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?