1. Rick n Morty
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    Rick n Morty Active Member

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    Does EVERY protagonist need to change?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Rick n Morty, Jun 24, 2016.

    This is something I often have trouble with in my story ideas.

    You see, my older brother says that it's a REQUIREMENT that the protagonist has to change or learn a lesson in the course of the story, and whenever he criticizes a film, it's often due to the protagonist not developing the way he likes. (For instance, his problem with Beauty and the Beast is the fact that Belle is the same at the end of the film as she is at the beginning, and it's the Beast who grows and develops instead.)

    Anyways, that really discourages me with a lot of story ideas, like the dinosaur story I discussed here. Sometimes, I just can't think of something for the protagonist to learn that fits the story. I can sometimes think of something for the deuteragonist or tritagonist to learn, but not the protagonist.

    In the above-mentioned idea, I made a separate thread asking for suggestions on what Alex could learn, since I could think of development for Magnolia, but not him. No one replied, but I ended up coming up with one on my own.

    There are other ideas I've had, though, that I've had to abandon due to them being simple "protagonist saves the day" stories without the protagonist learning something or changing. Any tips for coming up with protagonist character development? Does it depend on the plot?
     
  2. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Pffft.

    Odds are that the characters will change, but I absolutely don't think that it's mandatory that you plan and structure it in. And the change doesn't have to be "learn a lesson"--that strikes me as a fairly simplistic definition.

    Some stories are about character change/development/whatever and also happen to have plot. Some stories have plot and also happen to be about character change/development/whatever. Some stories are both. Some stories are a wobbly-weavy combination of many things.
     
  3. Rick n Morty
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    Rick n Morty Active Member

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    Logically, I felt that way as well. Most of my stories are more plot-driven than character-driven.

    But I just wanted to make sure. I'm sure there's some great and beloved stories out there where the protagonist doesn't go through any obvious changes or learns any obvious lessons.
     
  4. X Equestris
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    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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  5. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    If the protagonist doesn't change in any throughout the story, then the only thing preventing them from solving whatever problem there is from go must be some sort of outside force. In a story where things are determined only by outside forces, the mc doesn't have much agency - they're just at the whim of plot contrivance. They can't act in meaningful ways until you, the writer, remove the obstacles all deus ex machina. That, or they never really face any obstacles because they're able to overcome everything immediately - they may not be 'perfect' but they don't need to change or learn or whatever in order to solve the main problem. Personally, I'd find either of those scenarios that pretty uninteresting. The plot might be interesting, but the characters are going to be less engaging.

    To be fair, I also prefer character-driven stuff. I want to see characters who change and grow, and a character who remains static - even if they're charming - is going to bore me.

    I don't think that purposefully writing a character who 'learns a lesson' is necessary, and IMO it is a pretty reductive blanket statement. But you're unlikely to write something quality where the character really doesn't change at all, even if you're not aware of it yourself, and even if it's not central to the plot. People change over time. If you're writing a realistic person, they're probably going to change.

    To use the example of Beauty and the Beast, you could say that it's Belle's existing virtues (er, whatever they are; it's been a long time since I've seen it. Compassion I guess?) that 'solve the problem' but the 'change' is that they're tested. She doesn't initially want to be compassionate to the Beast, and her character falters, but overcoming that and remaining true to herself is the solution, so being the same person at the beginning and end could conceivably be the point - ie suffering/hardship didn't change her and she remained Good(tm), which I think is a pretty stock Disney princess movie moral, actually.

    eta: Honestly, I think that almost anything someone considers a 'requirement' in writing (short of basic stuff like ... I dunno, words) has exceptions. There might be some validity, something helpful to glean from "all stories need XYZ" statements, but don't take it as gospel. Especially if you get that from what I've just said, because lord do I ever not know what I'm talking about.
     
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2016
  6. X Equestris
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    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think OP means "no change at all", but is rather referring to some big transformative arc, whether it be positive or negative.
     
  7. Auger
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    Auger Senior Member

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    If the story is about the character, there should be some change. If the character is just a medium to explore the plot, then he/she doesn't really have to change.

    I still prefer a dynamic character, though - just not an "I learned a cheesy lesson!" kind of development. A character's political opinions, ethics, and relations with other characters could change throughout the story to add an extra dimension to the plot.
     
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  8. Rick n Morty
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    Rick n Morty Active Member

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    What about stories where the protagonist doesn't learn a obvious lesson, but rather teaches the other characters something?
     
  9. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hm. Those, I think, tend to be annoying. There may be exceptions, maybe plenty of them, but in general, I'm thinking annoying.
     
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  10. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    Yeah, that's what I'm talking about in my first paragraph. If there's nothing for the MC to learn (it's a simplistic way to look at it but ehn), no room to grow, then the only things standing in their way must be nothing (which seems dull to me) or things outside of their control, which means they can't have much agency - they're just waiting for other character or random happenstance to fix things. Those might both be interesting stories, but I don't think they make for interesting MCs, personally.
     
  11. X Equestris
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    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd say that society itself could be standing in their way, and they can actively fight it.
     
  12. Rick n Morty
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    Rick n Morty Active Member

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    Anyways, in the dinosaur story idea linked above (which you can click on to read the basic synopsis for if you're confused about the following paragraphs), I couldn't think of any good development for Alex.

    I could think of development for Magnolia. I had her constantly jumping in and wanting to be the one who saved the day. But then after learning how to defeat Cletus, she decides to step aside to let Alex save the day instead, while she goes to free her brother who's been imprisoned by Cletus. But with Alex, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't figure out how he should change that would fit the story.

    I recently came up with the idea that at the beginning he only sees dinosaurs as vicious movie monsters...but after meeting Magnolia and learning how much losing her parents affected her and her brother, and how close she and her only surviving family member are, he warms up and starts to see dinosaurs in a different light. But I'm not sure if that's a GOOD kind of character development.
     
  13. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    That seems fine to me. But is it the kind of development you'd want to do? I'm always saying that the decisions people make about their plots should be what they actually want to do, not what someone else tells them is good. Despite what I've said previously I do think it's totally fine if you don't want to focus on your MC's development but instead on the story itself, the setting, the concept, etc. Forcing an aspect of the story just because you feel like you're supposed to isn't going to serve it well.
     
  14. Rick n Morty
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    Rick n Morty Active Member

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    Hmmm...

    Maybe Alex doesn't need any obvious personality changes. The focus of the plot is on how Alex, Poncho, and Magnolia will defeat Cletus and the obstacles they face on their journey to find the dinosaur professor. I will consider your advice and see what I ultimately decide to do with my concept. Thanks!
     
  15. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    Sometimes a character doesn't actually need to change, but to be challenged. Granted, this can lead to a degree of growth, but it isn't always something big and noticeable, as in the case of the Beast. But that small, subtle growth can make the next challenge easier. Belle was already pretty great as she was, but she was the necessary catalyst of change in others.
    And besides, what we see is a small (albeit eventful) slice of these characters' lives. People generally don't change in huge quantum leaps, but in small steps. Sudden trauma can trigger huge change, but for most people, they are mostly the same today as they were yesterday. Compare that person today to who they were ten years ago, though, and the difference is more noticeable.
     
  16. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    Go read The Martian. Nobody changes in that book. Pretty much at all. Every single character has pretty much the same set of opinions at the end as they do at the beginning. Not only is there no major arcs for the heroes, but there are no petty villains who get their comuppance and no downtrodden heroes who rise up above the red tape and save the day.
    (Note: Mindy Park grows more confident and smart-assy after being promoted and spending time around high ranking NASA guys, so she technically changes. That's about it.)
     
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  17. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    No. Sometimes characters learn something about themselves or the world but no change isn't necessary. Take Harriet the Spy - she's an arrogant, opinionated, entitled rich kid. At the end of the book even though her spy notebook has been discovered by her friends and they've read all her scathing observations - she apologizes because it's expected not because she's sorry. She learns sometimes you have to do things that are expected of you.
     
  18. Sack-a-Doo!
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    No, but (you knew there'd be a 'but' right?)...

    Someone will change. Stories are about struggle; they're about how people handle problems, and at the end of the day, if nothing (and no one) changes during the course of a story, you haven't got a novel, you've got an episode of The Simpsons (except for the episode where Flanders' wife dies).

    So, what it boils down to is that:

    • the protagonist will change, or
    • the protagonist will serve as a good example and influence someone else to change (but not necessarily the antagonist).
    Watch any John Wayne movie. Does John's character ever change? No way. He wouldn't be John Wayne if he changed. But people around him change. They find true grit, or become relentless in their pursuit of justice, or redeem themselves for a bad deed. In other words, he rubs off on people, shows them a better way to live their lives and someone in the story takes that to heart.

    So, on this point, your brother isn't as well-versed in storytelling as he thinks (and you can tell him I said so). As to Beauty and the Beast, it's another example of what I talked about above, but with Belle in place of John as the influencing protagonist. And this may be the only time you'll ever see someone compare John Wayne to an ersatz princess.

    When looking for a lesson you want a character to learn, look to your own life and find a lesson you learned. This works best because, having lived through it, you know the lesson from both sides. You know what not to do (and what that leads to) as well as how making the change in yourself lead to getting what you want out of life. Even if it's something as trite as learning not to touch a hot stove, you learned that you'll have less pain in your life if you don't.

    It can work either way. And, BTW, there's nothing wrong with a simple 'protagonist saves the day' story. If you look closely enough, there will always be someone in there who changed and, in rewrites, you can emphasis that if the story warrants it.

    And I'd say you might want to consider finding another first beta reader other than your brother. He sounds like a bit of a buzz-killer. ;)
     
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  19. Mikmaxs
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    Mikmaxs Active Member

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    Pedantic fan of True Grit here, I feel the need to point out that Rooster Cogburn absolutely does change. John Wayne's version actually in some ways has more change in the end: He's done an about-face on his depression and is doing horse tricks by the end, where in the beginning he was a sad, lonely old alcoholic with no place in the world.
     
  20. Sack-a-Doo!
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    And that may be the exception that proves the rule, as they say. However...

    I just watched the Jeff Bridges version recently and it's obvious in that one that Hailee Steinfeld is the MC (star billing be damned). She's the one with the true grit, the one who doesn't change, but through serving as an example, gets others around her to change. Perhaps it was the same in the John Wayne version?

    Or perhaps I just picked the wrong JW movie to illustrate my point. ;)
     
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2016
  21. Wreybies
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  22. Holoman
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    No, two words - James Bond. Bond is usually the same at the end as he is in the beginning, just with a few more scars.

    I think these types of story rely a lot on the antagonist, the audience has to get really invested in the antagonist being defeated, and good prevailing over evil. I don't think the protagonist really needs to learn anything to make a compelling story, though it can help.
     
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  23. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the takeaway from all of this is: a character needs EITHER an exciting obstacle OR exciting development, preferably both but always one or the other.
     
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  24. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    There are some stories that the characters, or some of them, don't really grow.
    It's more of their ideals and beliefs being challenged by a contradicting world.
    The characters don't learn or accept new ideas because it's to contrast different views and usually deals with ethical dilemmas or ideals the author wants to contrast and show different sides of.
     
  25. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Sometimes the whole point of a story is that the character does NOT learn a lesson and refuses to change. The one that jumps to mind is Gone With The Wind. Scarlett is the same person at the end as she was at the beginning. She is resourceful and become handier at dealing with life's difficulties, but she's not learned a thing in many other respects. She is still selfish, manipulative and thinks there is nothing she can't get if she wants it bad enough.

    "Tomorrow is another day."

    When Rhett leaves her at the end, Scarlett thinks she will be able to get him back, as she's done throughout the story, but we all know Rhett has reached the end of his rope this time. He no longer loves her, and there will be no coming back from that. Scarlett has failed to learn the most important lesson in her life, and her failure is what we take away from the story. Some people never change. We 'know' this, but sometimes it's hard to accept.
     
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2016
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