If you want to understand how vital character growth is to good fiction, take a look at a few classic movies. Study such films as Good Will Hunting, As Good as it Gets, Orange County, and The Silver Linings Playbook. In each of these films, every major character grows during his or her time on camera. It’s a motif in Hollywood. Having a character grow as a person is practically a requirement for any comedy, any feel-good movie. But it’s not a new thing.
In fact, this pattern of growth remains consistent through nearly all great works of fiction ever written. (I only say “nearly” because as soon as I say all, someone is going to come up with something that doesn’t have growth, like Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and then we’ll have to argue all day about whether it was great literature.)
Note that in literary fiction, it is often said that the characters should merely “change,” not grow. But it is not nearly so enjoyable watching the demise of a protagonist as it is to watch one succeed. Change may intrigue, but growth inspires.
Indeed, here’s a key not only to understanding characters, but to understanding people: look at anyone who is feeling anger, depression, or sadness. Look at anyone who is acting out or trying to attract attention, and you will nearly always find one common factor: the person feels frustrated. He’s not growing, not progressing. It may be that he’s frustrated with his economic fortunes, his love life, his health, but somewhere these feelings of sadness, worry, and anger are rooted in frustration.
As organisms, we feel driven to constantly progress.
A pattern emerges in many of the world’s most popular stories. Consider for example A Christmas Carol, Lord of the Rings, and Ender’s Game.
In each of the tales that I mentioned, the protagonist starts out like a child, viewing evil as something outside himself. Poverty is not a problem that Scrooge normally worries about–it’s something that happens in other counties. Frodo’s Dark Lord is in lands far away. The Buggers are on another planet.
But evil soon strikes closer to home. The protagonist discovers that it’s in the people around him. Scrooge discovers that his best employee is suffering. Frodo confronts his Boromir. And young Ender Wiggins discovers that children who should be fighting evil are cruel and divisive.
Eventually, the protagonist of course discovers evil in himself. Scrooge sees himself as a moral pauper, to his own dismay Frodo claims the Ring at the Crack of Doom, and Ender finds that he is guilty of genocide. When the protagonist recognizes that evil is not a distant thing, that it’s something within him, he is forced to either accept evil, or to change.
First he must find the strength to change himself; only afterward can he hope to affect change in the people around him and the world at large. That’s what these popular tales are all about—the journey from moral darkness to enlightenment. This enlightenment is the goal of the mythic journey, and that’s what growth literature boils down to. Growth tales can be very compelling.
But you should also know that all literature isn’t growth literature. Much literature—even some very popular literature, is about stagnation. It may let us retreat from issues of growth, and return to that safe place we all occupied before we had to grow up.
In stagnation literature, the protagonist is almost always stuck at the adolescent level. He never grows up. He doesn’t engage in adult activities—such as marriage, the raising of children, taking a day job, or caring for an elderly parent. Instead, he remains an adolescent, without responsibilities, without ever recognizing his own need for change.
Let’s take a look at a classic: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The name suggests a growth novel, but in this one, aliens who look curiously like Christian devils invade the world. They’re brilliant and they teach mankind a great deal. Eventually, the whole world becomes a hive-like organism in which people are but drones, and human society evolves into something new——and mankind leaves the planet. The only person left on Earth is the protagonist who refused to participate in the exodus. He remains alone and damned, the perpetual adolescent—and apparently unsure whether he has won something or lost.
In the same way, Heinlein’s characters never grow up. They like to go around saving the world, but have no day job. They recognize that everyone around them is wrong, but they’re . . . well, they’re supermen. They don’t fall in love, they just have lots of sex. In essence, his protagonists too are always trapped in the adolescent state, and they have no desire to move beyond it.
In short, growth is unimportant in these tales simply because this is “escape” literature. The story transports the reader back to a safe time in his life, to a time when the reader did not have to worry about the complexities of life, and that is a major appeal of the tale.
In case I make it sound as if only science fiction literature offers adolescent/stagnation literature, let me assure you it’s not. In fact, if you look at literary stories—the kind you read in The New Yorker—you’ll find that much of it is stagnation literature. Oh, sure, the college professor may be burdened with a wife and child, but he’s also usually out exploring sexually, discovering that his life is meaningless, and wallowing in sophomoric angst. In short, he’s an adolescent trapped in a world where he doesn’t want to grow up.
In every genre there are plenty of stagnation stories around, simply because so many people read in an effort not to confront their challenges, but to evade them.
These readers don’t want to grow up while reading fiction. Such challenges are too discomforting—the conflicts can become too personal, strike too close to home.
Think about it: ultimately, when your character reaches adulthood, he accepts personal responsibility for the world’s state of affairs and then spends the rest of his life in service to his community. In essence, he accepts a kind of death, the death of his selfish desires and dreams.
So, my challenge as a writer of growth literature is to figure out how to get beyond that. How do I sell the message that growth is good and necessary and beautiful?
That’s easy. You simply show that the community is good, that family is necessary and beautiful, so that when your protagonist sacrifices himself for these things, we as an audience see the nobility in it.
As you consider your tale, it will be up to you to decide: do I want my characters to grow or not?