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Change is good

Have you ever read a story or seen a movie which had a lot of exciting/interesting things happen in it, yet somehow left you with that ‘meh’ feeling? 
 
Assuming the overall quality was okay, I’d say the main reason we get that ‘Not bad, but I don’t expect I’ll read/watch it again’ reaction is because none of the main characters changed as a result of the story.
 
Last week, mtlawson posted an interesting entry in which he asked how much the events in a story should change the people in it (if at all)

 
My own feeling is that the difference between a great story and a good one is directly related to the amount of change the main character(s) go through as a result of what happens to and around them.  
 
The change can be internal or external, or both. Sometimes an external change forces an internal change which helps bring about another external change (often it’s a change back).  Here are some examples:
 
A mean old miser learns to take joy in helping others, but only after he’s forced to confront his past mistakes and see what others think of him (Scrooge).
 
The tragic and forbidden love of two people from feuding factions ends in death, but brings both sides together (I’m thinking West Side Story here, not that Shakespeare bloke’s obvious rip-off – see Who does that Shakespeare bloke think he is? – The scene at the end of the movie when both sides help to carry off Tony’s body always brings a lump to my throat.
 
In the movie, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character gets stuck in a time loop and is forced to relive the same day again and again. Over the course of the movie he comes to realize the error of his previously shallow ways and turns his focus to helping others. When he finally achieves that perfect, selfless day the curse is lifted. He comes out of it a better and happier person (not to mention skilled at playing the piano and ice sculpting).
 
I believe our opinion of the ‘greatness’ of a story or movie is directly related to the amount of empathy induced by a believable change in one or more of the main characters of a story. 
 
If you don’t see that empathy-inducing change in one of the characters, you probably don’t think of that story as ‘great’. 
 
That’s why so many blockbusters make megabucks at the movies, but end up with relatively poor DVD sales. It’s also why we have a great many ‘Watched/read it once, don’t think I’ll bother again’ books and films on our shelves at home (and why, imo, the second and fourth Indiana Jones movies were nowhere near as good as the first and third).
 
Of course, I could be wrong. Still, with your help, I’d like to put my theory to the test. 
  

Is a believable change in one or more of the main characters essential to a great story?

Yes
21(61.8%)
No
1(2.9%)
It depends
12(35.3%)

 
Do you have a favorite story or movie in which none of the main characters change?
 
ETA: Hehe, I really should wear my glasses when I'm typing. I voted 'Yes' when I should have voted 'No'


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( 49 comments — Leave a comment )
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bogwitch64
Jan. 30th, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC)
The Great Gatsby, but then again, I didn't like it! But it is rather famous. One might contend that the narrator changes in some way, but if so it happens off-camera, so to speak, and not intrinsic to the plot. All the characters meet grim ends precisely BECAUSE none of them evolves. This, I think anyway, is the point of the story.

I'm also thinking of A Rose for Emily, by William Faulkner. Again, narrated. Again, everyone meets grim ends because they're unable to grow. Again, I didn't like it much.

Oh...I just had a thought--in a piece like Gatsby or Rose, it's the READER who's supposed to evolve! Did I get it right???
jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
Lol, don't ask me! :)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jan. 30th, 2010 11:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
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bogwitch64
Jan. 30th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
I just thought of a book I loved in which the characters don't evolve: Lolita, by Nabokov. I loved that book in so many ways, for so many reasons. Dolores doesn't evolve even though she grows up. Charlotte. Quilty. Humbert, of course. Once again, grim ends all. It was brilliant though.
jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
I haven't read it. Is it possible that someone's NOT changing, in spite of the events in the story, had an impact on how much you enjoyed it?
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mary_j_59
Jan. 30th, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)
Do you know, I'm not sure! My favorite books and movies always involve some level of change in the protagonist, but TV shows? I love both Dr. Who and the original Trek but it's arguable that Kirk and the Doctor, in particular, don't change much. (And I don't much like Kirk). However-

The saving grace in Dr. Who is the companions; they do grow and change. And, in TOS, we learn who the characters are and see new facets of them, even if they don't actually change much. DS9 is, and always will be, my favorite of the Treks because we do see the characters growing and changing. It's more character-driven than the others. Well, IMHO, anyway!
heleninwales
Jan. 30th, 2010 04:55 pm (UTC)
I agree. I don't think that the main character necessarily has to change, or at least not in a major way. I'm thinking of the Brother Cadfael books here. I suppose one could argue that they're not "great". I certainly wouldn't call them Great Literature, but they are excellent examples of the genre and, because he's a mature man at the start, Cadfael doesn't change noticeably, but the people around him do. His assistants grow and learn and supporting characters (like Hugh Beringar) definitely mature and grow as the series progresses.
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tracy_d74
Jan. 30th, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
The books and movies I love all involve MC's evolving. Hmmm? Oh! Wait. I liked Revolutionary Road (the movie, have not read the book). That was a tragic ending. The characters do not evolve. The wife tried to get the husband to evolve, but he refused. That leads to their demise. I think this is a fact of life. If you do not evolve, learn from mistakes, you will faulter. So if a writer can show elements encouraging the change and the MC resisting, it can make for interesting story. So maybe it is the believability in the struggle to change or stay the same the makes the story great.
jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 06:25 pm (UTC)
Interesting. Thanks for sharing :)
silverwerecat
Jan. 30th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
...Garfield? ;)
jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC)
:P
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jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 06:22 pm (UTC)
I suppose you could argue that a TV series is a story, and certainly shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer had characters which developed over time, but I was thinking more about books and movies.
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jan. 31st, 2010 02:27 am (UTC) - Expand
a_r_williams
Jan. 30th, 2010 05:49 pm (UTC)
I think it depends.

There are different types of plot patterns that would encompass a character not changing. One of those being the loop or circular story, where the characters go through the story and end up in the same place they started. The main reason for this is to show they will never change.

Also, I think certain genres that do not concentrate on the characters, but the plot often have characters who don't change. For example, a lot of mysteries have detectives who don't change--mainly because the importance is placed on the discovery of the murderer and not the detective's dynamic.
jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 06:16 pm (UTC)
But are those your favorites?
a_r_williams
Jan. 30th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
Movies

Star Wars: Chewbacca, C3PO, R2D2

Watchmen ( movie or comic ): Rorschach

Die-Hard: McClane
jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 06:17 pm (UTC)
Not sure what this list is meant to represent, Aaron. Are you saying these folks don't change or that they do?
(no subject) - a_r_williams - Jan. 30th, 2010 09:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jan. 30th, 2010 09:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
kmarkhoover
Jan. 30th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
I think growth of a character is pretty important to a story.
jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 06:18 pm (UTC)
I think it's a sub-conscious thing, but if it's not there I notice something's missing (at least, that's how it seems to me).
frostokovich
Jan. 30th, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC)
Growth Depends on the Kind of Story
I don't disagree with your position about change as a generalization. But there are stories where characters not changing is the point of the story. A great story by Sherman Alexie, "The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn't Flash Red Anymore", works as it does *because* no one changes, or can, really. If that story had been submitted anonymously to some writing workshops I've sat in on, it would no doubt have been savaged by various participants because nobody changes, no one has an epiphany (thank you, James Joyce); and those participants would have been wrong.

Then again, Alexie's is not a horizontally plotted story. It's not "A causes B causes C"--that kind of structure, on which almost all genre fiction runs, is going to require character development or else tragedy because the character failed to change, to move; both possibilities can be very satisfying. But that isn't the only kind of story, so I honestly think it has to be taken on a case by case basis of asking "What is the story doing, and why?"
jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Growth Depends on the Kind of Story
That's interesting. I wonder if taking that 'not changing' option with a character like (say) Scrooge would have made A Christmas Carol better or worse. It would certainly have a less happy ending, but I imagine it would be more thought provoking too.

Thanks for sharing, Greg :)
ailsa_cf
Jan. 30th, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC)
I think it's essential to any story - if the characters don't change at all over the course of a story, then where is the story? If it's been interesting, then it should have affected the character(s) somewhere - even if it's only small changes, there must be something there. It's one of the main things I look at when I'm reviewing books - characters must change.
It's something that really annoyed me in the film 'Jumper' - it was a cool story, and I really enjoyed it, but it spoilt the whole thing for me when at the end, the MC went straight back to doing what he had been at the start of the film - he hadn't learnt anything from all the chaos he went through.

(Can you get that this is touching a nerve for me? lol)
jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 08:52 pm (UTC)
Hehe, sorry about that :)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jan. 31st, 2010 02:30 am (UTC) - Expand
asakiyume
Jan. 30th, 2010 07:57 pm (UTC)
Hmm, I hit "it depends," but maybe I do actually think that change is essential... I guess, though, it can be subtle. Sometimes, if your characters are young people, they're growing all the time, so change is just natural. It's not necessarily a deep thing, like the sort of conversion Scrooge undergoes. They may just get wiser about the world, through the events of the story.

jongibbs
Jan. 30th, 2010 08:53 pm (UTC)
We're supposed to get wiser? Nobody tells me anything :(
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jan. 30th, 2010 11:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
mtlawson
Jan. 31st, 2010 12:34 am (UTC)
When you challenged me on whether I could come up with a great story without the main character changing, I thought of Hamlet. Another one that jumped out at me was Othello, and naturally both of them are tragedies.

That got me to thinking that Hamlet's and Othello's inability to change caused their downfall. Obviously it doesn't work for all tragedies -look at MacBeth- but Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman is the same thing. When confronted by his past and how he was wrong about things, his reaction was to crash his car instead; he refused to change.
jongibbs
Jan. 31st, 2010 12:40 pm (UTC)
Lol, I don't know about challenging you - as I recall I just turned your question around :P

I think the best way to decide if change has occurred during a story is to ask if a character comes to think or act differently as a result of events and interactions which take place between the first and last pages.

Using that measure, would you say any of your three examples change?
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jan. 31st, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
karen_w_newton
Jan. 31st, 2010 05:29 am (UTC)
It depends on how you define change. I would argue that in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, for example, that George Bailey doesn't really change that much, in terms of his character. He's a good person at the beginning and he's a good person at the end. The only difference is he gains an understanding of how interconnected we all are.

Likewise, the folks in WHITE CHRISTMAS don't change that much, unless you count falling in love as changing. The story line comes from the misunderstanding.

On the other hand, my favorite book when I was a kid was THE SECRET GARDEN and the whole point of that story was that Mary Lennox changed from a spoiled brat to a nice kid over the course of several months spent in Yorkshire.

And I do absolutely love GROUNDHOG DAY, where the whole point is how much the main character changes. One of the best movies of all time.
jongibbs
Jan. 31st, 2010 12:52 pm (UTC)
I'd say George Bailey does change. At the start of the story, he has an optimistic view of the inherent goodness of the world and the people in it, but that's shattered by bankruptcy (and the fact that the person who could have helped him refused out of malice - though as I recall, George had never made a secret of his distaste for the man), only to be renewed when the whole town chips in to help him.

I've never seen White Christmas, so I can't argue with that example, unless spontaneously bursting into song counts as changing :P
karen_w_newton
Jan. 31st, 2010 05:34 pm (UTC)
Actually, the story is dead simple, it's the music and dancing that's fun. But I just thought of a movie that illustrates your point-- THE SEARCHERS with John Wayne. Wayne's characters stays the same right up until the very end of the movie and then he changes, right in front of us. It's a much more powerful ending than if he hadn't changed.
jongibbs
Jan. 31st, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC)
The Searchers, is that the one where John Wayne and his pals rescue some white folks who'd been taken by indians years earlier and when they get them back the families don't recognize them and the victims don't want to come home?
(no subject) - karen_w_newton - Jan. 31st, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
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