Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Change, or Lack Thereof

This weekend I found myself watching what I believe is the penultimate episode of TV medical drama, House. In the episode, House is ‘kidnapped’ by his only real friend, Dr. Wilson, for a three day cruise across the country. Wilson received rather unconventional treatment in the previous episode for cancer, and will be finding out in a few days if it worked. On the trip, Wilson acts in a very un-Wilson manner: he flouts the law, eats an 88-ounce steak in an hour, and requests a three-way with a prostitute and a lady bartender. And all along, House watches him and waits. “People don’t change,” House says. It’s a recurring theme in House’s world. Through all the eight seasons of the show, House has always maintained this belief, right up there with “Everybody lies” and “It’s never lupus.” “People don’t change.”
Change is at the heart of books. We want to see change and growth in characters, it’s part of what makes for a great story. But what if a character doesn’t change? What then? A while back I wrote a couple of posts about theUnforgivable Sin in terms of character, asking if there was something a character could do that would render him irredeemable to readers. In the hands of a skilled author, we can probably forgive anything a character can do. But can we forgive the author if the character doesn’t change?
I ask this question because I’m looking at my ‘first’ novel, something I wrote two years ago for NaNoWriMo. I pitched it in the figurative trunk of my computer, deciding it was really bad, but when I reached an end point on Parallel Lives I took it out and started working on it again, because, I don’t know, maybe I didn’t have anything new in my head to work on, maybe because I thought it was redeemable. So I did some work on it, expanding the story beyond the 52,000 words or so I had managed to crank out for NaNo (By the way, this is NOT the work that I just reached a conclusion on; this one is back on hiatus, but could come back out again). And I realized that this character didn’t change. From the beginning of the story to the end, he doesn’t change.
It seems right for him. It’s the kind of guy he is. I personally think change is difficult for people. Not impossible, as House would hold, but difficult. I look at myself as a man in my mid-forties and, in many ways, I haven’t changed. I’ve learned from some mistakes, but not all of them. And the notion of a character going through a story and not changing seems very logical to me. But what about you? Is lack of change an unforgivable sin for an author? If you reached the end of a 250- or 300-page book and found the main character had not changed at all, would you be upset? Would you throw the book across the room and write nasty reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and your blogs and swear off me forever? Or would it depend on the book itself?
Thanks for reading and commenting, and happy blogiversary toCarrie! Funny, it’s mine, too, but I’m not nice, so I don’t have anything for you (not yet; maybe I’ll do something later this week or next).

19 Responses

  1. There is a difference between a character that doesn't change and one who doesn't learn anything or isn't affected by the events that take place. There has to be a reason for the book.

  2. Hmmm – good question. I like to watch the characters grow and become somehow more. It's part of the journey, the fun – at least for me. I hope they get closer to who they want to be at the beginning. I don't know if I've ever read a book where the character didn't grow. I'll have to think about that! 🙂

  3. Thank you, Jeff! Happy Blogiversary to you, too. 🙂

    As for your post, I think even the smallest "change" will suffice. Are your character’s circumstances any different? Did his relationships improve or deteriorate? Did his perceptions shift? Did he “learn” something, even if he didn’t take that lesson to heart?

    Just a thought. 🙂

  4. Happy anniversary to you, too!

    This is an interesting post because I keep hearing how essential change is for a character's arc. I'm inclined to think that is really is necessary. I think if I read a character that didn't change I'd feel bored or not very satisfied with the outcome.

  5. I think characters should have choices to make. They should struggle. That doesn't necessarily mean they change per se, more grow.

  6. I agree with Donna. It doesn't have to be change.

    But it depends upon how the writer handles it, I think. There's change and then there's CHANGE. A person can hold firm to their standards and not change in that sense. If their values are solid and well founded, that could be a good thing.

    But once we're established in our beliefs, habits, etc., it takes a life changing event to really change.

  7. That is very interesting indeed. My first response was of course I would throw the book across the room! There must be a transformation! But actually if you have a character you love and he doesn't change in spite of some really awful things happening to him–in other words if he maintains his goodness in the face of incredible odds, well then I'd say please, please don't change! I guess it depends on the story. Great post!

  8. I think you need to have SOME major character change, but not necessarily the MC. Some characters just become more steadfast the more they are tested. The example I've seen given for this is The Fugitive. Richard Kimble doesn't change– he faces enormous challenges and obstacles, but he remains steadfast in his convictions and his desire for justice. It's the US Marshal guy who changes, who moves from "It's my job to bring you in and I don't care if you're innocent" to actively trying to clear Kimble's name.

    So, I'd ask, is there another character in the story who can change significantly as a result of contact with the steadfast MC?

  9. I'm not sure if change is the right word… maybe growth? The same person, but the situation their thrown in makes them find a piece of themselves they didn't know they had before.

    And oh my gosh… for some reason, you haven't been showing up on my google reader and I've missed so many of your posts! Epic fail on my part and I'm super sorry! I'm rectifying immediately. 🙂

    And Happy Blogoversary!

  10. Oh, he's got choices, that's for sure. At least as things stand now, though, he repeatedly makes the wrong choices. And as I finished my initial draft way back when, he's still rationalizing those choices and blaming external forces for what he recognizes as poor decisions.

  11. Heh heh, I'm not sure this would be a character people LOVE. Heck, *I* don't even like him all that much, and maybe that's why I'm so willing to let him go on in this way.

  12. Good point, Lianna, thank you. I'll have to think about this one a bit. As it stands now, the answer is 'no', there isn't. Could there be? Maybe. Should there be? Again, maybe.

  13. No worries, Cassie. Blogger was behaving reasonably well for a while for me, and then it once again dropped Cynthia Chapman Willis and Matthew MacNish from my reader–and yours, too. SO I've been adding you guys every day, and five minutes later, you're gone again.

  14. Thanks for the comments and well-wishes, all.

    The lack of growth/change in this character feels absolutely right for this story. If he undergoes the sort of change that his circumstances *should* trigger, then I'd have a very different story from what I've got. Perhaps this is the reason that this novel keeps ending up in the figurative trunk.

    When I'm 'finished' with the current project, I'll take another poke at this one. If another idea comes to the forefront (i.e., a whole other project), then maybe that will be a sure sign to just leave this one alone.

  15. Interesting question. I don't think the core personality of a character needs to change, but there should be something amiss in a character or his/her life that is causing a problem or messing with the character in some way. A good story is about the struggle or the journey or the realization of the problem. The character is not content. Something could be or needs to be fixed. By the end of the ride, or story, the character has more experiences and may have learned a thing or two. For me, this implies growth and change, no matter what the outcome or final decisions the character makes.

  16. I think it's sort of unforgiveable if a character doesn't change, yeah. Not everything, of course, but they have to go from what they know, learn something, and merge what they were with what they learned to become something different. It's the three-act structure. And you know I love structure. 😉

  17. Hmm. I've actually come up against this question, too, and I think it's a good one. I can't say I always notice change in the characters in the books I read, and that doesn't bother me one bit. That could be that the change is very subtle, but by that point I think it's negligible on the scale of character growth. It just becomes the normal learning-and-adapting-from-experience that anyone goes through. I would think it very strange if someone went through a murder mystery and came out EXACTLY the same person they were before, because that's just not how people work. We're always changing a little. But I don't think that change in a character has to be big, or very noticeable.

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