Time to get too big for my britches and take a poke at another sacred cow: the concept of character growth.
(Ordinarily I’d prefer to use the label “character development” for what I’m about to discuss. In my experience it’s the term gamers use for this sort of thing, and it’s certainly the one I’ve used for decades now. However, it’s my understanding that in a literary sense the term “character development” tends to refer more to how a character’s traits are portrayed to the reader and represented throughout the story. It seems to me that the term “character presentation” would cover that better, but there’s no sense getting involved in a battle over terminology for a mere think-piece. ;) Similarly, I think a lot of writers and editors refer to “a character’s arc” when talking about this sort of thing. But again, terminology isn’t crucial as long as we all understand what’s being discussed.)
I’m currently revising a novel. As part of that process I have a file of notes where I jot down possible plot problems that occur to me, aspects of the story I need to remember to deal with, and so on. One of the entries I made in that file recently says this:
—Have the main characters grown sufficiently?
But then, right below that, I made a secondary note:
—Do they need to? Is that necessary?
And it’s those last two sentences that have inspired this blog post.
A lot of people — writers, gamers, directors, video game programmers, and fans of the work of all of the above — talk a lot about “character growth.” The way many people seem to perceive it, character growth is crucial to telling a good story. But for the sake of playing Blue Devil’s advocate if nothing else (go Duke!), I’d like to suggest that character growth may be unnecessary. Or perhaps I should say I think it may be overrated, at least as a necessity.
So, what is “character growth,” exactly?
I don’t know if there’s a precise, well-accepted literary definition for “character growth.” Wikipedia defines “character arc” thusly: A character arc is the status of the character as it unfolds throughout the story, the storyline or series of episodes. Characters begin the story with a certain viewpoint and, through events in the story, that viewpoint changes. A character arc generally only affects the main character in a story, though other characters can go through similar changes.
Here’s what I think of when I hear the term “character growth” or character arc: the personal changes (usually, but not always, for the better) a character undergoes as a result of the choices he makes during a story and the experiences he has as a result of those choices.
And just to be clear, by “personal changes” I mean changes in personality, perspective, attitude, or other such fundamental things. In a certain sense it can also refer to overcoming longstanding personal obstacles or challenges (and in the process perhaps encountering new ones, to be dealt with in the sequel ;) ). I don’t mean learning new facts, developing new powers or spells, acquiring new weapons or gear, becoming enchanted, or anything along those lines. Those things are all Cool, and I wish them not only for my favorite fictional characters but all the esteemed readers of this fine blog. Nevertheless, while they may pass for character growth in many RPG campaigns, they’re not what I’m referring to as “character growth” in a literary sense. A character may grow because those things happen to him — for example, acquiring power may make him view the world in a different way — but they are not, in and of themselves, character growth.
So what I’m going to do for the rest of this blog post is examine a few classic stories (most, but not all, of them genre fiction) and analyze whether I think any true character growth occurs. Obviously to some extent I’m cherry-picking stories that fit my thesis; this isn’t an academic treatise and I don’t have time for a thorough analysis of this topic throughout Western literature. Nevertheless I think the stories I’ve picked are famous/important enough to make my point.
The Lord Of The Rings
Who undergoes character growth in The Lord Of The Rings? I think a couple characters experience significant development, a couple one-dimensional development, and some no development at all. In no particular order:
Gandalf: It’s true that Gandalf in essence sheds his mortal shell and comes into his full power during the saga, but that’s about it (and that’s not character growth, as discussed above). His personality and perspective are exactly the same at the end as they are in the beginning.
Aragorn: Same thing. He gets a sword, becomes a king, and wins the girl — you go, Strider! — but his personality changes not one bit. No character growth here either.
Frodo: Arguably Frodo undergoes some character growth, in that he takes on a great burden, suffers for it, and eventually learns the lesson that not all who sacrifice for the greater good get to enjoy the resulting state of affairs. But if you look closely at it I don’t think he actually changes all that much. From the very beginning he’s presented as a mature, responsible individual. Compared to his three companions he’s definitely the only adult member of Clan Hobbit — the figurative father to the figurative boys. While he can’t foresee exactly where the quest will take him, he’s informed at the very beginning of the story how dangerous the burden of the Ring is, but he takes it on anyway. In effect he’s presented as mature, dutiful, and responsible from the very start of the epic, so I don’t really think he undergoes extensive character growth (if any at all).
Sam, Merry, Pippin: Here, on the other hand, we see some serious character growth. They start out as Naive Boys, both physically (in their resemblance to children in the eyes of Men) and figuratively (in that they’ve never experienced hardship or had to “grow up”). By the end of the tale they’ve been transformed by their choices and experiences, becoming Wise Adults who understand the nature of responsibility, duty, and personal sacrifice. That’s the very definition of character growth as far as I’m concerned.
Boromir: Boromir also experiences one brief moment of character growth, when he realizes what he’s become and tries to make it up to Frodo at the cost of his own life. He only gets a few moments in the spotlight, but bravo for making the best of them.
Legolas, Gimli: Minor character growth at best. Both have their eyes opened to the virtues of the other’s species, but that’s about it. Otherwise they’re pretty much the same throughout the story.
Here’s another example of a classic saga where I don’t think there’s really that much actual character growth going on.
Luke Skywalker, the theoretical main character of the tale, supposedly undergoes some major character growth. But does he really? He certainly gains Jedi powers and a lot of experience with what’s going on in the world beyond Tatooine. But do his personality and perspectives change that much? I’m not so sure they do. He starts out heroic and headstrong. His headstrong qualities become tempered a little over the course of the movies, but they certainly don’t go away — even in RotJ he’s prone to rushing off to Do Heroic Things in a way that puts him and his friends in danger. If there’s character growth here, I don’t think it’s as much as most people believe.
Princess Leia: There’s no real character growth here that I can see. The only real change she undergoes is falling in love with Han Solo. Otherwise she’s just the same in the first frame as the last.
C3PO, R2D2: See paragraph above, but delete reference to falling in love with Han Solo (at least, as far as I know; it’s not like I can understand what R2’s saying).
Chewbacca: Again, see above (with the same caveat; I can’t speak Shyriiwook; heck, I had to look up how to spell it).
Han Solo: At last we get to some serious character growth. Our boy Han starts out as a self-centered smuggler and ends up becoming a person who understands the value of a cause and the necessity of personal sacrifice in support of that cause. (In D&D terms I’d say he goes from Neutral to Chaotic Good, but I’m sure that analysis has already been argued ad nauseum on one or more message fora. ;) ) In fact, one might argue that the Star Wars saga is really all about Han Solo, not about Luke Skywalker. That’s why his shooting Greedo “first” is so important — changing that one little fact seriously diminishes the nature and extent of his character growth.
It’s a good thing Lucas only made three Star Wars movies. If he’d made any more I might have to analyze more characters, and it’s time to move on to another story.
The Conan Stories
Robert E. Howard’s Conan is the archetypical Sword And Sorcery hero, the inspiration for countless other characters in fiction, movies, and RPGs. And he deserves that attention; the Conan stories are superb. But he never grows as a character. It’s true that Conan starts out relatively naive and eventually ends up as King of Aquilonia, but his attitudes, personality, and outlook on life never vary one whit through thousands and thousands of words.
Of course, to a large extent this may result from the fact that Conan’s saga is told through novellas and short stories, never a fully-formed novel. In a series of short stories written for sale to Pulp magazines, you want to stick with what brings in the money, and that means not changing what the readers enjoy about the character. I’d love to have seen what Howard would have done if he’d written some full-fledged Conan novels published independently of the pulps. For example, if Conan had remained King of Aquilonia for an entire novel, might he at some point have realized, and have had to admit, that civilization has more than a few advantages? Now that would’ve been some character growth.
The Elric Stories
The Elric stories, also staples of the Swords And Sorcery subgenre in most readers’ eyes, are much like the Conan stories. For the most part the Elric “novels” are actually just collections of short stories/novellas, and throughout them Elric doesn’t really grow much. His personality’s locked in from page one, and while he sometimes goes through mood swings overall his persona doesn’t change in any significant way.
This is the classic to end all classics, some might say — but does it feature character growth? I’m no professor of Shakespeare, but I think there’s a strong argument that it does not. Hamlet’s personality is established, he encounters an agonizing moral dilemma, responds to that dilemma as his personality dictates, and events unfold. They don’t unfold well for his girlfriend, friends, family, or neighbors — and they don’t really change him, either. At the end of the play he dies, the same as he was at the beginning.
So, My Point Is...
...that character growth isn’t actually necessary for a good story, or at least for every good story. LOTR is awesome. Star Wars is awesome. The Conan stories are awesome, the Elric stories are awesome, and Hamlet has been considered the height of dramatic awesome for over four hundred years. But that awesomeness doesn’t depend on lots and lots of character growth. All those stories focus on, or are significantly concerned with, protagonists who don’t really undergo changes to personality or perspective as a result of the choices they make and the experiences that result.
Those stories are all awesome because they’re great stories with great characters. If you have a great character, why does he have to change to make the story great? What he does, how he reacts to things, and how he copes with the obstacles that confront him are enough for a great story; they don’t have to change him. If he’s not that great a character, maybe character growth can make him into one — but I don’t think that such stories are the one and only definition of “great literature.” You can have a great story that involves character growth, and you can have one that features no character growth at all.
The fact remains that “character growth” seems to be one of the yardsticks modern readers (not to mention editors and critics...) use to measure genre literature (at least if the conversations I have with people at conventions and online are any indication). That suggests that an author who wants to succeed at getting genre fiction published these days should make an effort to show at least some character growth.
Maybe one of the reasons there’s relatively little character growth in the stories I described above is that they all predate the modern day, and modern tastes, by 30-400 years. They’re classics and so people still read/watch and love them. But I have to wonder: if some of them were written today for the very first time, more or less as is, would they even get published? (And let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that elements in these stories that most modern readers would regard as racist or sexist were removed or excluded; no reason to rehash that old debate here.) I bet some of them would have a hard time finding a publisher, or even if published an audience. I think modern readers would want to see some character growth. Probably also a feisty animal companion, but that’s a subject for a different blog. ;)
Of course, a genre story doesn’t necessarily have to have a lot of character growth. In fact, if an author wants to write a whole series of novels featuring the same protagonist, maybe that’s one of the keys: just a little character growth each book, so the character remains recognizable from novel to novel and yet evolves, albeit slowly, in a way that modern readers deem “good.”
For example, I recently read Jon Sprunk’s first Fantasy novel, Shadow’s Son. I think it could be argued that the main character, Caim the assassin, doesn’t undergo too much growth. He learns a lot about himself and his background, and he does grow just a little, coming to question the nature of his profession and realize what it’s done to him. But by the end of the book he’s still largely the same character as when he began. And I’d say that’s for the best. (I haven’t read any of the sequels yet to see if he’s any different in later novels.)
And Now For The Feisty Animal Companion
So with all that in mind, as I’ve been revising my novel here and there as part of the later stages of the creative process, I’ve made an effort to show some character growth — or perhaps more accurately, make any character growth I think was already there more apparent to the reader. I’m trying to bring out some negative personality traits early on, show how the characters come to question them (or get in trouble because of them), and eventually come to learn a better way to be. I don’t know that I’ve succeeded — that’s for editors, and hopefully readers, to judge — but even if I fail this time hopefully I’ve learned something in the process. ;)