Change or stay just as you are

Big news:  My latest novel, the third in the Disney Fairies series, called Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, was released yesterday!!!!  I hope you’ll take a look at it.  The illustrations by David Christiana are gorgeous.  Hope you like the words and the pictures!

On March 18, 2010, Sage-in-Socks wrote, …Sometimes I find myself forcing a change in a character because I feel, to be a round, dynamic character he or she must change in some way by the end of the story. To what extent should a character change? Are subtle changes like a change of opinion also characteristic of dynamic characters? Or should a character by the end of the story be quite different from what he or she is like in the beginning? Are there any limits? I mean I wouldn’t want to /force/ a character to change or change her personality–I rather like their flaws.

From your description, Sage-in-Socks, it doesn’t sound wise to force change on a character.  Whatever growth comes about needs to arise from what the character does in a situation, what she thinks, feels, says.  It shouldn’t be a bitter – or sugary – pill she’s made to swallow.  Your character certainly shouldn’t do a one-eighty.  She still needs to be recognizably herself at the end.  And the changes can be small – yes, a change of opinion, maybe a new appreciation of poetry.

In Chapter 16 of Writing Magic I write about character change.  The chapter, called “Happily Ever After – Or Not,” is about endings, and in there I write that usually a character should change by a story’s finale.  Right at this particular moment, however, I’m not so sure.

Sometimes the reader absolutely does not want a character to change.  As a child, I gobbled up the books in the Cherry Ames series.  I did not want Cherry to switch even the color of her lipstick!  I loved her exactly as she was.

This is true of some series today, too, where the characters can be relied on to carry their foibles from book to book.  It’s absolutely true of comic strip characters.  Mysteries often fall into this category as well; the detective is the constant from story to story.  There are new crimes to solve, but the detective remains unaltered.  I hope to write more books following my mystery, A Tale of Two Castles.  My heroine Elodie will probably grow older and change, but I would like to keep the dragon Meenore essentially the same from book to book.

Ella’s character doesn’t vary much in the course of Ella Enchanted.  Because of her actions, her circumstances change, but she has much the same personality at the end of the book as she did when her mother got sick.  On the other hand, Addie, the heroine of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, is fundamentally altered as a result of her exploits, but I don’t think I did a better job with one heroine or the other.  Different stories have different effects on their characters.  And the degree of change may vary too.  In some stories a mere change of opinion will be exactly what’s needed.

Like so much else in writing, it depends.

Some rounded, dynamic, actual people – you know them – never change, some for the good, some for the bad.  The aunt you count on to listen and not judge goes on listening and not judging for years.  She is a rock.  The cousin who criticizes everybody continues to criticize, no matter how his harping damages his closest relationships.  He is a rock too, one with a painfully sharp edge.

Secondary characters can change, or not.  Their development may affect your story and your main character, but they’re not quite as important as your main, so I’m going to concentrate on your hero.

Sometimes, failure to adapt will result in tragedy.  In my novel Ever, Kezi’s view of the religion she grew up in evolves.  If she’d stuck to her original beliefs she would have been sacrificed to a god that the reader has come to doubt.  Even if Kezi herself didn’t, the reader would regard her death as a tragedy.

Arthur Miller’s amazing tragedy, Death of a Salesman (high school and above, I’d guess), is about a man who can’t see beyond his world view, who has staked his life on shallow values.  His values are shallow, but the play is very deep, complicated, and worth seeing or reading.

In a different story, one I’m making up this minute, tragedy might be averted by refusal to change.  Suppose a main character Marnie befriends a new boy at school.  Let’s call him Joe.  At first Joe is well liked, but then rumors begin to circulate about him, serious stuff:  he steals; he brought a knife to his former school; he lies about everything.  When Marnie doesn’t believe the rumors and continues the friendship, her other friends desert her, saying they’re afraid of Joe and are becoming afraid of her.  Even Marnie’s parents warn her against the boy, who is spiraling into depression.  Marnie hangs firm, doesn’t change, and her trust keeps Joe afloat against the accusations, which may be true or false.  If they’re true, Marnie may bring about change in Joe and help him become a better person.  Good grief!  This could be a soap opera!

Or it could go another way.  The rumors turn out to be true, and Marnie is hurt, but she still concludes that she did what was right.  Or aaa!  Marnie could be killed, and then her staunchness turns into a fatal flaw.

In some respects, Marnie will change whichever way the story goes.  She’ll learn more about her friends and about herself.  She may have a greater moral sense by the end of the story.  In most stories, your main character will change at least a little.  As the author, you can highlight the changes by having your main character reflect on them or having other characters point them out.  Or you can simply show your main character behaving in a new way.

So I guess my answer for this invented story is ambiguous and may be ambiguous in many stories.  If Marnie, in addition to her faithfulness, interrupts people often or bites her nails or needs to sleep with a nightlight, these aspects of her personality can remain untouched – or you can change them as evidence of her new maturity.  But you probably don’t want to change everything about her.  Let her keep the flaws you like.

Here are four prompts:

•    Your hero wants romance with someone artistic, attractive, and as much in love with baseball as he is.  He finds such a person, whom he likes, but this character falls short in some important ways.  Write the scene in which he assesses himself and his romantic ideas.  Does he change or not?

•    Your main character wants to reform herself, stop being bossy and become more caring.  Write a scene in which she completely fails at this self-improvement.

•    Superman gives up saving people.  Write the turning point that pushes him in this direction.

•    Wickham from Pride and Prejudice decides to no longer be a scoundrel.  Write the scene in which the change takes place or in which the seeds of change are sewn.  If you like, write a summary of how the plot develops after his transformation.

  1. Your second prompt (the bossy girl who fails to change into someone truly caring) was me all through elementary school and some of middle school!

    It took quite a bit of heartache for me to really change.

  2. What a timely post. I was just talking about this with my critique partner about my WIP. Your post gave me some insight in to whether or not I want my main character to change and how I should show it.

    Maybe my flaw is not in having the character change or not change, but in making it obvious which choice I have made and how that choice helps or hinders my main character.

    So now I'm going back to read this post again!

  3. Wow… this was absolutely helpful. 🙂 I've been worrying that my characters don't seem to change; either that, or I write them in my own emotions, depending on how I'm feeling/how mature I'm feeling that day. So this really was appropriate for me right now. Thanks! 😀

  4. I can't wait to read your book! Although it'll take forever for it to show up in my library… sigh. This is a really neat post! We were talking about this in my literature class the other day, and how (I don't remember the correct vocabulary for it) there are characters that change and character that don't- like in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the children (Scout and Jem) changed in personality while the father/lawyer, Atticus, didn't, forming a sort of moral backbone for the rest of the story. I suppose that characters will tell whether they need to change or not as we write, seeing as they always have a way of taking a life of their own… Anyway, thanks Mrs. Levine for the post.

  5. Sometimes it can be sad to have a character change in the course of the book. Often, they've grown up and matured a lot, and just generally become more "adult." And sometimes the reader may have wished to have the character stay young and happy and free, without all the maturity that his/her adventures have brought on. I recall some of Lloyd Alexander's books when I say this.
    Just thought to put the idea out there.

  6. I've never really thought about this question before, so your insight brought new food for thought! I had always thought it was a must for a character to change, but I suppose it's not!

  7. An amazing and though-provoking post, Mrs. Levine! I personally got the impression that Ella did change, not her overall personality, but I think she was stronger and braver by the end, and she has had a change in what she thinks is most important, from breaking the curse for the sake of being free, to (SPOILERS!) breaking the curse to save Char. Her goal doesn't change, but her motive does.

    I like the idea of making Wickham change. He irritates me, as I'm sure he does every reader, and the idea of making him decent is an interesting one…

  8. @maybeawriter – that's what I thought too. Ella does change, even if one only counts her (SPOILER) breaking her curse. But she's the best character I've ever read. Totally refreshing.

  9. Thanks Ms. Levine this is awesome. In one of my projects all of the characters had somehow changed by the end of the book, all of them except one character who absolutely refused to change, but now i know that that's not a bad thing. Thanks again!
    P.S. Congrats on the book release!

  10. Great post, Mrs. Levine! when is A Tale of Two Castles coming out? I'm looking really forward to reading it! also, do you have an advice for writers who want to get thier work published?

  11. Erin Edwards and Grace–Thanks for the congratulations on my new book.
    Happiness–A TALE OF TWO CASTLES will be out some time next spring or summer. There are some ideas about publishing in the comments after my May 19, 2010 post.

  12. I'm glad I found this blog. I didn't know you had one!

    I first was interested in your novels when my sister received 'The Two Princesses of Bamarre' for Easter. I loved that book and soon discovered Ella Enchanted in the back of a used homeschool bookstore in Seattle, WA. (I love used books). Then I stumbled upon Fairest.

    These three still remain my favorite of your novels. I also enjoyed The Fairy's Return. I've yet to read your other books, as our library doesn't have them. I live in a small town (600 people) so we don't even have a book store.

  13. Ms. Levine,

    Thank you for your post. I've been debating the issue of character development for a few months, never having intentionally changed a character before, but feeling perhaps that such a lack of intentional direction might render my characters two-dimensional. I am encouraged to see your opinion that characters should go where the story takes them–and not somewhere the author has determinedly steered them.

    And slightly off-topic, I must admit that reading your blog is often a surreal experience for me. 'Ella Enchanted' is possibly my favorite book of all time (at least my favorite non-series book), and reading references to it in your posts has actually gotten me choked up before. I read 'Ella' at least once a year, and pick it up any time I am feeling disjointed or in need of comfort. So, thank you for writing it. And thank you for continuing to write books–and blog posts–that encourage readers and writers everywhere.

  14. Thanks for this post, Mrs. Levine!
    I really like the baseball-themed prompt, reminds me of people I used to know!

    I have a small question about writing alter-egos, (as in the writer is quiet and the character is loud, wise-cracking) as a story I'm working on has a male elf of this caliber. I'm female and not like this at all, so I'm a little stuck. (I already looked at the post about writing from a boy's point of view, that was very helpful, thanks! I guess my question is mostly about the alter-ego thing.)

    I'm also looking for help as to how one should avoid directly copying plots or characters from a television show or different book, as I also have a habit of doing this.

    Thanks again!

  15. Hanna–Thank you for your very kind words!
    Equusferuscaballus–I don't understand your question about the alter ego. Are you writing in a voice that you don't like and that has sort of taken over? Can you expand on your question to help me get it? I am about to publish a new post. Please comment on the new one so I'm sure to see it.

  16. Congratulations on your new book! Can't wait to get my hands on it. I love all the stories in Dinsey Faires series; they're so clever! Your post was also very helpful. I got just the answer I needed. I also gathered more insight into characterization and can see new dimensions of the character I was concerned about forming already. Thank you very much!

  17. Wow your books are amazing! I have to say that you’re defiantly right David Christiana illustrations are gorges! I especially like how at the beginning, Terence goes though all that work to spell Tink’s name: and she doesn’t even notice. Poor Terence. My favorite book you’ve written so far would have to be “The Two Princesses of Bamarre” it was absolutely fascinating! My favorite one of ‘The Princess Tales’ would be, it’s hard to pick but, probably “For Biddle’s Sake” or “The Princess Test.”

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