Spoilers for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol!
In 3.2 Character evolution throughout a narrative,
we discussed static versus dynamic characters: dynamic characters, unlike static ones, change. In this guide, we’ll be discussing the rate
at which characters change, and what that means for your analysis of that change.
Generally speaking, characters change gradually, over a period of time. In real life, character development is a gradual process. Humans change gradually. Therefore, in order to make a character change realistic and believable, the character needs some time to change.
However, characters can sometimes change suddenly. This can be because of a dramatic change in circumstances, such as the death of a loved one or a dramatic catastrophe.
Other reasons why a character might change suddenly are…
The change is only temporary, or is a reaction to a dramatic event. For example, a character who has recently failed to achieve their goal might become bitter and low-spirited in response to the loss, but that bitterness might go away with time.
The character is only pretending to change, and actually hasn’t.
The change is caused by supernatural forces, such as a demon possession or magical potion.
In 7.5, we’ll be discussing the pacing of a story at more length, but it’s important to mention it here, briefly, in order to discuss the rate of character changes.
The pacing of a story is the manipulation of time of a narrative. Sometimes a story will speed time up — for example, by incorporating a timeskip. Sometimes a story will slow down individual moments for emphasis.
How does this impact character change? A character may change gradually to us but quickly in their own universe. A classic example of this is Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. Although we as the reader can see how Scrooge gradually changes from a miser to a generous man because we see the events of the story as he does, to the other characters Scrooge has made a complete 180 overnight! The converse can be true as well: a novel might tell us something like: “Although he hated her guts the last time we saw him, he had come to love his daughter-in-law over the last five years.” This change is gradual to the characters in their own universe, but only a few sentences to us.
You’ll see both types of character change in the novels you read. However, if a character change is vitally important to a story, that change will most likely happen on the page.
If you’re having a difficult time tracking a character’s change, it can be helpful to look at where they are at the beginning, the end and certain intervals of the book. Going back to our A Christmas Carol example, we can look at Scrooge’s mental state at the beginning of the book, after the Ghost of Marley visits him, then after the visits by Christmas Past, Present and Future.
Oftentimes, the change is the result of a conflict of values that the character is faced with, and the change may hit upon themes of the wider work. A Christmas Carol has the major theme of greed and its negative effects: we and Scrooge see time and time again how Scrooge’s greed has hurt him and those he knows. Scrooge changes to be more generous in response to this experience.