Does Your Character Need To Grow?

One of the most common precepts of modern fiction writing is that your character needs to grow or change over the course of a novel (or series). If this does not happen, the overall enjoyment a reader will derive from your book will be diminished. This is said to be true even if the plot of your novel is exemplary.

This is why one hears often of the need for a character arc. It is a literary term for the personal development journey your protagonist is supposed to go through for your story to be complete.

But is this really the case? In the past, it sure wasn’t. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote a bushel of novels starring Perry Mason and dear old Perry didn’t change one iota throughout the lot of them. That didn’t seem to affect sales of Perry Mason novels, which were stratospheric. Gardner became a household name, and so did Perry Mason–both in books and on Television.

A similar lack of growth or personal development was common with other popular literary characters from that time period. They remained virtually the same, one novel after the next, and readers didn’t seem to mind. These characters maintained the same marital status (or lack thereof), never aged, and retained much of the same idiosyncrasies and frame of mind.

James Bond did not age throughout his appearance in Ian Fleming’s novels. His temperament remained virtually the same. He drank the same martini, bedded any beautiful woman in sight, and continued to fight villains with his British charm and aplomb. Still, the public gobbled up these novels, which gave rise to a host of movies, and James Bond became as immortal a character as any in fiction history. It seems that the enjoyment of the fantastical life of 007 was not adversely affected by his lack of personal growth.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t worry about whether your character is changing or growing? Not at all. Tastes and trends change with time. These days readers expect to know their characters a little better than they did in past decades. Readers want to learn their habits, their faults, their quirks, their relationships with minor characters who are not directly related to the plot of that particular novel. All these details appear to foster a better connection between reader and character.

But still, especially in action-filled novels, your character can be on the shallow side and still be widely admired–if your plot hits all the right emotional spots.

But you must avoid going to the other extreme and inundate the reader with trivia that will likely fail to interest him. This is fiction, not a biography, so the story needs to flow or your reader will choose another book with which to entertain herself.

It should also be stated that your protagonist is not obliged to undergo a total transformation. Especially if you’re planning on a series of novels, you need to pace the growth your character experiences, and to make sure this change stems from what the character goes through in the book. Otherwise, it might seem contrived.

I find that some characters feel incomplete unless they grow while others lose their luster if they do. For instance, I wouldn’t want James Bond to grow older and start complaining about arthritis. On the other hand, if your series is highly realistic, it will likely suffer if your hero does not change with time, as we all do.

The growth or lack thereof of your protagonist should match your book, its themes and mood. If it does, the readers will notice and appreciate it.