It would be irresponsible to suggest that one could craft a story without character development. Stories without this growth ultimately fail in the delivery of the Author’s intended message. Yet there are deeply meaningful stories that have at their core a character who seemingly does not change.
When first exposed to the polarizing concepts of the changing hero and the steadfast hero, many Authors make the mistaken assumption that the latter does not grow, that they don’t “learn” anything. It is clear how the former fits into the commonly accepted notions of character-arc and Protagonists and how they’re supposed to develop, but the latter often lends itself to more confusion. After all, characters who don’t change end up uninteresting and lifeless, right?
Without Growth A Story Reaches Us Stillborn
Stories fall flat without character development. Having sat through screenings of Iron Man 2 and The Informant, I can personally attest to the veracity of such a statement. The thing is, it isn’t so much that an audience wants the hero to learn something or to have a satisfying “arc” as it is that without this growth, the mechanism on which the Author’s argument sits breaks down from a lack of structural integrity.
The act-by-act transitions that are a natural occurrence within great stories exist because the efforts to solve the problems at hand must adapt to new and ever-changing contexts. This is The Reason for Acts. They signify that the exploration of problem-solving in one area has been exhausted; time to move on to a new one. If the hero did not grow and adapt accordingly the whole purpose of the story would come into question.
Steadfast heroes are not exempt from this growth.
Evolving By Standing Resolute
Contrary to its rather imposing title, a Steadfast hero grows. With the passing of each Act, this kind of character digs their heels in deeper and deeper, bolstering their stance in response to the rising tension. The Steadfastness here refers to their final Resolve in the moment of crisis: do they change the way the way they are doing things or do they maintain the course? In other words, it has more to do with the final result, rather than the process that brought them there. Getting there requires just as much personal change and adaptation as can be seen in their Changed cousin.
Structure Provides a Clue to the Author’s Intent
In How to Train Your Dragon where would Hiccup be if he continued to sit and stew about how unfair his situation was, when all around him there were Vikings who were adapting to their new training and to the discovery of a really big bad dragon? Beyond simply being a boring movie, there would be no point to the visceral three-dimensional action/adventure. But he did grow. He took a stance to protect these dragons and act-by-act he put more and more of his back into that controversial stance. In doing so, he managed to find a way to overcome the bad reputation everyone had of him and managed to resolve his own personal problems.
What about Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams? That baseball field in Iowa would still be a cornfield, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) would still be hiding out in his apartment, Archibal ‘Moonlight’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) would never have had the chance to hit one in the majors, and Ray himself would never have had a teary-eyed catch with his father (sorry for the spoiler) if he didn’t continually trust those voices he was hearing in his head. Act-by-act (four to be precise), Ray has his approach challenged. Act-by-act Ray rises to the challenge. Even at the end, faced with the dual fruits of his folly—foreclosure and bankruptcy—Ray refuses to sell his farm. And as a result he heals the very real problem of the relationship with his long since past father.
In both films, the Authors were trying to communicate the appropriate way to solve a problem. Hiccup’s was resolved by a promise to protect, Ray’s was resolved by a refusal to question voices from beyond. While both were shown to be on the right track, not every Steadfast hero is. Just ask Randy the Ram in The Wrestler, Jake Gittes in Chinatown or Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. While each of these found a way to solve the larger problems at hand in their individual stories, personally they were taking the wrong approach.
The Audience’s Interpretation Tarnishes a Story
There really is no way around it: Audiences are going to draw their own conclusions from the story presented to them and there is nothing anyone do to change that. While Authors have something to say, it is the Audience who has to complete the transmission by interpreting the story’s events for themselves. This is where the problem comes with those who fear heroes who don’t “learn” something.
What a hero “learns” happens to be something an audience creates for themselves upon finishing a story. Assuming the story is complete and the hero has grown (a big assumption in an era when the most Hollywood requires of its heroes is that they have a built-in audience, preferably the type that nurtures a fetish for spandex), the audience will interpret the difference between where the hero ends and where they began as the adoption of some sort of knowledge. Thus, when Authors create a story they need not concentrate on developing something that is ultimately beyond their reign.
Heroes Do NOT Have to Learn Something
Last week the distinction was made between heroes who grow by learning and heroes who grow by teaching. In that article, the purpose of story was shown not to be to teach the central character something revelatory, but rather to argue that a particular way of solving a problem is either right or wrong. Offering an audience the chance to experience problem-solving and its corresponding results from within the eyes of this character and simultaneously from without is the power of complete stories. It gives an Author the opportunity to argue their unique perspective in a way that simply can’t be done in real life.
This is the power of great stories.
Authors should worry less about what the audience interprets from their story and more about making sure their message is as succinct and as clear as the passion within them is to create it. Make sure that the growth in approach moves with each act regardless of whether or not the end result is a change in approach. Leave the interpretation of said events to the Audiences out there who seek greater meaning in fiction. In the end, that’s what they truly want.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
This growth that a Main Character undergoes, whether they are Change or Steadfast, is covered in Dramatica with the concept of Main Character Growth. Once referred to as the Main Character’s Direction, this appreciation describes the course a Main Character will take on their way to their final Resolve. The two choices are Stop and Start and are covered in more detail in the article Applying Pressure to the Main Character.
As far as solving the problems within the big picture story, yet failing personally (as in the examples of The Wrestler, Chinatown, and Romeo and Juliet) it is important to differentiate between the Overall Story Throughline (the big picture part) and the Main Character Throughline (the personal part). Success in one end doesn’t necessarily mean a resolution in the other, and vice versa. The combination between the two determines a story’s Meaningful Ending.