Friday, September 03, 2010

Does a Series Character Have To Grow?

by Barbara D'Amato

Many years ago, my husband and I were staging a musical. He was the composer/lyricist; I was the writer/lyricist. During the rehearsals, one of the cast members came up to me to complain about her role. [I’m changing the character’s name here, to protect her privacy.] She said, “I don’t know how to play Petunia. She doesn’t grow.”

I didn’t say what I thought, which was that Petunia didn’t need to grow. Petunia was a minor character. But lately I’ve been hearing a lot of criticism about some popular series characters in detective fiction: “She/he doesn’t grow.” As if that meant the series couldn’t be taken seriously. Unrealistic. Not literary enough.

What is “grow” anyway? Must the character start going to AA? Give up smoking? Learn about her inner devils and exorcize them?

There is a contrary opinion, which goes like this. A fan will say, “I like to pick up an XXX book. It’s like meeting an old friend. He’s always the same.”

Part of the problem with growing a character is that readers don’t necessarily read the books in order. They may happen upon the fifth book and then go back and read earlier ones. It can be quite disconcerting to read about a character’s angst over his divorce and then find an earlier book in which he is delighted with the new love of his life. Or--by the time later books in a series come out, earlier ones are unavailable.

Certainly I’ve now and then bought, say, the seventh book in a series I've read and liked, found the character very different, and been unhappy with the change. In real life, people don’t change much. The person who was irritable and quick to anger at twenty is still quick to anger at fifty. The easygoing, cheerful person at thirty is still cheerful, maybe barring serious illness, at sixty. People may learn a bit about themselves, and with luck overcome their worst habits. But I’d be uneasy if my friends changed very much.

I’m not arguing that series characters should never “grow” whatever that means. But when a character remains quite consistent, it’s not right to use “He doesn’t grow” as a stick to beat the author with.


Ricky Bush said...

I guess it all depends. I wouldn't want my character to grow too old to do the job that I've given him/her to do. We all live and learn, I guess, but some characters grow on us because they don't grow.

Naomi Johnson said...

A character doesn't have to grow to be interesting (Jack Reacher) but neither should a character be written into situations where change or growth is expected if that character is not going to grow, e.g. Stephanie Plum is tied to a romantic triangle, but all these years on it's the same old, same old. But did anyone expect Nero Wolfe to change? Heck, no. There was no situation that carried from book to book where he would be expected to change.

Dana King said...

I'm in the "it depends" school, too. The type of series matters. If it's focused on solving the crime, and the characters is there to guide us through (Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe), then growth isn't so much of a big deal. If the story is more of a character study hung on a crime plot (Ed McBain, Declan Hughes) then some growth is nice, even if it's just the residue of experience.

I'd like to draw attention to a good point you made. Just because a character is consistent doesn't mean he didn't grow. People grow incrementally. Not all aspects of them grow at the same rate, or at all. Some may atrophy. Striking a balance is the hard part for a series author.

Michael Dymmoch said...

I've been having conversations with a movie producer about character. It seems to me that contemporary movies and best selling novels have led people to expect the kind of over the top characters actors love to play in academy award performances. Realistic change is imperceptible, and not very dramatic, and very difficult to render in a way that keeps the reader turning the pages.

James Thurber demonstrated in "The Cat Bird Seat" that when you take an apparently static figure and have him step out of character for a moment, you can have a winning story. The device was used quite successfully in an episode of Magnum PI where Thomas Magnum, established for a number of seasons as a clown with principles, makes the decision to deliberately kill an unarmed opponent.