The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
Sooner or later every how-to book about fiction talks about movement of character. The specific word used to describe the concept varies — growth, change, development — but they all spring from the same source: the idea that a character (most commonly the main character) will evolve as events unfold.
In previous sections Hills has talked about the idea and importance of change over the course of a story, but here he drills down to a more basic question. Is change in a character actual change, or simply the revelation of some “‘side’ of the personality” that has been previously unacknowledged? From the reader’s point of view it may not matter, but from the author’s point of view the question is far from academic.
For Hills, how we perceive change in fictions springs directly from everyday experience:
…most of us speak regularly about “change” in our acquaintances when we gossip about them, even when these changes are gentle and gradual.
Hills also notes that when we haven’t seen someone for a long time we may perceive change in them as even more abrupt. Why? Because we tend to focus on the magnitude of change when we first learn about it, not the duration. A moderate change in someone that happens in a day or a week may seem less dramatic (in both the literal and figurative senses) than a big change that happens slowly over decades — provided we only see the result and not the transition. (Note the similarity with fiction, where authors omit or condense long periods during which nothing of relevance happens to the main/moved character.)
In trying to understand how a person has changed, I think most people seek out or appeal to key if not singular events or causes — even if doing so discounts the complexity of forces that actually compelled the change. But making the leap from an explanation of change in life to a convincing demonstration of change in fiction requires more than simple (if not simplistic) logic.
As Hills showed regarding suspense, it’s possible to meet a literary requirement or objective while at the same time doing damage to your work. In terms of moving a character through action there are authorial choices you can make that satisfy the requirement but are antagonistic to agreement and unity of effect. At worst your choices may prove unconvincing to the reader and corrupt suspension of disbelief.
Next up: The Character Shift, as against Movement of Character.
— Mark Barrett
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