On characters changing for the better and happy endings

A couple of weeks ago I read a blog post by Joe Abercrombie asking if characters always have to change for the better and if happy endings are absolutely necessary. Given that I’m reading Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers it seemed particularly relevant and I’m going to try to answer the questions.

Do characters need to change for the better? I forget where I heard it, but it has been said that that’s what a story is – a series of events that act upon a character and force them to grow. I’ve heard it said that if your main character isn’t different at the end then it isn’t a story. And it is true that in many cases a character is redeemed or potentiated by their journey. But not always.

Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey has been hugely influential and has been recommended to me by a wide variety of writing and non-writing acquaintances. I have struggled with applying it to Sacrifice (the work-in-progress), partly because Sacrifice is non-linear and partly because my protagonist is a bastard whose idea of being a better man is to be a richer, more powerful man. The Writer’s Journey is based around the concept that all story-telling is myth and this is where the requirement for positive change and happy endings comes from.

Myths aren’t just for entertainment. They are for teaching. Myths tell us how to be, what behaviours are acceptable and how we will be punished if we don’t conform. Myths are all about social control and maintaining the status quo. The protagonist’s change is usually in the form of growing up – accepting the responsibilities and duties of adulthood, accepting the rewards for conformity and giving up childish things. Other myths dwell on the punishments for wanting things that you shouldn’t want or doing things that you are told not to do. I simplify a bit.

Jungian psychology has raised mythic archetypes from widespread patterns of social organisation to truths about the human condition. But these are patterns derived from the stories and new stories will give rise to new archetypes.

As fantasy is the genre most closely aligned with myth there is perhaps a greater desire to see fantasy conform more closely to mythic structure. Ursula Le Guin, in her somewhat elitist essay ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’ describes fantasy as a journey into the subconscious and says that like psychoanalysis it will change you. (Ah, but change you into what exactly? Change can be good or bad.)

But that’s myth, where the farm hand grows inexorably into a just and righteous king, where a young girl opens a door she’s been told not to and sees that others who’ve trod that path have died horribly, where the young girl who is obedient and gentle and kind and passive gets rewarded with the big house and handsome husband. Myth tells us how the world works and it lies.

In real life, people try to change and they fail. Sometimes they try again and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes people spend a lifetime trying to change and their success is small or non-existent. Often people spend time trying to change the people around them imagining that it will make their experience better. Of course time and experience change people but not always for the better and not always with their awareness.

I think that learning does not always come best from a model of what to do. Sometimes an example of what not to do is more instructive. There are myths and stories that do this, that show what is lost from not taking the opportunity to change.

So does this mean that characters must change? No. I think that there must be the possibility for change and the story is in how the character responds to the possibility. The change can be good or bad and the response can be to change or not. I think that people are becoming more sophisticated (if only slowly) and more literate in the mechanics of story telling and myth making. (As a aside, I wonder if advertising is not the true descendent of mythology?)

Personally, I find fantasies of the ‘farm hand grows inexorably into a just and righteous king’ type superficial and immature. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t fun or well written, just that they are empty mental calories – candyfloss for the brain. I like a meaty exploration of the dynamics of change. It’s hard to become a different person and the people around you are often unsettled by it. It can seem as if the world conspires against any attempt to become a better person. A story that tells how a character reacts to these trials can be much more emotionally fulfilling.

On to happy endings. I resist the choice of happy or sad endings. Moral certainty is much less monolithic than it might have been in the past and our stories will reflect that. Right and wrong, good and bad, are not so easy to define in complex, intertwined relationships. The ‘good’ guy’s happy ending is the ‘bad’ guy’s unhappy ending. A story with several characters reacting to the possibility of change in a variety of ways will have an ambiguous ending. It will be shades of grey for most of the characters with some happiness and some loss.

I feel strongly that an ending must fit the story being told and sometimes we choose to tell stories that don’t end up in a happy place. It’s not so much about predictability as about internal logic. An ending can surprise the reader without losing a sense of rightness.

For the record, I think Best Served Cold presented it’s characters with possibilities for change and they each responded in their own way.

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