Can Characters Really Change?

A couple of days ago I wrote a blog postulating that Without Changes, You Have No Story, and I stick to that premise. Characters need to change, the relationships of the characters to each other need to change, story expectations need to change, the direction of the story (and each scene) needs to change. But there was a discussion on that blog post centered on what degree it is possible for characters to change, and if they truly do change, and that made me think.

Some psychologists say we never change in any basic way, that our characters and essential personalities are our foundation, that we can only change in small ways, such as changing our habits or changing our focus. This is at odds with books about writing, which claim characters must do a complete about face, a 180° turnaround to show how the events of the story affected the characters. I thought I’d created strong character arcs for each of my characters, with my characters ending up different from the way they began, but now that I consider it, I don’t see that my characters change in any fundamental way. They become more of who they were, perhaps, but not recognizably different.

In More Deaths Than One, we see a gradual change in Bob Stark, the hero, see his current concept of himself eroded until he becomes what he once was and now will always be. (A bit cryptic, I know, but since this is the crux of the story, I don’t want to spoil it in case you haven’t yet read the book.) But he didn’t really change. He only seemed to change.

In A Spark of Heavenly Fire — which was inspired by a Washington Irving quote: “There is in every true woman’s heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.” — Kate Cummings seems to change in response to the red death and the resulting martial law that is destroying Colorado, seems to kindle up and beam and blaze in the dark hour of adversity, but there are hints in the story that she was always like that. Her spark of heavenly fire — her generosity — was merely hidden from herself and from us until a life-altering event stripped her to the core.

In Daughter Am IMary Stuart never truly changes, though she also seems to change. She was unsure of herself, unsure of what she wanted, unwilling to make a commitment of any kind even to a job, until she set out to discover who her grandparents were, who wanted them dead, and why her parents lied about their existence. It wasn’t out of character, perhaps, for her to drive halfway across the country in search of the truth because she only went along with what others wanted. At least in the beginning. As the journey progressed, she learned the truth she was seeking, and an even greater truth — who she is. She is granddaughter, daughter, and herself. Mostly herself. But that isn’t a change. It’s a discovery. A coming home.

In Light Bringer, neither Becka nor Phillip change. Again, they just discover who they are, a truth that had been kept from them their whole lives. In all my books, but Light Bringer especially, what changes is the reader’s perception of who the characters are. The truth is slowly revealed, and each revelation seems to show a change in the characters, but in the end they simply become what they always were.

How very odd to learn this so long after having written the books.

(Click on a title to read the first chapter of the book.)