Monday, October 10, 2005

The Rule That Your Main Character Must Change

We often hear that characters are changed by the events of a story. James N. Frey holds that your characters must "grow from pole to pole." These are often misunderstood statements. By them, we do not mean that a character's "character" must change in the same way we would mean that a person's "character" changes. A behavioral or attitude change may occur, but that isn't necessary.

For example, in The Last Crusade, both Indiana Jones and his father change. In the beginning, neither understands the other. Indy resents his father for not paying more attention to him as a boy. His father, an intellectual with his head buried in ancient books, found his son "uninteresting." During the story they each learn some lessons. Indy learns that he shouldn't envy his friends who had doting parents, because they violated their children's privacy with as much control as attention. He learns that his upbringing thus respected him as a sovereign person and fostered his ability to make decisions and think for himself. It's what made him so well able to take care of himself. On the other hand, Indy's father learns that he is very ignorant of many things. He learns much from his son. He learns that Indy has valuable knowledge -- knowledge about the real world, knowledge not got from books -- and that his son is anything but dull and boring. Most important, he learns that you must show people you care about them. In the end they have grown into deep understanding and appreciation of each other. (Though Spielberg humorously makes you wonder how long this lesson will hold.)

In many great dramatic stories, however, no such fundamental change in the attitude, beliefs or behavior of a character occurs. Let alone one that goes "from pole to pole." Your character need not change from a coward to a hero, from sobriety to drunkenness, from simplicity to crookedness, or from brazenness to humility. Shakespeare's characters, for example, typically do not undergo such a transformation.

In fact, strict adherence to the myth that "character change" is necessary results in much contrived (and therefore weak) fiction that sacrifices meaning and drama to somehow teach the hero some lesson along the way.

As Frey says, what does change, and what must change, is the character's emotional state. This change is a natural result of rising conflict.

More on this tomorrow.

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