The Shape of Change

Photo by Trace Hudson on Pexels.com

The Underlying Sameness)

The 2003 film Shattered Glass portrays the rise and fall of real-life journalist Stephen Glass and it employs a very interesting character arc for him. What is interesting is that he doesn’t change one bit from the start of the movie to the end…and yet it very much feels like he does.

At the outset of the film Stephen Glass is a junior member of the staff for The New Republic. His writing quickly gains traction, though, as he somehow manages to land one earth-shattering story after another. Before long he is writing front-page material and is one of the most successful writers ever for the magazine.

But as I said, Stephen Glass is a real life person, and he became infamous to the news world when it was discovered he made up all of those amazing articles. There wasn’t a shred of truth to what he wrote, and even if you weren’t aware of this before renting the movie, the fact was plastered all throughout its marketing and taglines.

So right from the get-go the audience knows that this innocent-seeming character is actually a compulsive liar. And the film begins with him this way and it ends with him this way. He doesn’t really evolve from start to finish.

What does change, though, is the entire environment around him. He goes from being a nobody, to being lauded, to being reviled. And so while we don’t see an evolution in the character, we see an arc in the sort of lies he has to tell. At first they’re simple fabrications about his daily life meant to make his coworkers like him. Then they become grand fish-stories meant to captivate a national audience. Then they become desperate cover-ups to dissuade others from finding out the truth.

We see him shift from unassuming, to drunk with success, to frantic and fearful. Frankly the character doesn’t need to change, because we spend so much time getting to know all the different sides of him just as he already is.

This is somewhat similar to the arc of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Throughout the movie we see him progress from an innocent boy to a hungry, young man, to a grasping tycoon, to a broken elder. As with Stephen Glass the man changes quite a great deal on the surface.

But then, in the very final scene, we are made to realize that for all his changing methods, his intention has always been the same: to recapture his childlike joy. All the change we perceived was simply the steady increase of desperation as he repeatedly failed in that one, simple goal.

Pendulum’s Center)

There is an entirely different sort of character arc in the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil. This is another true-life story about two parents whose son is diagnosed with an incredibly rare and totally lethal disease. The two hopefully inquire whether a cure for the disease might be found, but are saddened to learn that the medical community is giving the matter very little attention. The disease simply affects too small of a population to be a priority.

Though the parents have no medical training of their own they take it upon themselves to research the matter. They tirelessly search for a cure, and in this they swing back and forth from discovery to setback, hope to despair, elation to defeat. In one scene we might see them laughing together and chatting animatedly, in the next they are shouting and collapsing in tears. Medical research is, of course, a very hard process of trial and error, and it is impossible for them to separate their emotions from all its inherent hills and valleys.

But their character’s are not only swinging back and forth between two states. With every turn of the pendulum they grow more solidified overall. Emotional blisters become callouses, wounds toughen into scars, passing ideas become a life’s work. Every setback that does not unseat them only serves to deepen their resolve in the cause. Though they know that much of the damage to their son will be forever irreversible, they are going to see this journey through to the bitter end. And so while the arc appears to swing back and forth, it is actually steadily rising from start to finish.

Compare this to the relentless chase that Captain Ahab commits his vessel to in Moby Dick. He, too, seems to teeter back and forth, half giving in to his conscience, but then always hardening himself back to the chase. While at the beginning of the story he almost seems within reason, by the end he has entrenched himself time and time again, until finally his heart is a stone and his face a flint.

The Sharp Turn)

There are also characters that suddenly redefine themselves in a single moment. They have an experience of immense significance, one that they cannot endure and remain the same person any longer.

There is a twofold example of this in Les Miserable. The first is Jean Valjean, who is a former convict that breaks his parole and is now wanted by the law. By the time we meet him at the start of the tale he has resigned himself to the life of a criminal and has no other intention than to steal his way through life.

To that end he ransacks the home of a priest who had showed him kindness, and when he is discovered by the priest knocks him over the head and runs away. The next day the priest has an opportunity to take vengeance on Valjean, but instead frees him from all consequence and implores him to be a better man. Jean Valjean is shocked by the graciousness and from that moment dedicates himself to the work of good. And like the characters in our previous section he entrenches himself in that cause against all opposition.

The second example from Les Miserables is laid out in perfect symmetry to the first. Whereas Jean Valjean is changed at the start and consistent through the rest, Javert is consistent through the whole until he is changed at the end. In Javert’s case his consistency is in the cause of cold justice. He stubbornly refuses to accept Valjean’s repentance as genuine, entrenches himself against forgiveness, and ever tries to have the man incarcerated.

At the end he falls into the hands of revolutionaries, and is given over to Valjean to be killed. Instead, though, Valjean spares him, even as he was once spared. Like Valjean, Javert is so moved by the mercy that he cannot carry on the life he had been leading. He has to turn it a complete 180 degrees.

And to keep the symmetry consistent, where Valjean awoke to a new life, Javert consigns himself to the grave.

On Thursday I posted the most recent chapter of my story and I paused to wonder whether I had given my protagonist the correct shape in his character arc. He gradually rises with a noble cause, until all at once the rug is pulled out from under him and he sharply falls out of grace with his peers. Of all the patterns I have related today the third one matches him best.

And I think it fits him well. I meant for Tharol to be deeply changed by his downfall, which meant that his decline needed to be quite impactful. This, of course, suggested a very sudden turn of events, and I wrote a scene that accomplished exactly that.

Sometimes it is better for a character to change only gradually, or to remain steadfast as the world changes around them instead, but in my case I need a sharp turn. Come back on Thursday to see how that change carries through towards the end of the tale.

First You Were There, Now You Are Here

black framed eyeglasses map in book
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A literary hero usually changes over the course of their story. That probably isn’t a new idea to you. In fact, I have already discussed how the heavy use of adventure in many stories is usually an allegory for how we wish to change in real life. I have also discussed how stories capture our yearning to become our best selves.

In other words, there are things that we cannot do right now that we wish we could. And we hope that one day we might become the person who can do them. For today I’d like to take a closer look at that gap, and how stories establish how what the hero accomplishes at the end, would have been impossible for them to fulfill at the beginning.

Of course, not all stories are this way, there are always exceptions. A comforting pleasure of many serials is to return to the familiarity of characters who are exactly the same as when you last left them. Sherlock Holmes is an excellent example of this.

Right from the beginning, Shelock is already at his optimal level of skill and he can already crack the toughest of cases. He has no development necessary. We enjoy spending time in the presence of such a marvel, and each return to his flat is as cozy as it is exciting. And so things continue, from one rollicking adventure into the next, Holmes all the while incapable of being defeated by another.

That is, of course, until he is.

In what was meant to be the conclusive episode, Sherlock finds himself locked in a battle of wits with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Though Holmes has made the occasional misjudgment in the past, he has never lapsed in a moment that presented any actual danger. Now, though, for the first time, both his and Watson’s life are in very real jeopardy.

He is upset at himself for having compromised Watson’s safety, and so when an opportunity arises for Watson to escape, Holmes insists upon it…even though he knows it lessens his chances of emerging from the following struggle alive. Like a chess player that has lost the necessary pieces to win, Holmes is playing only for the stalemate. That is exactly what happens as he and Moriarty meet another by a waterfall and plummet to their mutual doom together.

Frankly an ending like this seems impossible from the beginning of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. So much time is spent establishing how flawless his mind is, so that anything less than a total triumph would have felt incomprehensible. And without a doubt, if the case of Moriarty had come up at that time, Holmes would have won the contest outright, because he was incapable of being incapable at that time.

But over the course of time, Sherlock became more like the rest of us. He has moments of warmth and consideration, sweet episodes that gradually make him a human being, instead of just a calculating machine. He is like a god, turned mortal through prolonged association with them. It is a transformation that is so subtle that we may not realize it is even occurring, right up until we read the shocking conclusion…and after a moment’s consideration decide that we are okay with it.

There another example of this sort of transformation in the film Minority Report. Here we are introduced to John Anderton, a police chief who lives in a future that has virtually eradicated murder. This is accomplished by use of premonitions that identify the crimes before they are committed, allowing would-be perpetrators to be arrested before they actually commit the act.

Of course things take an unexpected turn when the next premonition comes in, stating that John Anderton himself is going to commit a murder in thirty-six hours. His victim is a complete stranger, and the accusation seems entirely improbable. He simply is not the sort of person who could do such a thing. As such, he resists arrest and sets out on a mission to clear his name.

As we follow his exploits, we learn that he is carrying some deep wounds from his past, ones that have reduced his life to a hollow husk of the joy it once held. In time we learn that the man John is predicted to murder is unexpectedly connected to that past, and is directly responsible for all of his old wounds. Just like that, what had before seemed impossible becomes entirely probable. John, himself, asserts that he is going to kill this man.

But then he doesn’t. When the predestined moment arrives, John exercises his freedom to choose, and decides to not become a killer. And so what has up to this moment been presented as impossible: that the murder-sensing premonitions could be wrong, is now known to be possible.

Too often character development is shoehorned into a story because the writer believes it is supposed to be there. It is a season that is added as an afterthought, rather than as a core element. These stories, though, are ones where the change was absolutely fundamental to the narrative being told. There simply was no story without them.

In my latest short story, I have introduced a man that has happened across a curiosity. He has gained the power to create whatever it is he wishes. While that is an interesting premise, an interesting premise is not a story. I have only included the curious power because it is also a vehicle for his change, which change is the real point of the entire tale. Like Moriarty to Holmes and the premonition to John Anderton, the my character’s discovery of this creative power is a catalyst to help him become the person he must be. Help him become the person that he is not now. Help him do the things that he cannot now. Come back on Thursday as we push closer to this evolution.