Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does Character Change?

My brother is one of those people who believes that you're basically born as the person you will become. Parents can fiddle around the margins, but the essential center—the character—of each person is basically fixed.

Now that I have kids, I see there is at least a grain of truth in it. My oldest son, now 14, is still basically the same kid he was at 18 months. He just expresses it differently. Louder. With a better vocabulary.

The same applies to me, if I think about it. I have pretty huge problems with authority. Always have. I've been violently fired on several occasions (an employer once threatened to shove a spatula up my ass before screaming "GET OUT!"). I've even been fired by members of my own family. I've been thrown out of classes, sat in more principals offices and corners than I care to remember, and generally fought my way through adolescence like a cornered animal. So is it any wonder I'm self-employed? This works for me.

When it comes to writing, the key is growth, but I'm wondering if there's a fine distinction between "growth OF character" and "growth IN character." I think if you're being true to life, your characters enter the story as pretty much the same people they'll be when the exit the story. Their fundamental character, or essence, does not change much. Instead, the story is a tale of how that particular person adapts to the situation they're presented with, and how they learn to apply or suppress character traits to accomplish their goals. Just like life.

I'm thinking now of Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice. Darcy entered the story a proud, conceited member of the upper class, but he was also a gentleman and he was generous of nature. He exits the story as the same guy, but I think one of the subtexts of Pride and Prejudice is Darcy's assuming the mantle as the master of Pemberley. And that's what Elizabeth teaches him through her initial rejection of him: that first and foremost, he must be a gentleman to the people whose station is "so far beneath his own," as he puts it. His pride isn't defeated, it is shaped into nobility.

It's an interesting question, and it's a challenge. The question is not "how will my character be different at the end" but "how will my character learn to adapt to a new normal."


17 comments:

Mark Terry said...

It's an interesting question (in fiction and real life). Let's go back to our easy subject matter, Harry Potter. Does he change that much?

If you remember in the first book when he first meets Draco Malfoy, he rather quickly says he knows who his friends are.

This continues through the books. Harry had choices and temptations, although I'm not sure we ever saw a Temptation of Harry Potter by Voldemort. Voldemort made Harry's choices a bit easier by trying to kill him repeatedly rather than by tempting him with the thing he wanted most--family. But Harry had a family, didn't he? Ron and Hermione and the Weasleys in general, as well as the school, and the D.A.

Harry was, to the end, pretty much true to Harry. But he did grow.

LurkerMonkey said...

Harry's a great example, I think. Because you're right: the Harry at the end of the whole series is essentially the same as the Harry at the beginning of the series. It would have been interesting if Voldemort had somehow figured out a Temptation for him, though ...

Eric said...

I would have to argue against the notion that people are what they are from birth. When I was younger, I had the nerve of a jellyfish - basically afraid of everything. Military service managed to teach me otherwise, and now I've grown to be brave enough to try all kinds of things (like starting a writing career). So I don't think it's a stretch to say that our characters can change in the same way as well. Experience and knowledge tend to make people grow in some way, whether they realize it or not.

spyscribbler said...

Oh my god, Jon, how well do you know Zoe? LOL! You guys are so similar even though you're very different. She's had something like 38 jobs?

I am way too contrary for my own good. I have a terrible tendency to choose the most different path by default, with no consideration for the consequences.

spyscribbler said...

PS: Having watched something like three or four hundred kids grow up from babies to high school, I agree!

Jude Hardin said...

I don't know. Much of fiction is about epiphany and metamorphosis. Maybe I'm overly optimistic on the subject, but I think essential, spiritual growth and change is possible, in stories and in life.

Melanie Avila said...

This is the other issue I'm dealing with in my wip right now. Are you sure you're not going through my notes? :P

I know characters are supposed to change, and I like your point that the person doesn't do a 180, it's more subtle than that. Adapting to their environment is a great way to put it, and definitely applies to my wip.

Thanks. :)

Melanie Avila said...

Today's post at Writer Unboxed addresses this very thing:

http://writerunboxed.com/2009/05/14/you-like-me-you-really-like-me/

LurkerMonkey said...

Eric,

My thinking is far from settled on the subject ... I'd always thought, like you, that our characters are more fluid. But the older I get, the more I am beginning to doubt that. When I was writing this, I almost included a paragraph about the unique nature of childhood -- because I agree that the adult can sometimes barely resemble the child. But is it that the person's character changed? Or is that the child was never allowed to express their character because of circumstances beyond their control? Maybe sometimes, growing up is the act of returning to the people we were born to be ...

LurkerMonkey said...

Spy,

I figured teachers would have the best perspective on this :)

And, yeah, until I became a writer, I'd never actually held a job successfully.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

I'm sort of expanding on a thought from my reply to Eric's post, but maybe it's possible that growth means a return to what we once were, or should have been. I agree that epiphanies and metamorphosis happen -- but I also think it's possible that many people are warped by the circumstances and events of their lives. The world is a pretty rough place, full of nearly unimaginable horrors. So is it possible that when we're talking about "gut instincts," we're actually talking about our natural hardwiring?

Like I said, I don't pretend to know the real answers to this, but I am looking for ways to view and improve on my own characters in writing.

LurkerMonkey said...

Melanie,

Thanks! That's an interesting post ... sort of comes at the same thing from a different angle.

Erica Orloff said...

This is so deep. Such a great post. I think, allowed to flourish, children become what their characters are (i.e., I agree with you, in essence). I have SUCH a problem with authority too. But I think I squashed it as a child in reaction to a totally authoritarian father--it was either fight my way through life with him, or skip a couple of grades and get out of the house. So I left home. I was offered multiple scholarships and took the one farthest from home, which meant never coming home for fall break, etc.

I think, though, that people do and can get their essence stomped out of them sometimes by tremendous circumstances. By events. My losses. By grief. By horrific abuse. And the JOURNEY to me is to restore your sense of grace. To embody the principles of logotherapy and Viktor Frankl, in Man's Search for Meaning, where you reclaim you essential grace and soul no matter the circumstances.

Hence, you have people who are 50 and whine, still, about their lot in life from events in childhood and adolescence. And you have people who have had every misfortune or illness or whatever . . . and they seem able to remain true to their character in the face of it.

E

LurkerMonkey said...

E,

"I think, though, that people do and can get their essence stomped out of them sometimes by tremendous circumstances. By events. My losses. By grief. By horrific abuse. And the JOURNEY to me is to restore your sense of grace."

Agreed! Sometimes the journey isn't to a new character, but a return to the "pure" character. It's tremendously difficult to undo damage ...

Jude Hardin said...

I guess it could be argued that change is really just discovering what was already there to start with. Sort of like Michaelangelo starting with a block of marble and chipping away everything that wasn't David. Interesting.

BTW, Nathan Bransford interviewed S.E. Hinton on his blog today. Thought you might be interested.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

Thanks for the tip to the Hinton interview. I'm a big fan.

My wife used the same Michaelangelo analogy when we were talking about this other day. I guess great minds think alike ...

Melanie Avila said...

An excellent point was just brought up on my blog: I saw Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino over the weekend and his character is a perfect example of a person changing over the course of a story. He starts out completely loathsome, but you do start to care for him.