Wednesday, February 16, 2011

To Grow or Not to Grow

At the Love is Murder convention, the topic of static characters vs characters who grow came up in several different panels. And a statement was made in one of the panels: "people essentially don't change so why should characters change?" I feel that the statement is inherently flawed, and the comment actually prompted me to want to write this post about the topic.

There are people who find comfort in characters that don't change, authors that continue to write the same kind of story, etc. The reader knows what to expect and knows what they're going to get. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, it seems to be making a tremendous amount of money for some authors.

But if we're being truthful about people, they do change. Not always in dramatic ways and rarely overnight, but they do change. When people marry, they change. When they have children, they change. When you move out of your parents' home you change - or if, God forbid, you experience a foreclosure. Anyone who has had their home broken into experiences a change. When a soldier comes back from war or a surgeon loses his first patient, change results.

Heck, psychology even recognizes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because life affects humans; it alters them.

So, personally, I think it's unrealistic to have a character in a book experience extreme situations - after all, crime fiction is full of extreme situations - and not be changed by those situations. I feel a much greater fulfillment from a book or a series that illustrates the characters' change and growth.

When I consider the books I most highly recommend to others, they are all books that examine how life affects the characters populating the stories

  • THE LOCK ARTIST (Steve Hamilton)
  • THE AMATEURS (Marcus Sakey)
  • L.A. REQUIEM (Robert Crais)
  • THE CRIME WRITER (Gregg Hurwitz)
  • THE CRUELEST MONTH (Louise Penny)
  • SHUTTER ISLAND (Dennis Lehane)
  • MIND SCRAMBLER (Chris Grabenstein)
  • DEAD CONNECTION (Alafair Burke)
  • ROOM (Emma Donoghue)
  • SORROW'S ANTHEM (Michael Koryta)
For me as the reader I feel that when the author neglects that, they aren't being true to the character and that leaves a void for me. It also results in a flatter character.

But I'm just one reader, and I know not everyone feels the same. So I'd love it if you'd share your own feelings on characters that change/grow vs characters that don't. And Julie P, this is my list for you...finally. It may be different next week, though.


kathy d. February 16, 2011 at 5:35 AM  

This gives me another list of books to read, as I do like to read about characters changing.

One series where the main character changes is Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone, who has changed careers, her personal life and suffered from a severe gunshot and recovered.

Characters, like people, can also change for the better--gaining skills, becoming more confident, expanding their environments and travels, gaining partners, children, friends, clients, etc.

One thing about real people is that they can take stock and work on themselves, improving relationships and job skills, etc.

Think of ourselves as teenagers or young adults: We've all changed--become more responsible, diplomatic and tactful, tuned in to others' needs and problems, gaining wisdom on the human condition.

I'd like to read about characters who are changing in a positive way, too, as they age and grow.

Julie P. February 16, 2011 at 6:41 AM  

Thank you so much!!!! And it is a fantastic list. I've read about a third of them and I can vouch that those books were amazing! Since I love Michael Koryta so much, I might start with that one. Although there are so many authors that I haven't tried yet.... Decisions, decisions....

Beth F February 16, 2011 at 7:55 AM  

Awesome list! I've read a few and loved them, so I trust you and the others on the list. Thanks so much for the list and to Julie for inspiring you.

Jenn's Bookshelves February 16, 2011 at 9:49 AM  

Fantastic list! I'm a reader that must have characters who grow/change. As you indicated, individuals change so what fun would it be to have a character that remained stagnant?

Word Lily February 16, 2011 at 10:34 AM  

I agree, I much prefer characters that change/grow. I think this is partly why I like series so much — we get to see the characters evolve over a longer period of time. Static is boring. And unrealistic.

Janet February 16, 2011 at 10:49 AM  

I think characters need to change as events happen. If it's a series, they usually go through so much and I prefer to see how they change and respond.

You have a great list and one of my favorite authors on it - Louise Penny. Her characters definitely go through changes and I love them for it. Oh, and thanks for more ideas!

L.J. Sellers February 16, 2011 at 5:25 PM  

For me, this is the most challenging aspect of writing a series. On one hand, the characters have to have some consistency to keep readers happy and coming back. Yet they also have to grow and change to keep the series from stagnating. It's a delicate balance.

Erin February 16, 2011 at 8:23 PM  

Ed McBain's characters never changed much...and I love them all like family. But those are the only non-changers I can think of. Oh wait! Alex Cross hasn't changed yet, really. I won't be reading another of his adventures though unless I'm guaranteed he dies within the first 50 pages. And not a Bobby on Dallas kind if death either.

Chris February 16, 2011 at 8:39 PM  

Okay, I'll play Devil's Advocate for a sec and toss out one of my favorite -- and one of literature's most unchanging -- characters: Parker. Though he may be the exception that proves the rule, because Westlake was a true master; it strikes me as unwise for a lesser artist to attempt to duplicate Westlake's trick...

Christine February 16, 2011 at 8:42 PM  

I don't need grand changes, but I don't want them to behave like nothing's ever happened either. I love to watch the development of characters in a series. That's why, whenever possible, I will read a series from the beginning. That said, it's a credit to the authors that can write the books where I know what to expect from him/her and don't mind at all. I just enjoy the ride.

Only one example came to mind of a character being stagnant and in a holding pattern for TOO long is Evanovich's Stephanie Plum.

Fabulous list of books, Jen! :-)

Poncho February 17, 2011 at 3:53 AM  

Hey! More books to read, yay!!

I love it when characters grow. I can manage one book where the character(s) evolve little, but when it's an ongoing series, and characters develop little I often leave them behind. I don't care if it's crime fiction or sword and sorcery, changing characters are more believable ergo I identify myself with them more easily. Hey, even Sherlock Holmes had character development!

I didn't think there were people who liked unchanging characters but then I realized there are Twi-fans out there!

Thanks Jen. This post -and the booklist in it- is great. So far I've only read one, so I've got more for the TBR!

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