Thursday, 25 April 2013

Character Growth (When You Don't Want Your Characters to Grow)

If you follow my work, you will know that it is an attribute of the very finest stories - the ones that win Oscars, BAFTAs, Booker prizes and the like - that a character changes and learns and grows across the course of a story. (For more detail on this, read my Character Growth Blog .)

However, what if you don't want your characters to grow? What if you need them to stay exactly as they are in order to write a sequel? How can we use the power of character growth, but not actually allow any character growth? 

John Sullivan told me, in discussion about his wonderful series, Only Fools and Horses, that the last thing he needed was character growth, because when writing a series across years and dozens of episodes, character growth can trap the characters against a ceiling. They can only grow so far, then they become fulfilled. They have undergone the change that made them so interesting, and have nowhere else to go. 

That is why a truly great story - great because it does feature character growth - is often followed by a poor sequel. The protagonist has already made his life journey, is fulfilled and has learned his life lessons, so there is no room for further growth in the sequel, so the second story disappoints.

Now, John made a big deal of being 'uneducated' in 'how to write', and had, shall we say, a significant distrust of story theory (which made our conversations somewhat interesting...), but it didn't stop him from being brilliant. He played on character growth with every episode of Only Fools and Horses, without letting his characters actually grow. He played on the pathos of failing to grow by having Del Boy and Rodney offered growth... but fail to improve themselves, and despite their efforts and the golden opportunities offered, they endlessly fell back down life’s ladder. This was brilliant story-telling, because it gave us, in the audience, a chance to see the decisions they should take to advance themselves (so in this sense there was character growth in the story), but their failure to learn and grow was both hilarious and frustrating... and allowed them to slide back down to square one so the beginning of the next episode could always start with a clean slate.

John would also use forms of character growth that didn't fundamentally change the character of the character, if you see what I mean. So, for example, Del Boy having a baby was an emotional plot line that would be considered as a form of character growth, but still meant he could be precisely the same Del Boy at the beginning of the following week without any change to his fundamental character.

I had a similar conversation with Lee Child. For his Jack Reacher novels, the eponymous protagonist had to end up exactly where he started if Lee was to produce another book to the same successful recipe (as he has done every single year for the last 17 years).  Interestingly - given the success of his series - Lee often used character growth without allowing Jack Reacher ultimately to grow. Jack Reacher would begin the story as a drifter, wandering into a new town. During the course of a story that has him work for good as a vigilante against the corrupt authorities, the criminals and the bullies, he would perhaps find a girl, fall in love, become integrated into a community, become appreciated as a local hero... At the end of the story he might be lying in bed with a woman who loves him, children who worship him, a mayor who wants him to join the city council... but inevitably, he would walk away from all this good stuff that might fulfil him. He’d tear it all up, spirit himself away in dead of night, and hit the road, to drift on to the next town. It’s just the way he is... but this hugely convenient character flaw that had him dismantle all that lovely character growth also allowed him to return to the same starting point as he drifts into a new town to begin his next adventure. Expert story telling. 

The other fine dynamic for using character growth but avoiding protagonist change is to allow a character other than the protagonist to learn a lesson and to grow. Look no further than my old favourite, Back to the Future, in which the protagonist, Marty McFly, doesn't grow at all. The character growth that gives the story all its amazing power comes from Marty's father - George McFly, who learns to be assertive - and changes his life fortunes to the positive as a result. But Marty remains the same. Imagine trying to continue George McFly's adventures into the sequel from that end-point. That would be really, really difficult, because he's ended this adventure having grown and become fulfilled. His story has been told, and there's no more that can be satisfactorily told. His journey to fulfilment is complete. That's why they moved on to the next generation and to a whole new character (Marty's son) to have someone they could advance up life's ladder. 

How can I use this in my writing?
So characters do not have to change and grow, but you can still use the power of character growth in five ways without your character growing: 

1) Have a secondary character change and grow (e.g., George McFly). 

2) Have very definite negative character growth in the antagonist (a tragedy shines a light on the positive learning and growth the character should have undergone). 

3) Offer your protagonist the opportunity to grow... but then have him turn it down (Jack Reacher), take something else he perceives to be of more value (e.g., money instead of the love that was on offer...), or fail to make the most of the opportunity (Del Boy). 

4) Use forms of character growth, such as marriage or parenthood, that do not implicitly change the character of the character. 

5) Use issues of morality to allow your character to grow through conflict in a specific area of life - carefully chosen so as not to impact areas of life used in the next in the series. So, for example, if your protagonist learns lessons about morality in dealing with relationships in one episode, and in drug dealing in the next, the growth in each doesn't affect the other. (See my post on Morality in Stories for more...) 

Much, much more on the inordinate power of character growth and learning in my book, How Stories Work (2014).