Do Characters ‘Have’ To Change?
In any conversation online about characterisation, it’s never long before somebody pops up proclaiming characters HAVE to change. They may even insist that a character who doesn’t change has ‘no arc’.
Calling the department of WRONG!
No, characters do NOT have to change. I can’t stress this enough. In fact, sometimes it’s desirable they DON’T change.
Have I blown your mind?
If I have, I’m not surprised. Writing gurus – especially in screenwriting circles – have been SO didactic about this topic in the last thirty or forty years. As a result, generations of writers have been walking around absolutely certain characters have to change … or they’re shit characters.
French writer Voltaire said, ‘Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.’
I totally agree with him on this, especially when it comes to the ‘characters have to change’ discussion. Whilst it may seem ‘common sense’ that characters have to change, there are SO MANY exceptions!
When there are so many exceptions, it becomes very obvious that no, characters do NOT have to change.
Let’s count the ways … ready?
First Up: The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey was absolutely everywhere for a very long time. It’s not difficult to see why writing gurus thought characters ‘have’ to change. The Hero’s Journey is a transformative arc, ‘zero to hero’.
In other words: there’s fundamental change there, going from nothing/nobody to something/somebody.
But does this mean ALL heroes undergoing such a quest change? NOPE!
Whilst most heroes do indeed change, it’s still possible for a character to have a flat arc in that they don’t change even within a Hero’s Journey narrative.
Example: Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.
In both the books and the movies, Katniss does not change. Her love for Prim takes her to the arena & she is stoic AF throughout. She never refuses the call and in doing so, she loses Prim. MORE: How Does Character Motivation Work? (The Secret To Creating Great Characters)
By The Way: The Thriller Genre Is ANTI-Change
Why? Because the thriller genre is antagonist-lead. This means the protagonist then is highly reactionary. This means their arc is based on ‘flight to fight’ as they resist the antagonist’s ‘evil plan'(whatever that means).
True, some protagonists in thrillers may indeed be forever changed as a result of their ordeal. But the vast majority’s arcs barely touch on this! This is because they are far too busy dealing with the shit the antagonist is throwing at them.
I call these latter types of Thriller protagonists ‘Voyagers’ as they tend to repeat their experiences ad nauseam. This is because audiences and readers (and thus producers and publishers!) tend to like ‘the same, but different’. That’s why movie franchises, multiple TV seasons and book series get made.
FREE DOWNLOAD: The B2W Thriller Writing Checklist
It’s The Same For Sitcom
In sitcoms, characters are not supposed to change either. This is because each episode ‘resets to zero’.
Consider a classic sitcom like The Simpsons here. It’s been on the air for over thirty seasons, but the family are the ‘same’ … the children haven’t grown up and Marge and Homer are the same age! (Yes, some episodes have explored ‘what’s next’ for them, but crucially – again – by the next episode it has ‘reset’).
Some modern sitcoms nowadays have had serialised elements to them, it’s true. If we consider Friends or Brooklyn 99, we saw *some* development for the characters. They got married, got divorced, had kids, started new jobs, made various realisations etc. However, even with these serialised elements, the characters ‘reset to zero’ every episode and do not change drastically.
If Rachel Green is the ‘main’ friend, then she travels furthest from her roots in terms of her arc. However, it’s important to note that whilst she is no longer completely clueless, she is not wildly different. Everything she does is seeded from that very first pilot episode. Whether it’s her love of shopping, her privileged background or her tendency to be a spoiled princess, it’s all there from the beginning.
We see the same with Jake Peralta in Brooklyn 99. Yes, he is indeed an OTT juvenile jerk in that pilot episode. By the end of s8 he is a responsible husband and father, plus he even leaves the police force.
But again, crucially everything is seeded from that first pilot episode. Jake is introduced with Amy who will be his wife, plus Jake’s burgeoning relationship with Terry is an influence, as is Boyle who becomes a father before Jake does.
Holt acts as the antagonist in earlier seasons before his good influence rubs off on Jake … and Jake’s devil-may-care attitude helps Holt loosen up too.
In both these cases, it’s less about the characters having to change per se. It’s more about them GROWING INTO their ‘foundations’ set up at the beginning.
This Happens In Some Comedies & Tragedies Too
If the above is the case with sitcom, it shouldn’t be surprising then that some regular comedies do not insist their characters change. Like sitcoms, the characters may make various realisations or adjustments in their lives, but they won’t enact any fundamental or transformative changes.
However, many writers I’ve worked with have professed surprise when I’ve said this is often the case with tragedies as well.
Tragedy by its very nature often plays with dramatic irony. When this happens, a character will be set on a path of ruin, destruction or – quelle surprise! – tragedy by doing something … or conversely NOT doing something.
This is only possible with the benefit of hindsight because dramatic irony relies very heavily on Set Up/Pay Off. This usually requires the protagonist does not undergo a transformative arc – aka NOT change – because it will get super-confusing.
Shakespeare loved dramatic irony. Consider King Lear here, one of his most famous tragedies. At the beginning, King Lear is full of self-aggrandising proclamations, arrogant and proud.
He asks his three daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia to flatter him. The first two do, but Cordelia refuses. He casts her out, certain she is an ungrateful spoiled brat. Of course, the first two daughters are plotting behind his back and will go on to contest the throne.
It turns out that only Cordelia stands between Lear and total ruin. Unfortunately – because it’s a tragedy – Cordelia dies and Lear is left throne-less, friendless and wandering the moors, completely mad.
Lear may lament his hubris at the end of the play, but that doesn’t mean he is fundamentally changed. The tragedy of the situation is that ‘pride sets you up for a fall‘ and this exactly what happens to him. Set Up/Pay Off in action.
Let’s also not forget passive protagonists exist too
This is especially true in dramas and literary fiction. Lots of writing gurus think a passive protagonist is automatically a mistake but this is BS. As long as another character takes the reins for the protagonist in pushing the story forwards somehow, a passive protagonist can be a powerful choice for your narrative.
This means as long as that other character undertakes at least a realisation of some kind, the protagonist’s passivity works.
Consider Offred in the book version of The Handmaid’s Tale. She is passive AF. She has to be for safety. In the book, it appears that Serena Joy is the main antagonist. She is the ‘face’ of Gilead and how women sell one another down the river.
Offred has no choice but to accept whatever happens to her. Hell, we don’t even know what happens to her at the end of the book! Instead, it’s the Commander who struggles.
Consider his late-night requests that Offred joins him in the study for Scrabble. As an architect of Gilead, he knows what he is doing is against his own rules. Yet he can’t help himself. He is so intrigued by Offred he puts himself in danger.
Now let’s consider ‘The Change Agent’
This is a character who changes all the other characters in the story just by being themselves.
Example: Forrest Gump. Love or loathe this character, he doesn’t change. But he DOES change the outlook of everyone he comes into contact with in the movie.
We see similar with Mary Poppins, or Nanny McPhee. In fact, children’s stories frequently contain change agents and other such advanced character and craft techniques. It’s almost like kids know this stuff instinctively and we forget it as we age!
Not Change — COMPLEXITY
So it’s not change your characters must have, but complexity. Nuanced, layered characterisation is a non-negotiable in the 2020s. This is because viewers and readers want authenticity, first and foremost.
Sometimes commentators talk about ‘flawed characters’. Whilst I have some time for this notion, it can be a red herring, just like change. Some characters are flawed. Some are not. It depends on what the story is!
If we insist that characters have to change or have flaws no matter what, that can lead to cookie-cutter characterisation. This is because we have to retro-fit the character to the situation they find themselves in.
It’s true that character and plotting are inextricably linked. But in the 2020s, characters no longer ‘have’ to do anything. Target audiences and readers can decode complex backstories and thematics very quickly. They do not need spoon-feeding.
Concluding: Characters Do NOT Have To Change!
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- archetype vs stereotype
- trope vs cliche
- role function vs motivation
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