Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Must the Main Character Always Change?

In preparing for this year's NaNoWriMo I've been reading a lot of writing advice hoping for inspiration.  One piece of advice that frequently gets cited is that when planning your story, the writer needs to decide how the main character is going to change.  It's pretty much assumed by many that without some sort of change, you don't even have a story.  But is this true?  Must the main character change?

James Bond has been cited as a character who never changes.  The man at the beginning of the story is pretty much the same person as the man at the end of the story.  While that's true, it might be argued that that James Bond stories are really about the villains.  At least they always seem to learn the lesson at the end that evil doesn't pay.

I can think of a better example, one you probably haven't heard of.  It not only demonstrates how an unchanging character can work, but be just as emotionally satisfying--if not more--than a story where a character changes.  It also explains what others really mean when they offer that other bit of advice: "Find the worse thing that can happen and make it happen."

Trigun is an old western style anime set in the future on a colonized world.

I know what you're thinking: "You want to talk about the craft of writing and you bring up a silly kids cartoon?" It may at times be silly, but its certainly not just for kids. Bear with me.

The main character, Vash, first appears as a bumbling goof-ball caught in a case of mistaken identity during a manhunt for an extremely dangerous criminal. He gets caught in situations with lots of gun play and somehow manages, seemingly through sheer luck, to not only survive but keep anyone else from getting killed.


It turns out he's not only a real gunman, but the best there ever was...and something of a pacifist. His goofy act is simply an attempt to disarm people-so to speak. Over the course of the series you find out just how committed he is to not letting anyone die as increasingly powerful bounty hunters come after Vash, yet he continues to save the innocents caught in the crossfire at increasingly higher personal costs.  

[even bigger spoilers]

The whole series is really a philosophical discussion been Vash and his brother Knives (Don't you just love his name?) as to whether violence and death are an inherent part of the universe.  (See what I mean about this not really being a kid show?) 

[end of spoilers and back to the main point]

Vash does have a momentary fall from grace where he is put in an impossible situation and appears to compromise his beliefs. But though it nearly destroys him (and me, just watching it) Vash reaffirms his beliefs in the final confrontation with his brother, remaining true to himself. It is his lack of change that makes the end so triumphant. 

If anyone changes in this story (aside from the character of Nicholas D. Wolfwood) it is the viewer, whose understanding of Vash changes as he/she gets an increasingly deeper understanding of who Vash really is. 

So why does this story work without change? 

It goes to that other bit of poorly worded advice, "think of the worst thing that can happen to your character and make it happen." The worst thing that could generally happen to a person is to be killed or rendered helpless and tortured, neither of which would make a good story. What the advice should be is "find out what your character believes in or stands for and test their commitment to that belief. Find out just how much they're willing to suffer or sacrifice to hold on to it." 

Most characters will be flawed and as a result will change. But in those rare cases where a character represents an ideal, you may not want that character to change, but you'll still want to see how much he/she will suffer to hold to that ideal. I'n the case of Vash the Stampede, Vash the Humanoid Typhoon, it turns out he will suffer quite a lot.