REAL PEOPLE SEEM TO CHANGE. There are physical changes: The little kid next door is suddenly great-looking – or a hoodlum. Your friends from youth get old; your fat friend suddenly loses weight; your husband grows a mustache; your wife changes her hair style and starts wearing a whole new style of clothes.
There are changes in people’s roles: The rich man goes bankrupt; the farmer sells his land and opens a fast food outlet in another state; the intense young girl becomes a wife and mother; the wife and mother stays a mother but no longer is a wife; new management comes in and the forty-eight-year-old executive is suddenly unemployed.
All these changes can be pretty surprising, even jarring. But what really disturbs us is when people’s basic nature seems to change. Somebody you trusted doesn’t keep his word and doesn’t even act sorry about it. Somebody you loved is suddenly cruel to you, and you can’t think why, what did you do to deserve it. Someone who was always boring suddenly becomes fascinating. Someone who never did anything well, who seemed like a complete failure, unexpectedly does something admirable and fine.
WHY PEOPLE CHANGE
In real life we never fully understand why people do these things. We have names for some of the changes – mid-life crisis, growing up, going through a phase, nervous breakdown, finding herself, and selfish streak, showing his true colours, born again, going off the deep end – but these labels are at best an attempt to reassure ourselves. Because there’s already a name for the way we see somebody changing, we don’t have to be quite so frightened by the change. But we still know nothing, or almost nothing, about the cause. We still know nothing, really, about what’s going on inside other people’s heads.
We try to bind people into their roles so that we can be sure of them. Slavery, serfdom, featly, oaths of office, contracts, unions, corporations, laws, marriage, going steady, flattery, hypocrisy – all are strategies for controlling and predicting what the people around us are going to do. Yet still these people surprise us with escape, revolution, betrayal, lawsuits, strikes, sellouts, crime, divorce, faithfulness, gossip, confessions, and we have to revise again our understanding of the world.
One of the reasons fiction exists at all is to deal with that fear of inexplicable change, that certain dread that lurks in the background of all our human relationships. Because fiction lets us see people’s motives, the causes of their behaviour, these stories about made-up people help us guess at the motives and causes of real people’s behaviour.
This doesn’t mean that your fiction characters have to change. One of the common themes in fiction is that people’s fundamental natures don’t change, no matter how much you wish they might. Macbeth’s desire to rise to high office seduces him into believing the witches’ prophecy and agreeing to his wife’s plan; that hunger for a lofty station is still with him at the end, making him seek death rather than endure the humiliation of public display in his defeat. The message of such stories is that once you truly know people, you can count on them staying the same. If they ever seem to change, it’s because you didn’t really understand them in the first place.
You Can’t Change
Your fiction can develop this theme in three ways:
You can tell stories in which characters are who they are from beginning to end, working out their destinies along the same relentless lings. Some might criticize your stories because your characters never change, but many readers will be grateful to live in your fictional world, where some people, at least, can be counted on to stand firm. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff and Cathy try to resist their passionate childhood attachment to each other, but all the changes are futile, for they keep returning to be their true selves, wild children living like beautiful animals among the moors.
You can tell stories about people who seem to change, but then reveal that this was their true nature all along. They were only pretending to be what you thought they were; or perhaps they simply hadn’t had the power or opportunity to reveal themselves. It wasn’t until Macbeth had a victory under his belt, a new title after his name, and King Duncan asleep in a bedroom in his castle that he was able to reveal his true character as a murderer – but maybe he was a murderer all along. Another example: Oedipus was born to kill his mother and father. His parents can’t stop him from fulfilling his nature even by trying to kill him; he can’t stop himself from being himself even by fleeing what he thinks is his homeland. He was born to commit patricide and incest, and all his attempts to pretend to be another kind of man come to nothing.
Tell stories about people who want to change, but can’t until they discover their own true nature; then, when they change the outward pattern of their lives, they are only becoming true to their newfound self. Ayn Rand’s sympathetic characters in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged do not make themselves into geniuses, they don’t develop greatness. Only when they break free of the shackles of society and discard the myths about what they ought to be do they discover the greatness that lay within them all along, and finally rise to fulfil their heroic role.
In all these stories, the characters are not transformed, they are unmasked.
Other Things Change You
Another great theme in fiction is that people do change, but for causes beyond their control:
The cause of change in people might be the drives and hungers born in their genes. D.H. Lawrence told stories – The Rainbow, Lady Chatterly’s Lover – in which characters did not really act because of their motives at all. They might think they had a particular purpose in mind, but in fact their choices always came down to the needs of their bodies. This view of people as animals pretending to be human shows up as often in the bleak hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald as in the tragicomic Irish novels of James Joyce. This is not a message of despair – these writers all show a kind of nobility in their characters’ struggle to transcend their nature.
The cause of change in people might be the way they’re treated by others. George Bernad Shaw’s Pygmalion asserts the idea that a flower girl can become a lady, in soul as well as appearance, if only she is trained and educated properly. Robert Parker’s Spenser novels often show people shaped by the pressures of the world around them; if the person is not too far gone, then by changing the environment, you can change the person. In one of his best novels, Parker has Spenser take a troubled young boy up to an isolated cabin in the woods, and through hard work and a whole new set of expectations, the boy becomes a new person and has a life completely different from the one he seemed destined to live out.
You Change Yourself
A third fictional theme dealing with the human change is that we can change our own nature by an act of will. Never mind the argument that the will to change must have been part of a person’s nature all along, so that by changing he is in fact remaining the same – that’s a quibble compared to the important notion of becoming what you want rather than what you were born to be or what others force you to become. George Bernard Shaw’s assertions and theories notwithstanding, before Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion begins the training and education that transform her from a flower girl to a lady, she has the hunger to change – it’s because of the force of her own will that she persuades Henry Higgins to teach her, and by the force of her own will that she succeeds. Shaw talked a lot about how people are shaped by their environment, but in play after play, a strong-willed hero chooses to transcend heredity and environment alike, and succeeds in becoming someone new; that’s the theme his stories demonstrate, whether he meant it that way or not. No matter what theories of human behaviour you think you believe, the causes you show for your character’s change will reveal what you really believe. But you must show some cause for the transformations.
When your characters undergo physical changes or changes of role, you wouldn’t dream of letting the change pass without explanation. A character who was male for ten chapters can’t suddenly turn up as a female without some kind of explanation – or your reader would throw your book against the wall in disgust. And if a character goes through a change of social role, you always show both the causes and the results of the change. It would be unthinkable to have characters change jobs, marital status, or relative wealth without some explanation and some change in the pattern of their lives.
The same is true of your characters’ patterns of behaviour. If Pete is a quiet, shy fellow reluctant to put himself forward, he doesn’t suddenly walk up to a gorgeous model and hit her up for a date – not unless you show us that this model is different from all other women, or show us that Pete has been taking assertiveness training to cure his shyness, or let us see that the recent death of Pete’s father has loosed some of Pete’s inner restraint – or some other plausible cause for his change.
You don’t necessarily have to show us the cause of his change before he changes, or even at the same time. But if you don’t show the cause, you need to signal your reader that you’re aware that Pete is behaving strangely, so that the reader knows that the cause of his change is a mystery that will be resolved sometimes before the end of the story. For instance, you might have one of Pete’s friends with him when he walks up to the model and asks her out; the friend could then react with the same astonishment that the reader would feel, a clear signal to the reader that the author hasn’t gone crazy and can be trusted to explain Pete’s change.
There is no “right” way to justify changes in character, but you should keep in mind that the more important the character and the greater the change, the more time you will have to devote to explaining the transformation. If Nora stops smoking in the process of your story, the motivation for the change won’t need much justification – most smokers say they want to stop, and most reasons for stopping are well known. But if Nora is a major character who’s involved in a lot of the continuing action of the story, you’ll have to deal with why she chose to stop now, and show how her behaviour changes during the struggle.
Make sure you know what the change in the character really is. If Nora has tried to give up smoking dozens of times before and always failed after a single day, you’ll have to explain what was different about this time, why she found the strength to succeed. Maybe she got pregnant; maybe she is involved with a man who hates cigarettes; maybe her company has gone smoke-free; maybe she had a cancer scare during her latest checkup. Because her pattern of behaviour was to try to give up smoking and then fail, what you have to justify is not the desire to give up smoking and then fail, what you have to justify is not the desire to give up smoking, but the fact that this time she succeeded. The real change is that she is now able to quite, not that she is willing to make the attempt.
There is an exception to the rule that you must explain why characters change. A fourth fictional theme is that changes in human beings are random, absurd, uncaused; that all stories about why people do what they do are pure fiction. In this view, people do things because they do them, for no reason at all. Only when someone else notices what they’re doing is there any attempt to explain, and all the explanations are pleasant lies. And if, perhaps, there is some real cause for human change, these stories assert that we’ll never know the cause, so there might as well not be one. The works of existential writers like Franz Kafka and Jean-Paul Satire and the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter develop this idea.
If absurdism is your bent, however, don’t imagine that this means you can then change your characters however and whenever you want, without explanation. So deeply ingrained is the human need to find causes for human change that if a story denies that there is any kind of coverable cause, that denial becomes the most important issue in the story. Usually, you must establish from the beginning that people will change randomly, without explanation, so that your readers realize they’re visiting an absurd universe and stop expecting explanation. If, on the other hand, your story seems to be set in a “normal” universe in which there’s always a reason when people change, then when a character goes through a shocking, inexplicably change, your story will have to be about the very inexplicability of that character’s transformation.
Oh, you can have a major inexplicable change and have no one in the story remark on it, but you can’t blame your readers for concluding that you’re incompetent writer and that the unjustified change was a mistake.
Worse still, your readers might conclude that the unjustified change was a practical joke you were playing on the them, as if you were saying, “Oh, were you starting to care about these characters? Were you starting to take this story seriously? Well, here, I’ll show you that it’s all silly and I can do anything.” Of course you can do anything. But your implicit contract with your readers says you won’t do just anything – that your story will mean something, even if the meaning is that there is no meaning. The great absurdist writers keep that contract.
Even comedy is not an exception. However, when a character changes in a comedy, the justification for the change can be somewhat less believable than in non-comic fiction. The zanier the farce, the sillier the reason you can offer for a character’s change – but there must still be some reason, or you lose the audience’s trust