Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Step Right Up, Find the Character Arc and Win a Prize

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a literary story of about 3,000 words, and on Monday I revised it. Matt read it yesterday, and he asked me why the main character didn't undergo any change.

I had reasons, but we tangented out to talking about whether it's necessary for the main character of a literary short story to have a character arc at all. I thought through some examples and ultimately decided that the answer is no, but that I couldn't really say why the non-arcing dynamic works in those stories.

In literary stories, I tend to write characters that resist change. I find those characters most interesting. A gymnastics coach who has a girl die under his care and still insists that it's her fault, not his. A serial killer who recognizes that his victim is a person, not an object, and kills her anyway. In the story at hand, a woman whose hypocrisy and self-centeredness never budge, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that she's a terrible person. I like exploring people who behave this way.

Matt said that the story had the feel of a string of incidents, though, and that there was no overarching change as one incident led into the other. At least she has to be getting worse, he said, more hypocritical and self-centered, even if she doesn't have an actual epiphany.

He gave me the tools to fix the story, I think, but it certainly was an interesting question. I think over a novel you kind of have to create a character arc, but maybe not necessarily in a story. In fact, I'd argue that a number of the stories I've read for the UCLA class don't have one: "I Don't Talk Service No More," "Rock Springs," "Two Gallants." In each of those, stuff happens to the characters, but there's no evidence of how they are different people at the end of the story than they are at the beginning. Sometimes there are obstacles that they overcome (or don't), but sometimes it's just stuff happening. I feel like you can pretty easily have a story where the main character will remember the culminating incident forever, will know that things were never quite the same after that happened, but will still refuse any significant personality change.

Frankly, I prefer this to an epiphany that the writer worked up but that I don't understand. I've read quite a lot of those in the plethora of short stories I've consumed over the past six months. Okay, so this was a big change, but from what to what?

Also, doesn't the arc take place in the reader, in some way? Aren't you the one who's different after reading a really stunning story? What do you think?


Bret Hays said...

This is an interesting question and one that's been percolating in my mind since I've started watching "Boardwalk Empire." As you may already know, in the opening sequence, Steve Buscemi is standing on the beach wearing elegant leather dress shoes. The waves crash over his feet and the changing sky suggests a substantial passage of time. The waves recede and his shoes are immaculate, as if newly bought. Then he walks away, back to the city.

In a commentary track, somebody said the sequence is meant to communicate that Buscemi's character does not change despite living in a fast-changing world. That's debatable as the show goes on, in part because his character is defined both by traumas that have left permanent wounds on his psyche and by diverse, near-constant deceptions. I find him a reasonably interesting character, and of course Buscemi is fun to watch. But the character's job is not so much to change as to drive the story forward, and I find no fault in that.

A better example may be "Thank You For Smoking," which I love precisely because the main character doesn't change. If he had a change of heart, it would have robbed the story of its satirical power.

Every story should be emotionally and psychologically honest. The reality is that personality, by definition, is stable across substantial periods of time, although not etched in stone. Life experience tends to add wisdom, perspective, insight, and capability, but gradually, and one could argue that those aren't personality traits. (If you aren't familiar with the Five Factor Model of personality, at least read the Wikipedia article on it.)

It takes a powerful event to change a real person's personality, especially after childhood. If that's the point of the story, great, but if not, don't force it. There are plenty of other things worth doing with stories, like exploring articulable themes or ideas, commenting on a social issue, or building up to something big. Any of them keeps a story from being just a string of unrelated incidents.

Anonymous said...

You mean you tend to write characters WHO resist change

Katharine Coldiron said...

I had it that way and changed it back. Aren't characters inanimate, since they're fictional?

Katharine Coldiron said...

@Bret, I agree with you, mostly. Certainly there are some genres in which the character is meant to remain static: mysteries, for example. It would make no sense if Poirot had a character arc. And some series books where the character changes in every book get a little tiresome and, as you say, unrealistic; who is Sookie Stackhouse supposed to be after 13 separate arcs?

Thank You for Smoking is a great example, but I'm guessing the rules are different for satire, just as they're different for mystery.

The only thing that stops me is that characters are not necessarily supposed to be *realistic* in fiction. You're quite right that only major events change actual adults irrevocably, but a character that stays mostly the same after events that are interesting enough to build a whole novel around strikes me as a character who might not be worth reading about.