Must Characters Change? How Much?

character change don draper

Not all characters change in stories, but some sort of change must happen.

Michael Hauge uses the term ‘transformation’, and not every transformation is a character arc for the main character (however that is defined).

This transformation will occur on four different levels. The first three are:

Your hero’s external circumstances will change. She (or he) might be wealthier, more powerful, more successful, more admired; she’s is in a new relationship; she is no longer threatened by the villain or demon or disease she overcame; or (if she was unsuccessful) she might be alone, or disgraced, or deceased.

Your hero has changed internally. The arc of her inner journey might have made her more courageous, more loving, more moral, or (whether she succeeded or failed) wiser.

The world around your hero has changed. Her courage and sacrifice has made those around her safer, happier, wiser, more loving or more courageous themselves.

The fourth transformation may be harder to recognize and achieve, but will be just as powerful: you, the storyteller, will change.

Michael Hauge

Useful Concept: Range Of Change

How much does your main character change over the course of the story? This needs to be determined at the start of the writing process.

If studying a character rather than creating one, it’s a useful aspect to consider.

You must think of your hero as a range of change, a range of possibilities, from the very beginning. You have to determine the range of change of the hero at the start of the writing process, or change will be impossible for the hero at the end of the story.

The smaller the range, the less interesting the story; the bigger the range, the more interesting but the riskier the story, because characters don’t change much in the limited time they appear in most stories.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

 

Bear in mind that some authors, famously Chekhov, do not create main characters who change, and this is the very point. Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has said the same thing about Don Draper, making the point that in real life, unlike in most popular stories, people just don’t change all that much.

 

The Two Forms Of Character Development In Fiction

While Michael Hauge provides us with a useful taxonomy of storytelling transformation, others divide character development into two separate categories:

    1. A text can provide new information about a character that causes readers to see the character differently and in more depth

    2. Or the events of a story can actually change characters, make them more complicated.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

CHARACTER CHANGE THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF STORY

Character Change And The Development Of Novel Plotting

Ford Madox Ford, quoted by James Wood in How Fiction Works, pointed out that in older novels — especially those from England — the novelist would begin at the beginning and work chronologically through their character’s life, telling us all about their education and other influences.

But a new development in the novel meant authors avoided starting ‘at the beginning’. When it was discovered that novels in characters could change, it was interesting to depict that change on the page rather than explain it. Ford Madox Ford describes this new type of novel by explaining how “you meet an English gentleman at your golf club. He is beefy, full of health, the model of the boy from an English public school of the finest type. You discover, gradually, that he is hopelessly neurasthenic, dishonest in matters of small change, but unexpectedly self-sacrificing, a dreadful liar, but a most painfully careful student of Lepidoptera and, finally, from the public prints, a bigamist who was once, under another name, hammered on the Stock Exchange … To get such a man in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past.”

The Influence of HBO

Brett Martin explains how cable TV change the way characters (don’t) change:

Nate [of Six Feet Under] has good intentions, but he’s an amateur jerk. He’s a selfish narcissist. And the tragedy is that he never transcends that. He never grows up,” Ball said.

That inability is another defining theme of TV’s Golden Age. If man’s battle with his inner demons defined The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and their descendants, they also drew a crucial dose of their realism from the tenacity of that battle–the way their characters stubbornly refused to change in any substantive way, despite constantly resolving to do so. […]

It’s no coincidence that addiction is one of the major tropes of the Third Golden Age. Likewise, psychotherapy, with its looping fits and starts of progress and regression. Recidivism and failure stalked these shows: Tony Soprano searches for something to fill the gnawing void he feels; he fails to find it. Jimmy McNulty [of The Wire] swears off the twin compulsions of booze and police work; he goes back to both, while the rest of The Wire’s most zealous reformers find themselves corrupted. The specter of Don Draper’s past infidelities comes to him in a fever dream, in the person of an old conquest. And though he literally chokes the Beast to death, we, and he, know she will be back. […]

“Everything changed” after 9/11.”

“‘I’m going to be different. I’m so lucky to be alive. I’m going to value things more, do things differently….’ That’s what it was all about,” said [David] Chase of the period immediately following the terrorist attacks. “But then it sort of faded away.” Or as Tony Soprano morosely put it, “Every day is a gift. It’s just…does it have to be a pair of socks?” […]

the goal of a TV show, unlike that of a movie or novel, no matter how ambiguous, is to never end. One way to address that basic economic mandate is to create a world in which there is no forward progress or story arc at all, just a series of discrete, repetitive episodes–In other words, the procedural. But if you’re interested in telling an ongoing story while remaining true to your own sense of the world, it helps for that worldview to be of an endless series of variations in which people repeatedly play out the same patterns of behavior, exhibiting only the most incremental signs of real change or progress.

— Brett Martin, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad

CASE STUDY: A CHARACTER WHO DOES NOT CHANGE

To know that one is being taught a lesson or at any rate given a message leaves one free to reject it if only by dismissing plot or characters as cliches. But I had not realised how far the moral assumptions of film story-telling had sunk in, and how long they had stayed with me, until in 1974 I saw Louis Malle’s film about the French Occupation, Lacombe Lucien.

Lucien is a loutish, unappealing boy, recruited almost by accident into the French Fascist Milice. He falls in with and exploits a Jewish family, becoming involved with – it would be wrong to say falls in love with – the daughter, whom he helps to escape and with whom he lives. Then, as the Liberation draws near, he becomes himself a fugitive and is eventually, almost casually, shot.

The stock way to tell such a story would be to see the boy’s experiences – witnessing torture and ill-treatment, falling for the Jewish girl – as a moral education in the same way, for example, that the Marlon Brando character is educated in On the Waterfront.

That would be the convention and one I’d so much taken for granted that I kept looking in the Malle film for signs of this instruction of the school of life beginning to happen. But it doesn’t. Largely untouched by the dramas he has passed through, Lucien is much the same at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, seemingly having learned nothing. To have quite unobtrusively resisted the tug of conventional tale-telling and the lure of resolution seemed to me honest in a way few films even attempt.

– Alan Bennett, from Untold Stories

RELATED

When the [character] “change” feels beautiful … I think it’s because the character has confirmed what we’ve hoped or suspected all along. Maybe the character hasn’t changed at all, but rather has finally been put in a situation where her truest self can be revealed. … Stories, to my mind, are never about change. They are always and only about the possibility of change.

Bret Anthony Johnston

If you’re in the middle of writing something and find that you’re second-guessing your thumbnail character descriptions, see The Always/Only Test by Andrea Phillips and realise you’re not the only one.

The stages of character change as broken down by psychologists, from Psychwriter

Why People Don’t Change Their Spots from Social Learning

In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Easter egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.

— Robert Penn Warren

Television Endings

It’s impossible to say anything about television endings without first drawing a sharp line down the middle of two very different narratives:

  1. The continuing series, of which successful stories can run perhaps 10 series.
  2. The novelistic, limited series which runs for perhaps 5 or 6 seasons at most.

The storytelling in each looks quite different.

THE STRUCTURE OF CONTINUING TV SERIES

A complete story is made up of 7 stages:

  1. WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM
  2. DESIRE
  3. OPPONENT
  4. PLAN
  5. BATTLE
  6. SELF-REVELATION
  7. NEW EQUILIBRIUM

These are the terms used by John Truby, who is a Hollywood movie guru. TV writers use a different terminology.

TV writers in the United States call the BATTLE the ‘worst case’.

BBC writers call it ‘worst point’.

The essential difference between a complete TV drama and an ongoing series: In an ongoing series such as Coronation Street, Eastenders, Batman, Superman, Flash Gordon and everything else like it, each episode ends at the BATTLE.

COMPLETE STORIES

Be it TV or film, a complete story is a complete story. The main difference may simply be budget allocated, but even that difference is disappearing as high budget TV gains in popularity and in quality.

If it’s a commercial station you’re watching, writers know where the breaks must go. The BATTLE scene will occur right before the final ad break. The final segment will of course give us the SELF-REVELATION and the NEW EQUILIBRIUM.

CASE STUDIES

The Sopranos

the-sopranos

So was I frustrated by the ending? You bet. But I was supposed to be. I realized that was the only way the show could have ended, by not ending. Some have argued that Tony really was whacked. The last scene was told largely from his perspective. If someone shot him in the head from behind, everything would simply go black.

But I think the open ending was all about the fundamental technique of the show. Every character and action in that diner was both everyday normal and full of dread. Tony had become a king trapped in a state of nature, death on all sides, and it could come from the littlest nobody. At any time. That’s the life he has sown.

Farewell Sopranos, the king of drama. You were big drama and small drama; big story and small story. Most of all, you were professional writers at the top of their craft. Thank you.

John Truby

 

When I was talking to HBO recently, I told them about a big learning experience I had thanks to the finale of The Sopranos. A lot of people didn’t like the ending, but I thought it worked. It’s not just that it was anti-climactic. It was anti-conventional. It played against expectations, but it worked in a sense that was satisfying.

There are four classic endings to a story:

  1. purely positive
  2. purely tragic [Breaking Bad]
  3. positive with irony where the character gets what s/he wants but pays a big price [a.k.a. pyrrhic victories]
  4. tragic with irony where s/he loses everything but s/he learns something [Big Love]

Those are the classic tonalities of endings.

Q: But The Sopranos ending isn’t really any of those, and it’s still satisfying.
Right. I thought about the ending with them sitting in this restaurant, and I realized there was a fifth possible ending, which is what I came to call “exhaustion.” That means that the characters have been emptied out completely, and the writer has exhausted their humanity. There’s nothing you don’t know about them. Everything is known, including their dreams. That was it.

All those characters in The Sopranos were exhausted, and it was satisfying. You realize you know everything. You got to know these characters like you never have with somebody in your own life. That’s exhaustion in the strict sense of the word.

The Sopranos taught me the fifth ending, which is only possible in the long form—long novels or a hundred-episode series. Exhausting characters takes a lot of storytelling. If a film exhausts somebody, then the character wasn’t that complex to begin with.

Vice interview with Robert McKee

Mad Men

mad-men-ending

I would say Mad Men ended with the fifth kind of ending, too, not because there was nothing more to know about Don, necessarily — a secretive character by nature — but because there was nothing more to learn about that whole world.

The Wire

Robert McKee on ‘exhausted characters’:

What about The Wire, which didn’t try to do that so much with characters, but with Baltimore?
That would be another way of looking at exhaustion, which is that you emptied out the potential of the setting. I think those characters from The Wire still have lives to live after that and have potential for change, but you’ve come to know that world so much that Baltimore is exhausted.

the-wire

Dexter

A classic example of writers not knowing that they reached the level of exhaustion is Dexter, because he was emptied out and wasn’t going to change by the end of season four or so. But it was making money, so they made new serial killers and put the emphasis on the antagonists, but Dexter was an exhausted character, and it got stupid.

Vice interview with Robert McKee

dexter

The Walking Dead

For months AMC has been beating the drums for the so-called “last” Rick Grimes/Andrew Lincoln episode. And as it came time to hunker down for Sunday’s “What Comes After,” speculation ran rampant on how our leading man would exit the zombie apocalypse.

Would he remain impaled on that rebar spike and simply bleed out? (Too easy).

Would he become zombie-chow for the two hordes of walkers coming his way? (Too lame).

Would Negan somehow escape and kill him? (Too convenient).

Would he realize his dream of an ideal society was crumbling and simply ride off into the sunset? (Too undramatic).

Or would he, as gamesradar.com had listed among its scenarios, be accidentally killed by little Judith after she somehow got ahold of a gun? (Too horrifying).

Mercury News

RELATED LINKS

  1. Discovering the Art of Television’s Endings from FlowTV
  2. 10 Movies And TV Shows Where The Characters Probably Died 5 Minutes After The End, from io9
  3. And Then What? 5 Maddeningly Unresolved Plots from LitReactor
  4. Film Endings and TV Endings are similar in many ways.