Character Arcs: When You Don’t Need Them

vintage-1706208_640Think of Charles Dickens’ classic novella, A Christmas Carol. Imagine the end, after Scrooge has reformed, if a few changes were made. Let’s say Bob Cratchit insists on working on Christmas anyway because throughout the story he has been hardened by his life and now sees no reason to go back. When Scrooge surprises his nephew, the young man throws him out on the street angrily and says he’s done with festivities forever.

I didn’t change much there. The three ghosts, the plot, and Scrooge were untouched. All I did to create the disturbing and uncomfortable scenario above was fit it to meet modern popular literary standards. I gave everyone a story arc and developed their characters further. I made them change! So… why is the story so horrible now? Aren’t characters supposed to change?

Lately, I’ve seen several posts online about the importance of character arcs and how you should fit as many as possible into your story. People change and develop, so why shouldn’t characters? Wouldn’t that make them more relatable, and the story more honest and real?

Well… not always. There is a time and place for characters to change. That’s why we all like Scrooge’s transformation. But there are other occasions where keeping a character unchanged is more powerful, more effective, and ultimately more fascinating for your readers. People like Tiny Tim for being a sweet little boy. They like James Bond for being an awesome spy, and they like how Dana Scully is always skeptical of Fox Mulder’s ongoing suspicions and beliefs. They don’t change, but they’re not boring!

Why is this? There is an alternative to making your characters change so that the reader will stay interested in them. One thing I’ve noticed is that successful writers don’t tell readers everything at once. They don’t always hold things back in suspense, but they choose when to reveal what information. In the beginning of A Christmas Carol, readers are told nothing about Bob Cratchit’s family life and daily woes. Viewers of X-Files start watching the show knowing nothing of Mulder except that he has the nickname “Spooky Mulder” based on his unconventional beliefs–the drama of his sister’s abduction is revealed slowly, over seasons. The characters themselves don’t change. It’s our perception of them. And that’s what keeps them interesting.

This isn’t to say that you should keep to static and unchanging characters. You can determine how much change is too much, and how much your readers will like coming back to the same character every time they open the book. Sometimes change is good–just don’t get carried away.

What are your thoughts on this? Is it ever a good idea to not give a character a story arc? Are any of your favorite characters relatively static? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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