(Character) Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Do characters really need to change in fiction?

Over this weekend I inadvertently started a minor **discourse**. I was reading old Brian Evenson interviews to prep for my talk with him—08/11 on Zoom via Third Place Books if you’re interested!—and casually posted a screenshot:

This quote had a whole lot of people agreeing wholeheartedly, and a whole lot of other people disagreeing vehemently. Change is what we want from characters! some said, and even if most people don’t change shouldn’t fiction be about the exceptional? Plus, how can the reader change if people never change? I feel a bit bad for Evenson here in that this was just an interview question, not a carefully crafted manifesto ready to be scrutinized. (FWIW my assumption is that Evenson means a temporary change in the reader’s mind or mood, not the kind of “Eureka! I must change my life!” effect in the epiphany fiction model he’s critiquing.)

Stories typically involves changes of some sort, and lord knows Evenson’s brilliant horror stories involve plenty of changes to the characters… often of the mutilation or devoured-by-monsters sort. Outside of some experimental stories, we expect characters to end up in a different place than they started. But often these changes are to circumstances not to the fundamental nature of the characters. The character aren’t changing as characters, they are just suffering consequences for their actions or perhaps just being dealt a bad hand by fate. A story about a man being divorced for his philandering and the story of a man having his legs eaten by a hippo both certainly have characters experience change even if he himself doesn’t change.

Do readers come to fiction to see characters change? Certainly sometimes. But I’m skeptical that it’s as fundamental of a motivation as so many creative writing teachers claim. The appeal of, say, TV sitcoms or Sherlock Holmes or superhero comics or etc. is not seeing characters change. It’s the opposite! The fundamental staticness of the characters is what makes them feel so “real” that parody Twitter accounts or fan fiction works can place the characters in wildly different settings or genres and we still recognize them. What drives these stories is putting the static characters in new situations and seeing how they react, then resetting things for the next installment.

But it’s true of plenty of “highbrow” art too. A prestige TV show like The Sopranos is all about the inability of people to change. Tony Soprano is the same violent gangster at the end of the show as he is in the beginning, despite several seasons of therapy and trauma and dramatic events. Or a show like The Wire is about how people change (or don’t) in the ways that vast systems and institutions and societal pressures force them to regardless of their individual epiphanies or revelations.

What about literary fiction, the alleged “character-driven” genre? Don’t people turn to literary fiction for deep characters who we watch grow and change? Again, certainly some readers do. Personally I turn to such fiction to experience a different consciousness. I read to inhabit a different outlook or dwell in a different sensibility. Neither character change nor even character per se matters. Just yesterday I finished Rachel Cusk’s Outline, a brilliant book in which the characters barely exist at all and the vents are fleeting and mostly irrelevant. But the sensibility and the observations are exquisite. A favorite author of mine is Thomas Bernhard, whose characters never change… and are all interchangeable anyway. Again, it’s the consciousness that attracts me.

That’s just me, of course. Everyone reads for different reasons. It does strike me though that the type of fiction most famous for the epiphany/change model is the short story, and in those stories the epiphany happens at the end. That is, we the reader rarely get to see the character change. We end on the implication—the false hope?—that they might, but we don’t get to experience it. In this way, the James Joyce style short story is actually similar to an individual sitcom episode. Those also end on revelations or lessons learned… until next week rolls around and all is forgotten.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t works of fiction that really do show believable changes to their characters. Fiction is an infinite machine. It can produce any and everything. yet the stories that most effectively convey change—at least that come to mind—all share a common element: time. Lots of time.

I do think people change in real life, but most commonly this seems to happen over long periods of time. Few people fundamentally change day to day, but we all change in some ways over the years, decades, lives. Similarly, it is much more believable to watch characters change in fiction in, say, a family epic spanning decades than it is in a short story covering an afternoon.

So if the character doesn’t have to change, what does need to happen in a story? What makes a story feel like a story? There’s the change in circumstances I mentioned already. To put it reductively: plot can happen. I also love what Kelly Link has to say here:

A reader can deepen their understanding of a character, or radically reinterpret the character, as information is revealed over the course of the story… all without the character changing per se.

I also like how Laura van den Berg reframes the question:

Anyway, Evenson, Link, and van den Berg are three of our most brilliant living story writers. So if you want to learn how to deploy “character” and “change” in your stories, you could hardly do better than studying their books.

In personal writing news, there’s just under two months until my debut novel comes out. Do the characters change? You’ll have to preorder to find out! I’ll have some events, both virtual and in person, to post about soon.

For now though I did want to think Lindsay Merbaum for making this very cook novel-inspired cocktail. Merbaum makes a whole host of book-inspired cocktails over at @pickyourpotions so if you like books and cocktails, follow along and subscribe to The Cauldron. The Body Scout cocktail has bourbon, fennel bitters, vermouth, and plum syrup. Check out the whole recipe here.