous remark!); do more gardening and cooking (hobbies which I love and are good for me); get up from my desk every hour? Countless times, is how many. And I never change my habits. At all.

I am utterly beholden to my adult, middle-aged personality, which happens to be that of a driven workaholic, hopelessly Type A, unstoppably entrepreneurial, unable to say no to any exciting idea that pops into my head at four in the morning. I was different when I was fourteen and will probably be different when I'm 84. But there is no discernible change between how I am now at 50, how I was when I was 40 or 30. I have a whole different life, but my bad habits and behaviours I'd dearly like to alter remain stubbornly unaltered, even though I recognise completely that changing would be good for me and probably give me a longer life.

SO, writers and readers, why oh why oh why oh why do the characters in our books always have to change and develop? Even if the action takes place over two weeks, or two days. It seems to be one of the unbreakable rules of novels. 

The Carnegie Medal even has criteria for characterisation, including:
Are the characters believable and convincing?
Are they well-rounded, and do they develop during the course of the book?
Do they act consistently in character throughout the book?
You know, it rather bugs me that a character must develop during the course of what may be a very short timespan and must do so even if it is actually rather unlikely. (In other words, possibly unconvincing. Cf the first criterion above.) I know that the things that happen in books are mostly far more dramatic than those that happen in my life but is that enough of an explanation for the absolute insistence on development? Is it not very likely that a character might go through a hell of an experience, survive/overcome it and break open a bar of celebratory chocolate, declaring, "Well, thank goodness that's over! Now, can I have my old life back or just a new one without bad stuff happening? Thank you, and good night."

But no, the character must learn from his experience. Not just learn, but invariably change after it, noticeably. Grow, develop, change dramatically and be suitably well-prepared for whatever life throws at him next. Barely even scope for a sequel, now that the flaws are nicely smoothed and the problems solved.

Fiction or delusion?

I think we are all desperate to be able to change our bad habits or negative personality traits, and we need the hope that fiction offers to us that this will happen.

Writers and readers, your thoughts, pretty please.


Moira Butterfield said...

Interesting post! This character development imperative sometimes leads to preposterous character changes - Such as the ones that occur in one big preposterous rush at the end of the Best Marigold Hotel movie. Ridiculous, and yet people love the film and find these developments very satisfying. The idea that we can change is very powerful.

Nicola Morgan said...

Moira, I think that's exactly right: we are so desperate for it to be true, or at least more likely, that we insist on it in our stories. It's exactly the equivalent of the "and they all lived happily after" ending that we needed as children.

CazApr1 said...

To an extent I think 'character development' means fleshing them out a bit and making them as real as possible - you can't get a character's entire personality in the opening pages - so it isn't a sudden switch in attitude but a realisation (for both the character and the reader) that they have the skills/strengths needed to cope with whatever the story has thrown at them. In a lot of stories it does mean a dramatic change, true, just not necessarily the best stories!

Stroppy Author said...

Here's a sweeping-generalisation type of hypothesis. The crux of the traditional definition of tragedy is that characters achieve self-recognition but are incapable of significant change - cannot avoid the flaw that makes the tragedy inevitable. So, in fact, profound change (rather than self-knowledge) is antithetical to good narrative and the Carnegie judges should go back to Aristotle and have a rethink. Unless, of course, they are counting as development a protagonist recognising how their character limits them and impacts on the world - which is a form of development.

So a trite My Fairy Unicorn Adventure no 76 may have a radical development in the characters (as if) but Maacbeth only has the working out of what was always there.

Nicola Morgan said...

CazApr1 - honestly, development is meant to mean change over the course of the narrative. A full and rounded character is just a full and rounded character, without necessarily development.

Stroppy - true and insightful. I do think self-knowledge is realistic and a very good form of development in itself. I have a lot of self-knowledge but just don't quite know how to use it!

Lalla Merlin said...

Interesting. And yet, if we look at characters from great literature, is the capacity to change a fundamental attribute? It’s a huge subject, but drawing some names more or less at random from a variety of traditions, times and genres, I would say not. The essence of Therese Raquin’s tragedy is her inability to transcend her immutable nature. The same could be said of Hamlet – he reacts to circumstance and his ‘antic disposition’ develops, but his essential character is at the root of his fate. Lewis Carrol’s Alice remains grave and unshockable, a point of calm in a world of madness that loops and whirls dizzyingly around her. Cathy and Heathcliffe don’t ‘grow’ as characters; neither does Sherlock Holmes; neither does Racine’s Phedre – in fact, had she been able to do so, her tragedy wouldn’t have been played out.
And then there are characters who DO change. In Henry James’s ‘What Maisie Knew’ we see the gradual, inexorable erosion of innocence. In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is an experiment in transcendence and re-creation. I could bore on for ages, but I won’t.
The capacity for a character to grow and evolve in the course of a narrative should really depend on the story. It shouldn’t be a prerequisite. That’s all.

Lily said...

I'd agree that development means (should mean) the reader gaining more insight into the character, and the character gaining more insight into her or himself. The profound character changes that I think work in novels are the kind when the character or reader becomes aware, through what happens, of abilities or failings she already possesses (these abilities might be already apparent to everyone else, and so it is a self-realisation - very common in children's books) and which can then be used to resolve what happens.

On happy-ever-after endings - surely characters don't really change in fairytales. The frog that turns into a prince is not changing, but changing back into what he truly is. Most fairytales take an aberration in the natural order of things (usually a spell) and revert it to how it should be for the happy ending - don't they? In this sense I suppose they work on the same basis as tragedy, except here the characters do not have to transcend their personalities (and fail), but must realise them to their full potential.

adele said...

I agree with Stroppy, Lalla Lily and Caz. And you too, Nicola. THose names sound like characters from a novel don't they? But it's a very interesting post indeed.

Emily R. King said...

To me, characterization involves growth and development of a character. The plot should drive the character forward, even if it simply means an antagonist faces consequences for his/her actions. Onward and upward! :)

K.M.Lockwood said...

My take is that this is why we read fiction. We want to see people grow.
Building on the previous posts, I'd say our job as writers is to focus in on those events that either change a person or at least their outlook on life. This makes for dramatic plotting.
By gradually revealing our character's different aspects and exposing them to various stresses, we not only make them more rounded, but also make it more credible that they can develop or come to understand something important.
Thanks for the starting point.

jongleuse said...

Agree, Philippa. Just blogged about coming at this from the other angle i.e. is growth/character development a defining characteristic of the YA genre? Perhaps not any more as YA is such a big field, but I would say it is a feature of many novels that have a profound impact on people's lives (rather than more genre-based fiction).

Rosalie Warren said...

Interesting discussion. One thing I'm sure of, both in YA and adults' fiction - if you try to map out your character's 'development' before you begin, you've had it. In my experience, the only kind of character development that works is the unplanned sort that surprises the author and that the author perhaps has to have pointed out to him/her by readers.

It takes a cool eye to analyse a character, and the author is far too closely involved. Bit like trying to deconstruct your kids, or your partner, or yourself.

Nick Green said...

A question that has long obsessed me to. A seeming paradox: i) characters must be consistent throughout; ii) characters must develop.

The way I see it is: characters don't really change. They just discover something new about themselves that they never knew was there. To draw an example from classic literature: in 'Kung Fu Panda' Po is set on becoming a great warrior. The secret to his enlightenment is hidden in a scroll which is always out of reach. When he finally gets hold of it, he discovers it is blank. He realises 'there is no secret ingredient!' - he was great all along, but did not know it.

Debbie Edwards said...

So right!! My characters are only away for a few days at a time yet my editor wants to know what development will take place in that short time. Looking now at a class full of young people I can honestly say very little happens ...

Katalin Havasi said...

I don't think we have the power to change ourselves considerably. We still crave for change in our lives.

Interestingly, the very act of reading a story about how a character has been changed can change the reader's character. We call these rare books transformative reads.

The book that has transformed the most human lives? It seems to be the Bible.