A couple of weeks ago was the fourth Leeds Big Bookend, marketed as a Rock Festival for words.
I managed to go to a couple of the events, the first being N E David’s discussion on the Changing Character of Fiction. NIck was questioning the necessity of a novel’s protagonist to go through an emotional journey and change as a person as a result of that journey. Is it in fact the plot of a story which is more important than the protagonist changing as a person? Does a character have to change to make a piece of literature valid?
NIck explained how many novels follow the four act structure.
The theory behind this is that drama increases as the plot progresses. The protagonist will have a crisis, fight the consequences of that crisis, have another crisis which will lead to the climax of the novel and be left changed as a result of what has happened to them.
Nick was questioning whether it is necessary for a story to have conflict and, if it does, whether that conflict needs to be resolved. Do you need to feel for the protagonist of a novel? Is the point of a protagonist to resolve conflict? Does a plot need to be about character change? Is there no point in a piece of work if the character does not change? He began to ask these questions as a result of his second novel, The Burden. He said that while in his first novel Birds of the Nile his protagonist changes greatly, his protagonist in The Burden does not change, which led him to question the nature of fiction.
Nick said that in his experience people generally do not change. They make promises to change, sometimes even put serious effort into it, however they do not change. He said he had even been told during a rare attendance at a writing workshop that this was why fiction was better than life!
We discussed protagonists in other works of fiction including Ebenezer Scrooge, Jay Gatsby and Billy Pilgrim. Scrooge undergoes a fundamental change overnight during Dickens’ novella, Gatsby changes himself in order to win Daisy around and Pilgrim doesn’t change, no matter where, or when, he is.
As well as whether or not change is vital to a novel’s structure, the discussion led me to consider the point on people changing in general. Do people really not change?
On this point I respectfully, but entirely disagree with NIck’s view and would state that everyone changes. Maybe not in the same way as they do in a novel, but people invariably change throughout their life. Very few people could be said to be the same person they were ten years ago.
Relationships change, tastes change, finances, location… there are an infinite number of factors which alter a person’s character. Life itself is infinite, which is why it can never be truly reflected in a work of fiction. As Robert Louis Stevenson pointed out in his essay, A Humble Remonstrance, life is infinite and illogical, while literature is confined in its limitation and a work is much stronger if everything ties together neatly at the end.
No work of fiction could depict an entire character as character is affected by people who are alive before an individual is born, and influences people who continue to live after an individual dies. During a lifetime one character will change many times, and will be seen differently by every individual they encounter, just as every reader of a piece of fiction will view the character differently. Therefore, even if the change in a character in a piece of fiction is not obvious, for example in flash fiction, the nature of which does not really allow for character development, that character will in fact change, every time they are read by another person.
So those are some of my thoughts on a topic which I personally found very interesting.
Thanks go to Nick David and the team at the Big Bookend.
Copyright, D M Day, 2015