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Somebody recently posted a link to Libbie Hawker's new book Take Off Your Pants! I bought a copy and read through a good bit of it. It's a good book and certainly a useful resource, but I'm struggling with one of Libbie's central premises - that all good stories involve a character overcoming flaws, and thus undergoing an internal change. I won't argue that this is true for many stories, and is certainly a powerful way to connect with the readers - but I question the universality of it.

I agree that characters ought to have flaws - as nobody is perfect and this makes them more relatable and human. But do they have to change to rid themselves of these flaws?

Is it more accurate to say that the more general underlying story-form is a character trying to achieve a goal (that is important to them), and has to overcome obstacles (in the form of conflict) on their way to achieving that goal. In other words, does it really have to be an internal change? Do they really have to overcome the flaw?

I am especially interested in what series/serial writers think about this. I'm working on a very long series, and while the character certainly learns things along the way and changes in subtle ways, I can't really have him overcoming a flaw in every Episode when I plan on going as long as 120 Episodes.


 

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I'd say it depends on the genre and the length of the book and series. I'm also writing a long series and the arcs I'm working on for each major character include incremental changes episode to episode, adding up to bigger changes down the road.

There are series where the characters don't really change from book to book--I'm thinking of the various men's adventure books like the Executioner, and most western series. The character is consistent from book to book and might gain a new insight, but is mostly solving a problem and then moving on to the next book and the next plot.

For a series, I'd have a character working toward overcoming a flaw, but not necessarily beating it in one installment. An alcoholic doesn't magically get better overnight. A drug addict doesn't beat the addiction. Someone afraid of heights doesn't get over the fear by going bungee jumping once. You can have a flawed character make incremental positive and negative changes to their flaw.

I think Libbie was going for more traditional length novels with her discussion in the book, which makes sense--I think the expectation from a commercial-length work is that you're telling a complete story in one go.
 

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I have the book, and I think a lot of it makes sense but I have to say I'm also having a problem with the character arc. I think perhaps with a series it has to be a very gradual change.
 

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There is a certain kind of character that doesn't need a character arch.  They tend to be the ones that feature in a lot of different stories: Sherlock Homes. James Bond. Jessica Fletcher. It's possible to create satisfying characters that don't change.

Also, I don't find characters that overcome their flaws all that compelling because that's not my own experience. Most of us learn about ourselves, change a bit, back slip, discover a whole new way that what we thought was a strength is actually a flaw...and so on.

Internal change can be very compelling, but it doesn't have to be "overcome a flaw". For example, it can be that a character recognizes their flaws for what they are, but discover new strengths they did not know they had...and then come up against the fact that those strengths make life complicated...and then figure out that these complications are what makes life interesting...and then they lose confidence because...and so on...and so on.

 

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No, a character does not have to shed their flaws. Unless that is the point of the story, and the result of "the Quest" of the story is the character becoming a "better" person. But the best characters don't shed their flaws, they learn from them, or learn to manage them (or not). What the character must do is undergo a journey. Life at the end should not be the same as life at the beginning. Something has changed. Perhaps the character has changed. Perhaps the character has changed someone else, or changed the external environment. Technically you could write a story where nothing changes, but that is way too French cinema depressing for me to get into.

If you are writing a serial, I would think of the serial parts like a novel's chapters. Each works best as a self containing story, but the main character's story arc (and their change, whatever that is) happens across the whole serial, not just in each part. Just like a novel will see a character change across the novel, but not necessarily in every chapter.
 

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I think a character arc requires a character to change, but I don't think that necessarily means they have to overcome flaws in ways that make them a better person. For example, in the Breaking Bad TV series, Walter White's character certainly grows and changes, but not in a good way.
 

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I'm of the thought that, yes, the main characters should change. Are you honestly the same person you were five or ten years ago, knowing the things you know? It's human nature to go through personal trials and tribulations and come out on the other side different. Your personality doesn't necessarily change, but your perspective on certain things will.

I always think back to middle school and learning about "dynamic" and "static" characters.
 

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We used to advise new writers that, especially in a short story, the MCs must learn something about themselves and be changed in some way at the end of the story. This is what turns an incident into a story.

But I agree that characters in a series, especially a detective series, would be less likely to go through changes.
 

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A detective character in many cases is a bit of a cypher. A lot of mystery stories aren't about the MC as such, but are external plot-dependent. The detective is kind of extraneous to events. Not always, of course, but sometimes. Did Sherlock Holmes have a character arc? I'm not sure he did.
 

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Depends on what you're writing. For drama, you always need change. For action, mystery or horror, it's unneccessary. The action is the point of the story. As another poster said, look at James Bond. Or Tarzan. Superman. Batman... the list can run on and on. Some characters don't need to change, but what they face needs to.
 

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In Libby's genres, yes change is the driving force.    Other genres not so much.
I love Libby to death she is a fantastic person.
Now having said that remember she is one author giving her opinion on what works for her.  Same goes for Stephen King and adverbs.  If the idea fits your book then use it, if not leave that idea for someone else.

The only true rule to being a writer is actually getting your ideas out of your head and onto paper/document.
 

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They naturally change, or rather grow, but not always for the best. They don't always overcome things or learn a lesson, just like we don't always.
 

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Since Sherlock Holmes has been mentioned, I started thinking about the two TV series running now - "Elementary" (US) and "Sherlock" (UK)

To me, the Holmes character significantly changes in "Elementary". We see him become a better person, although not in every episode. That makes me feel a strong connection with the character.

I feel that Holmes in "Sherlock" is fairly static. His personality did change a bit in season 3. However, there were so many things I hated in that season, I'm going to pretend it doesn't exist. In "Sherlock", I'm more interested in the crime, the puzzles. If I'm connected to a character, it's Watson.

But, I enjoy both series. I guess that shows there's more than one way to skin a cat.
 

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Very good points brought up by the OP. No, the character does not have to change. That's not an opinion, that's a fact. I have multiple (GREAT) books on my shelf (considered great by critic and reader alike) that possess characters, even central characters, that do not change and overcome flaws. The First Law Trilogy features many characters that remain stuck in their ways...and it's one of the greatest series I've ever read.
 

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It's more about the small moments than the big picture. We authors tend to think about the big picture a lot, but I think the magic happens in the small moments, so even having a character go against their usual choices in one scene can give a lot of enjoyment to the reader. It's more about the newness and the experiment and the what-if, because that's where you get the boost of dopamine. Looking back over things and acknowledging bigger changes that happened over a longer period is fine, but not thrilling for the readers in the moment. I'd save it for the final pages, though.
 

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Daniel Knight said:
I am especially interested in what series/serial writers think about this. I'm working on a very long series, and while the character certainly learns things along the way and changes in subtle ways, I can't really have him overcoming a flaw in every Episode when I plan on going as long as 120 Episodes.
I'm working on my fourth book in a series, and the changes I make is more to do with age. A twenty-year old will act differently than a thirty-year old, but not necessarily because they changed much. It's more that they are aware of how their actions make other people perceive them. Flaws do not disappear in my stories. They are just concealed more. It's interesting to re-create a situation and have the character act differently because they know the outcome if they don't.

That doesn't mean they do not suddenly regress back to their old ways. Often my characters will change their ways when they are with one special person while they carry on being selfish jerks around others. That way you can show not only what they are capable of, but also how long it will take for them to change for real. A little like Malcolm Merlyn in Arrow. 8)
 

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Having a character change is a lot more important in genre fiction than it is in literature. And even within genre fiction, it's more important in some genres than others. You want your MC to change in romance for example, but it's probably less important in a mystery or thriller.

So I guess the simplest answer is no. :p
 

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Changing doesn't necessarily have to mean fixing flaws. What matters is that they are affected in some way by the story so that it has some level of meaning beyond 'stuff happened'.
 

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Vaalingrade said:
Changing doesn't necessarily have to mean fixing flaws. What matters is that they are affected in some way by the story so that it has some level of meaning beyond 'stuff happened'.
I agree. And changes don't have to be "big" or even "life-changing" smaller character ARCs can work, too.
 

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Scott_SA said:
Since Sherlock Holmes has been mentioned, I started thinking about the two TV series running now - "Elementary" (US) and "Sherlock" (UK)

To me, the Holmes character significantly changes in "Elementary". We see him become a better person, although not in every episode. That makes me feel a strong connection with the character.

I feel that Holmes in "Sherlock" is fairly static. His personality did change a bit in season 3. However, there were so many things I hated in that season, I'm going to pretend it doesn't exist. In "Sherlock", I'm more interested in the crime, the puzzles. If I'm connected to a character, it's Watson.

But, I enjoy both series. I guess that shows there's more than one way to skin a cat.
I was referring to the books. In the books, as far as I know he doesn't change or grow at all. Ditto a number of other detective characters I can think of, like Hercule Poirot.
 
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