The Changing Character of Fiction – Part 1, by N.E. David

At our June festival, author Nick David  gave a very interesting talk about the vogue in modern fiction  for the main protagonist to undergo change through some form of ‘journey’, whether this is necessary for a piece of literature to be meaningful or whether we should not simply enjoy a book for the sake of the story itself. If you missed him speaking you can read Part 1 of that talk here, with Part 2 following.18053568594_cb0f0516f0_z crop2

Not for the first time, I think I’m about to offend someone. So for those of you who give, or like to attend, creative writing courses, I’d advise you to look away now…

I’ve never done either. As far as giving them is concerned, it’s not that I don’t count myself a good enough writer – it’s simply that I have no desire to ‘teach’ other people how to write. I’m not even sure it would be possible for me to do so. For me there’s something vaguely arrogant about the idea that I could ever presume to give lectures on the ‘art’ of writing. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not precious about it either. I’m quite happy to share my experiences of writing with anyone who asks. If they can gain something from that – so much the better. But I wouldn’t want to force it on my worst enemy.

As for attending them, I confess I have what is a probably unwarranted fear that by conforming to the norms they propound, I will lose what little creativity I already possess. Better to be untutored and inventive than shackled by someone else’s thinking. Plus the fact that they seem to play to my rebellious streak. I remember a writing colleague saying he’d been told that we should never use the word ‘suddenly’. My instant reaction was to go home and put ‘suddenly’ in my work in as many places as possible.

One of the maxims that circulate on such courses is that the main protagonist in modern fiction needs to undergo ‘change’ through some form of physical or spiritual journey. I want to challenge this assumption and ask whether this is necessary for a piece of literature to be meaningful or whether we should not simply enjoy a book for the sake of the story itself rather than its effect. I should add that I’m talking purely about literary fiction here since I have no knowledge of the requirements of other genres. In a moment we’ll look at this theory in detail but let me begin with a definition of character. Not my definition, I hasten to add, but one borrowed from a course attended by another of my writing colleagues.

CHARACTER
Major or central characters are vital to the development and resolution of the conflict. In other words, the plot and resolution of conflict revolves around these characters.
Protagonist – The protagonist is the central person in a story, and is often referred to as the story’s main character. He or she (or they) is faced with a conflict that must be resolved. The protagonist may not always be admirable (e.g. an anti-hero); nevertheless s/he must command involvement on the part of the reader, or better yet, empathy.
Antagonist – The antagonist is the character(s) (or situation) that represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend. In other words, the antagonist is an obstacle that the protagonist must overcome.
Dynamic – A dynamic character is a person who changes over time, usually as a result of resolving a central conflict or facing a major crisis. Most dynamic characters tend to be central rather than peripheral characters, because resolving the conflict is the major role of central characters.
Static – A static character is someone who does not change over time; his or her personality does not transform or evolve.
Now let’s examine the theory. Here it is as expounded by Novel Writing Help

CHARACTER CHANGE IN NOVELS
When you think about it, a plot in a novel is ultimately all about character change. Without the central character undergoing a transformation, there would be little point in writing or reading fiction at all. Seeing a fictional character we care about undergo a momentous experience (in the form of the novel’s plot) and emerge changed as a result of that experience (hopefully for the better), is somehow life-affirming for writer and reader alike. And so, when plotting your own novel, never lose sight of the fact that the way your central character is at the beginning and the end, and the difference between the two, is of paramount importance. (This change, incidentally, is often called the character arc.)

CHARACTER CHANGE IN THE REAL WORLD
Have you noticed that, in real life, people don’t tend to change very much at all. By the time they reach adulthood, a person’s character is more or less set, and that is the way it stays.
Oh sure, they might make the occasional effort to change – to be more tolerant, perhaps – but sooner or later they slip back into their old ways.
That is why fiction is so much better than real life…
• The bad become good.
• The weak become strong.
• The joyless become happy.
…and the changes tend to stick, too (or at least us readers like to imagine that the character change is permanent once we have closed the final page of the book).
Of course, not all characters undergo transformation in a novel. It is usually only the leading man or woman who undergoes this change. The rest of the fictional characters remain precisely how they were at the beginning.
So what I am about to say really only applies to your protagonist. (In fact, a novel’s protagonist, by definition, is the one who is transformed.)

“In reality people change, however slightly, as a result of their experiences. There must be some sort of conversion brought about by the events you devise; the central character must develop along with the novel and acquire new attitudes – preferably wiser ones.”
– Dianne Doubtfire

THE THEORY OF CHARACTER CHANGE
In a nutshell, the theory goes as follows…
1. A character in a novel starts out a certain way – as a happy, contented family man, say.
2. Their world is then thrown into confusion by the triggering event of the plot, and they are forced to act to make things right again. (The man’s young daughter is kidnapped, say, and he must find her safe and well if he wants to return to a happy family life.)
3. In trying to achieve their goal, however, the character is forced to confront their innermost self, and they usually end up changed in some fashion. (The man finds his daughter, but he finishes up fearful and distrusting.)
Changes are triggered in a character when they undergo a momentous event.
They are unlikely to be changed in any significant way by a trip to the seaside. But if they save someone from drowning while they are there – or fail to save them – they will almost certainly arrive home with their internal make-up altered.

So much for the theory. In Part 2 we’ll look at some examples and then examine how things actually stack up.

You can read Part 2 here.


18649925696_92c8fe37b5_zN.E.David is the pen name of York author Nick David. Besides being a regular contributor to Literary Festivals in the North East Region, Nick is also a founder member of York Authors and co-presenter of Book Talk on BBC Radio York.

His début novel, Birds of the Nile, was published by Roundfire in 2013. His second novel, The Burden, came out in April.

Photos by Steve Evans.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend. Fiona is its Coordinator and Marketing Director of the Northern Short Story Festival.

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