When Characters Change (or don’t)

This article first appeared on the Writer’s Fun Zone in March, 2012.

Do people truly change? Other than lightbulbs, I mean. People constantly change their superficial appearances—hair color, weight, corrective lenses, clothing styles—but do they, can they, change their fundamental behavior? This is your job as a writer to explore.

We often attribute sudden behavioral changes in people we know to understandable tropes: he’s going through a mid-life crisis, she’s having a meltdown, he’s sowing his wild oats. These descriptions reassure us and help us to understand inexplicable behavior.

Sometimes behavior seems inexplicable when people change their functional roles. The academic joins the church. The janitor joins a union. The stay-at-home mom gets a job. Why? In real life, we might never really know. But fiction and the characters you write—that live only in your imagination—can help readers understand inexplicable behavior changes.

Fiction helps people see motives in real life.

But wait, you say. Characters don’t have to change in fiction. Certainly, they do not. Look at Wuthering Heights. There’s a book that’s managed to endure a lot longer than it deserves, and those pathetic characters change not one iota. If you haven’t read it, and congratulations on dodging that bullet if you haven’t, Catherine and Heathcliff trip endlessly over the soggy moors, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth, and then die. Okey-dokey, then.

As it turns out, the concept of the unchanging character is a common one in fiction, and not just in impenetrable nineteenth-century gothic novels written by minister’s daughters. Besides the Wuthering Heights template (nothing changes, nothing good happens), another way to set up characters that don’t seem to change is to reveal that what they seem to change into is what they really were all along. Or you can write characters who want to change but can’t—until they discover their own true nature. And when they change the outward nature of their lives, they’re really just becoming true to their real self.

“Non-changing” characters written like this are not transformed as much as they are unmasked.

Okay, but wait, you say. Characters do change. Except in Wuthering Heights.

Certainly, they do. One thing that can force characters to change is their baser natures. Think Lady Chatterly’s Lover. (Too bad Catherine and Heathcliff hadn’t read this one; the moors would be a saner place.) D. H. Lawrence’s characters never seem to have motives, only drives. Well, it works for me. And it works for a lot of mystery writers, too—think the noir oeuvre, for example.

And in another example of how something-that’s-not-a-motive can change you: think opportunity. In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle was a poor flower girl until Henry Higgins took her under his wing and turned her into a lady. Robert Parker also used this concept successfully. In these cases, the character had the will to change all along, but needed the correct environment to succeed.

And, of course, if your characters need to change, they can change themselves by their own force of will. Some extremely narrow-minded and legalistic people will try to convince you that if the character could change by force of will, that will had to be inherent in the first place; hence, it’s more of an unmasking type of thing. Do not pay attention to these people. They are not worthy of your time. The important thing here is what the characters want and work for, rather than what has been dished up for them, or what they’ve been forced into.

You can make your characters behave in almost any way, as long as you explain it.

If your hero went in for plastic surgery and changed his look totally (think Humphrey Bogart in Dark Passages), or three secretaries suddenly stood up to their boss (think Nine to Five), there has to be a reason. There’s no right way to show that justification—before the behavior change, after, during—it all depends on your story and your writing style. But the bigger the behavioral change, or the larger the role the character has, the more justification you have to show for the changes. Because changing is tough.

Just ask Catherine and Heathcliff.

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