604. Changeable?

They proclaim it in every “How to Write” book: your character should change and grow. Truthfully, it almost never happens in genre fiction. The fact is, it’s really hard to get that kind of story published, and for a very simple reason. The reader won’t read it.

If the final condition of the character is the goal, the starting point has to be in some way unsavory. Let’s make up an example. Let’s let Sibrov (that’s a name taken from Small Gods, but spelled backwards) begin as a wild-eyed hunter of heretics. That’s a fairly standard villain. If our hero is a heretic, running from Sibrov, we have a whole sheaf of stories open to us, none of which pose any structural problems. And none of which will call for our hero to undergo any real change in his character. 

However, suppose we want Sibrov as hero. He will have to have a change of heart; at the extreme end of the change he might end up the picture of peace and love. This creates a problem. How do we get our reader through the first three-quarters of the book — the part where our hero-to-be is a dirty sewer rat?

It’s tough.

It’s also not something I’m normally interested in. I don’t like super heroic characters; even the gods I’ve written are flawed. Nevertheless, I do expect my heroes to be at least staunch and reliable. Another word for that would be unchanging. Readers like that, too. That is why genre fiction is able to have so many series — the main characters remain largely unchanged despite all the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune puts in their paths.

Hamlet, part two, back from the dead. Nope, it just doesn’t work.

There are ways of making a character change in genre fiction without losing the reader. Terry Pratchett does a masterful job in Small Gods, although his method is not a template many writers could borrow. He introduces dozens of characters, gives us a flurry of sound and fury, and doesn’t make it clear at first who is or is not going to be alive a few chapters later. While we are distracted by all the interesting bastards and losers, our main character — who is a complete cypher at the beginning — starts changing slowly. By the time that he has become the focus of the novel, he has already begun to become interesting.

I like my page-people to be fully formed when we encounter them, and then to have their characters tested by the universe. I have only tried to make them undergo fundamental changes in two novels. Of course, this ignores the growth from youth to adulthood. That is a different kind of change, suitable for a different post.

In my latest book, Like Clockwork, two of my forgetful characters discover who they used to be and integrate those memories. Another discovers feelings she had suppressed and cures herself of them. Those aren’t real changes; they are simply cases of regaining a previous state.

Another character, Hemmings, actually changes. He is pretty much a nobody at the outset — an emotionless creature who follows all the rules because he has no strong feelings about how things ought to be. Over a thousand years — or the length of the novel — he “grows a soul”.

I enjoyed that, but I only got away with it because Hemmings was one of a cast of eight characters. I got to show him in short bits while he was still dull, and then could bring him on stage for longer incidents as the universe slapped him silly and he fought back, becoming interesting in the process.

If that sounds familiar, let me clarify:  I wrote Like Clockwork at least six months before I read Small Gods. If I had to pull the Hemmings story out of the larger novel to stand alone, no one would read it because it would be too dull at the outset.

The other time I made one of my characters really change was in the novel Who Once Were Kin. It is a follow-on to a fantasy series, and the title comes from a local proverb, “There are no enemies like those who once were kin.” If this were a cowboy story, the proverb would be, “Ain’t nobody who can hurt you like kinfolks”, which is a true statement, in my personal experience.

For my taste, this is the best book I’ve written, but from the viewpoint of publication, it won’t fly. The hero is a fine upstanding member of his community, but his community has some foul notions of sexual morality. We spend the first half of the book getting to know him, and coming to like him for all his positive qualities, while slowly coming to understand and hate his culture. Then things happen to destroy his serenity and to show him that his life so far has been a tragic mistake.

Anyone who would enjoy the manly, military, self-assured first half of the book would absolutely hate the second half. Anyone who would appreciate the second half, would never get through the first half.

Real change is a bitch.

The ms. resides in my hard drive, mocking me. I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to figure out how to change it without losing the qualities it has now. Maybe I should just put a disclaimer at the top:

Be warned, this book may give you moral and emotional whiplash.

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9 thoughts on “604. Changeable?

  1. Catana

    I’m absolutely starving for science fiction in which a major character goes through significant life changes. One attempt at it (fantasy, actually) is Robin Hobb’s Assassin series. But she takes nine novels to accomplish as much as she does, and it isn’t that satisfying in the long run. Another, much better, is The Earth Goddess, the last book of the Pagans trilogy by Richard Herley, a British writer. Extremely well-written, but the plot doesn’t permit us to see how the protagonist accomplishes his goal of revenge. It isn’t a plot hole, but a deliberate decision. I highly recommend Herley’s books for anyone who loves character development *and* immersive stories. A superb writer.

    I’m working, a bit at a time, on a near-future SF novel that’s basically a coming-of-age story compressed into just a year or two. Your post raises a lot of issues I’m dealing with.

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  2. sydlogsdon Post author

    Reading your comment caused me to remember one more story, a novella, Hunter, Come Home, which is one of my favorites. It’s a little hard to find, but worth the effort.
    I wrote about it in post 147. Apparently, WordPress won’t let me put a link into a reply, but you can go to April 2016 in the Archives and find it easily enough.

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  3. Catana

    Did track it down, thank you, though the budget says not right now. Amazon has it in a collection of his writings: Casey Agonistes and Other Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

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  4. sydlogsdon Post author

    Budget? You’re preaching to the choir. Try interlibrary loan from your local library. That’s where I find most of my obscure and expensive books.
    By the way, I’m glad you re-replied since I forgot to mention that clicking on your name only takes me to a page that says “writingcycle.wordpress.com is no longer available”. If you want to remain anonymous, fine, but if you want replies, you need to change that.

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    1. Catana

      Thanks for the heads up about Writing Cycle, which is defunct. I do have a new blog on WordPress. Just need to figure out how to get it to come up. Might as well tackle it now that it’s on my mind.

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  5. JM Williams

    Did you just suggest Vorbis is the main character of the book? I never thought of it that way. Brutha changes in his own little way, the typically fantasy way of being a do-nothing coward to being a leader at the end. But a real change of heart in a sea of fundamentalists? Yeah, maybe that was the bigger story. 🙂

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    1. sydlogsdon Post author

      I see Vorbis as a powerful villain who is essentially unchanging, as villains typically are. Brutha goes from being a nothing — dust beneath Vorbis’s feet — to his superior not only in morality but also in power. If find the scene just after Brutha’s death, when he takes the lost shade of Vorbis in hand, to be a telling index of his change.

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