The Changing Character of Fiction – Part 2, by N.E. David

Following on from The Changing Character of Fiction Part 1, where Nick David looked at the theory of how character change impacts on the modern novel, in Part 2 he continues by looking at some examples from the website Novel Writing Help.

Now, when a fictional character undergoes such a momentous experience, there are three possible outcomes…

No Change
Imagine a story in which a character wakes up in the morning and goes to work to discover they have been fired.
Are they upset? A little, at first – but at least they can now go home to watch some golf on TV. So they go home and switch on the golf, completely unaffected.
Zzzzzzzzz!
If characters aren’t altered by the novel’s events, not even a little, then the events they experience are simply not big enough.
By “big,” I don’t mean there has to be explosions and car chases. A scene showing a family sitting down for a meal has just as much potential for drama as the same family aboard a hijacked airliner.
It is simply that the events, whether large or small, dramatic or quieter in nature, should have consequences for the characters concerned.
Massive Change
Look no further than Ebenezer Scrooge for the perfect example of this kind of change…
• At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is the most mean-spirited, miserly man who has ever lived. (Hey, your name doesn’t enter the English language for nothing!)
• Scrooge then experiences the story’s core event: the three visits by the Ghosts of Christmas.
• Finally, he wakes up the next morning and is suddenly the most generous, joyous man in old London Town.
Now, I am not having a dig at Dickens here. (He is one of my favorite writers, and A Christmas Carol is one of the most perfect stories ever told.
But in most novels, particularly in the 21st century, having the protagonist change so suddenly and so completely would frankly be laughable.
If you are writing a modern fairy tale, fine. If not, go for the third option…
Subtle Change
Aim to be as light-handed as possible when charting your protagonist’s change.
And that really is the best way I can explain it. Go for more of a slight shift in the main character’s consciousness than a Scrooge-like total transformation and you won’t go far wrong.

AN ALTERNATIVE VIEW

All admirable stuff, much of which I have to say I agree with, but does it have to be that way? I have a contrary argument, but firstly let me pick a few nits.

We’re told that ‘Seeing a fictional character… emerge changed… (hopefully for the better) is somehow life-affirming…’ Why better? Why not worse? If every novel ended happily, this would be to deny some of the very best aspects of tragedy – a subject, incidentally which is close to my heart.

My audience in Leeds gasped when I read them the line ‘That is why fiction is so much better than real life…’ I’m not surprised. My whole purpose in writing novels is to try and record reality and to try and understand what it means to be human in the modern day and age. For me, without real life there can be no fiction.

And ‘a novel’s protagonist, by definition, is the one who is transformed’ Whose definition is that? Not my Collins dictionary – according to them, a protagonist is merely a main character, no mention of the need to change.
But these, as I say, are nits. The fundamental proposition, from which all else flows, is this:
‘Without the central character undergoing a transformation, there would be little point in writing or reading fiction at all.’
I disagree and I can think of at least three good reasons why.

1. The Power of Story

Let me illustrate this with an example. A TOWN LIKE ALICE (Neville Shute) is one of my favourite novels. The main character is a woman, Jean Paget, and we’re not concerned with character change at all. The strength of the book lies in the power of the story and the fact that Paget’s unshakeable self-belief and optimism overcomes every obstacle and gives us all hope. Without this book, my life would be all the poorer.

2. The Exposition of Character

The purpose of a novel can be to express a character, whether that character changes or not. Jean Paget is one such example. Another is Holden Caulfield in JD.Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Here the author wants to show us a picture of disaffected and purposeless youth. He succeeds, to the extent that by the end of the book we want to take Holden Caulfield by the shoulders, give him a good shake and tell him to wake up and smell the coffee. He doesn’t, and his refusal to change leaves us with a great feeling of despair – a perfectly valid sentiment.

3. The Expression of an Idea or Moral

Many novelists want to tell us something about the world or how we should behave within it. SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5 is supposed to be a warning to us of the horrors of war. Its main character is Billy Pilgrim whom we meet in the aftermath. Whatever changes he has suffered (if any) have already occurred and the book does nothing more than record his present condition. I could be wrong here as I never understood much of what was going on in the book but the generally accepted opinion is that this a modern masterpiece.

So a novel is not just about character transformation but can be much, much more. I sincerely hope so since in my new book, THE BURDEN, my main protagonist doesn’t change. Like Billy Pilgrim, the events that moulded his character took place earlier on in life and in the latter stages of the story he fails to move forward. Summoned to his dying father’s bedside to hear the great secret which has been kept from him throughout, his father dies before it can be delivered. Frank returns home none the wiser and consequently unaltered. I contend this doesn’t matter, and in fact it has to be so because without this there is no irony in the final scene when he goes back to his mother. By now the reader is only too well aware of the secret and is left to conclude what will happen to Frank when he eventually finds out, as he surely will.

I’d better be right – otherwise I’ve just wasted two years of precious writing time!


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.

Photo 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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