Readers, in many ways, want the same experience they’ve already had, only slightly different.
I was at a convention recently, and I was sitting on a panel with R.T. Kaelin, Timothy Zahn, and Pat Rothfuss. The subject of the panel was the ins and outs of writing the trilogy, but as you tend to do on panels, we started to wander toward other topics. Thus was born the subject of this post.
I was blabbering on about how you create arcs, not only for individual books but for an entire series (a trilogy or longer series), and I coughed up that old chestnut, that your characters need to change over the course of the story. Pat, being the contrarian he is, said something like, “I don’t really know that that’s true. Readers, in many ways, want the same experience they’ve already had, only slightly different.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the point is that he DISAGREED WITH ME! How DARE he! No, wait, that isn’t the point at all. Once I got over being flustered, I started to think of all the ways I could defend my point.
I ran out of those relatively quickly.
Then I started thinking about the ways I was wrong. Is it true? Should characters, in fact, not change much at all?
With Timothy Zahn on the panel, my mind naturally gravitated toward Star Wars, and I thought about Luke Skywalker. He’s a great example of change in character. He starts out as brash, overconfident, emotional, and unskilled in the ways of the force. I don’t think anyone would argue that by the time Return of the Jedi wraps up, Luke has changed a great deal. And yet, he’s absolutely recognizable as the same character. In other words: some things changed and some things didn’t.
Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicles is a great example, too. In the tale within the tale we’re able to see the young Kvothe, and through the outer frame story at the inn, we’re able to see the older Kvothe as well, the one all the legends were written about. Here again, Kvothe has changed but in many ways is still the same.
So clearly characters can change. It might even be necessary for certain stories. But how much change should you introduce, and what kinds. And what sorts of stories might not need much change at all?
Part I: Dynamic Character Traits
The first type of change that jumps out is an increase in the level of skill, the savvy of the character, or their general level of competence or ability to handle the things that life is throwing at them.
In Luke’s case, in Episode IV, he’s clumsy in the use of the force. Under the tutelage of Ben Kenobi, then Yoda, and even Darth Vader, he comes to a greater and greater understanding of the force until the end of Episode VI, where one could argue that he’s mastered it. That very change, the expansion of ability, is extremely satisfying as a reader.
Don’t take this to mean it always has to be about the speculative element of the story. It doesn’t. It can be about mastering mundane skills, or mastering oneself, e.g. becoming less flustered under duress, a veteran in a sense. I just finished reading Lauren Beukes’ gripping new novel, The Shining Girls. In it, Kirby, the protagonist, is out to solve her own near-murder. It just so happens she’s up against a time-traveling serial killer. As the story progresses, Kirby becomes more and more adept at pulling together the clues to locate Harper, the serial killer. And in that progression we get a sense of … not growth so much as expanded competence, plus the sense that through Kirby’s fixation on these clues she knows enough to find and confront her would-be killer.
Kvothe in The Kingkiller Chronicles clearly grows in ability as well. We know this not only from young Kvothe’s storyline, but also because the outer frame story show’s the older Kvothe, who is very skilled indeed. Like Luke, he grows not just in his abilities with magic, but in his mental prowess. He becomes less callow, more at ease with who he is and what he can do and how he can leverage that in his search to hunt down his parents’ killers. We know where Kvothe starts and we know where he’ll end up, and the mystery is how he got there and the path he took to reach his current self. This mystery, the unfolding of it, the change Kvothe is going through, is very rewarding to me as a reader. It’s one of the main reasons I enjoy stories like that so much. It’s an absolute staple of middle grade and young adult stories—Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Spiderwick, His Dark Materials, The Ranger’s Apprentice, and on and on—but it’s also in many adult novels—The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Warded Man, The Wheel of Time, and on and on.
What about change to other character traits, things not related to learning or growing power?
This type of change, this growth in ability, covers huge swaths of characters in all kinds of novels. I used it liberally in my trilogy, The Lays of Anuskaya. The three primary character, Atiana, Nikandr, and Nasim, all grow in ability over the course of the novels. Atiana is at first fearful of “taking the dark,” a term used by the Matri of Anuskaya in reference to submerging themselves in ice-cold water to enter a trancelike state, to communicate over long distances and to safeguard the islands from outside threats. In Nikandr’s case, he was able to bond with a wind spirit to summon the wind when he wished. Nasim provided a bit of a twist. We learn that he is a boy that was reborn from an ancient elemental wizard, one who helped to tear rifts between the elemental and material planes. So in his case he is coming back into the power he once knew.
What about change to other character traits, things not related to learning or growing power?
Look at Han Solo. He’s very cocky and self-assured as Star Wars opens, but by Return of the Jedi, a lot of that abrasiveness has been filed off. Not all of it, but some of it, certainly. Look at characters like Lamb (aka Logen the Bloody-Nine) from Red Country. Lamb softened over the course of that novel—not a lot, mind you, but it was certainly there. Maybe he’d just seen and dealt too much death by then—who knows?—but it was an interesting change to see as the story came to a close.
There are more novels still where the entire point of the story seems to be about pressing on someone’s blind spot and forcing them to change. This is an awakening of the soul, in a way, making the character see something from a viewpoint they’d never thought of before, and it alters how they think about the world. Look at Rick Deckard from Bladerunner. He’s convinced that replicants are nothing more than machines at the beginning of the film, artificial beings he has no remorse in “retiring.” But by the end, after that gripping scene with Roy Batty (remember his wonderful “Tears in Rain” speech?) and his growing emotions for Rachael, he comes to see replicants as human.
In The Lays of Anuskaya, Prince Nikandr comes to know his enemy intimately through their vicious leader, Soroush, and through their interactions, Soroush learns more about Nikandr and the people of the Grand Duchy as well. For me, it was one of the more gratifying interactions in the books, because they naturally came to know one another, and their respect for the other’s culture deepened. They didn’t agree with everything, but they at least understood more.
Jaime Lannister provides another great example. Here was a man at the peak of physical prowess, a man who looked down on everyone. And it was all taken away from him. Knight of the Kingsguard became prisoner of war. His sword hand was taken from him, and along with it his identity as a supremely skilled swordsman. To make matters worse, he was soon beholden to Brienne of Tarth, a woman he had mocked mercilessly until finally he saw the sort of person she was through her kindness and loyalty to Catelyn Stark.
There are much darker changes a character can go through as well. Look at Walter White from Breaking Bad. Here’s a guy, a high school chemistry teacher, that starts out wanting to give his family some financial security when he’s diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. As the series progresses, he begins taking more and more liberties with his own morals until he’s hardly recognizable as the same man.
Look at Theon Greyjoy in A Song of Ice and Fire. Theon… Well, Theon loses quite a lot by A Dance With Dragons, doesn’t he? Through the torture he’s subjected to, we see him change from a cocky young lord with visions of grandeur to a pale ghost of his former self, someone who can’t even admit to himself who he is for the fear that it dredges up. I don’t know that I’d want to live in Theon’s skull for an entire novel, but he’s certainly a compelling character, especially because we knew him before the change.
These sorts of changes—the devolution of a character—can make for very gripping reading. They are dangerous waters, because readers don’t always sympathize with unsavory characters, or characters that lose their heroic traits, but with the right mix, they can become very memorable for the simple fact that they don’t fall into the mold of the typical hero.
Part II: Static Character Traits
Perhaps not so surprisingly, it’s more difficult to find examples of changes that don’t work as well.
Why? Natural selection, that’s why. It’s the successful stories that everyone remembers. Bad ones tend to die a silent death, rarely remembered.
There are a few that jump to mind. Darth Vader changes quite a bit from Episodes IV-VI to Episodes I-III. But really, I think that was just as much to do with poor acting and writing and direction as it was the conception of Vader’s younger self.
What about Gaius Baltar from the remake of Battlestar Galactica? He started out as a witty and conniving pseudo-villain and as the seasons wore on turned into a self-loathing, self-doubting creature who began to grate more than interest me when he was onscreen.
There was something, if you’ll excuse the pun, magical about those first three books that was lost as Harry became the brooding teen.
I will also admit to liking Harry Potter a bit less as the books wore on. There was something, if you’ll excuse the pun, magical about those first three books that was lost as Harry became the brooding teen. Then again, maybe that’s just my annoyance at brooding teens, not so much Harry in particular.
But what about successful stories in which the characters don’t change much? Now those are easier to find.
Glen Cook’s Black Company series is an example where the members of the company itself are pretty full-fleshed by the time we see them being pitted against the forces of Lady and the Taken. It’s interesting to note that while the characters don’t change all that much, the formation of the group certainly does, and in that there is certainly one form of change that keeps interest high as some members die and new members are recruited.
The cast of The Sopranos, for the most part, stayed same throughout their brilliant run. Tony became bitterly ruthless by the end, killing even his beloved nephew, Christopher, but to me that and other acts were just Tony showing his true self. He had, after all, killed Big Pussy, one of his best friends, early in the series, and shown himself to be a heartless human being any number of times before killing Christopher. This is another example where the cast was what changed, not the characters, and that was what kept interest in the series so high.
Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns is another interesting example in which we see young Jorg Ancrath, a boy who is, shall we say, not all there. He’s obsessed with thoughts of revenge after his mother and brother are killed by one of his father’s rivals. Their deaths and the events that follow set Jorg on a ruthless and bloody path to avenge them. What’s interesting is that while Jorg stays more or less true to character, we see his younger self in flashbacks. We see the boy he once was. When that more-innocent self is compared to the pitiless killer he becomes, it creates a reflection in the mirror that’s very absorbing.
A boy who is, shall we say, not all there.
In The Lays of Anuskaya, I have a few of characters that are somewhat mindless in their obsession. Prince Nikandr and Princess Atiana come face to face with two of the three wizards that caused the sundering hundreds of years ago. These people are so powerful they are somewhat blinded. They believe that they and they alone shoulder the burden of setting the world right, but in order to achieve their goals, they have very particular, and potentially disastrous, methods in mind. They did not know they were right, but they had faith, and faith, for me, is a very interesting trait to explore. It’s a thing that can be tested in any number of ways to see what the character is really like.
I don’t want to overgeneralize, but urban fantasy is a genre that tends to be more serial in nature, and those types of stories tend to have less character change than others. The mystery novel (or a book that has a lot of mystery elements within it) can also tend to have static characters. Look at Sherlock Holmes or Harry Dresden (a series that combines mystery and urban fantasy). They’re both interesting characters in their own right, but I don’t think anyone would say that they change overly much over the course of their books.
There are other stories types, travelogues like Ringworld or “event” stories like The Lord of the Rings, where many of the characters stay essentially the same from beginning to end. And that’s ok, because the point of the story is not to explore a particular character’s evolution, but rather to explore a place or world or some monumental event that’s unfolding.
Coming back to what Pat said on that panel, I want to make special note of what I think he was talking about. Imagine, if you will, Kvothe without his love for music. Imagine Arlen from The Warded Man without his drive to hunt and kill demons. Imagine Tyrion without his wit, or Ned Stark without his blind devotion to duty and honor. Imagine Tony Soprano without his love of family, Jorg of Ancrath without his lust for revenge. There are certain things that define characters. You may not even know what they are when you begin your tale. But as they become fully fleshed, such things will begin to stand out. You will love them (or at least be intrigued by them) for certain reasons, and those things, the underlying traits that fuel that interest, that love, are the things that define that character.
Change those at your peril.
There may, in fact, be times where you want to challenge the characters, take away that which they love the most (see Jaime Lannister), and perhaps that will reveal other truths about them that will be even more interesting. But tread carefully, because taking away things people love about a character may turn them off for good.
In Prince Nikandr I wanted a man who strove to learn, to truly understand, rather than assume that he was right. In Princess Atiana, I wanted a woman who was concerned always over the welfare of the Grand Duchy. In Nasim I wanted a young man who wished to atone for the sins of his prior self. Each of those guided me through the telling of the tale, not just in the first book, but all the way through to the end.
So what have we learned from this? For me it was this: that “change your characters” is one of those rules you should be very wary of. Should you have change in your characters? Well, that depends, now, doesn’t it? It depends on the story you’re trying to write, the characters in play, and the circumstance they find themselves in.
Or so it seems to me, anyway.
What about you?