Characters should have the potential to change, everyone agrees on that. One kind of change is the highly dramatic change I mentioned in the previous section, when someone becomes conscious of the truth about themselves. Other kinds of change are slower, under the influence of new learning and knowledge. The very opposite of dramatic change is change by self-forgetting.
I’m thinking of the way we move on from particular periods of experience: bad relationships, sad events, times of triumph, phases of obsession. Sometimes we look back on earlier periods of our life and it truly seems that the past is another country. We’ve left behind the person who had those experiences.
‘Give it time’, people say about healing from bad relationships and sad events, and that’s so exactly right. Nothing has to happen; the passing of time alone is enough to efface aspects of our lives and personalities.
I suspect that self-forgetting is just about the biggest factor in real-life character change. But not in novels. I know I tend to avoid it, especially since my novels usually run over too short a time span, a couple of months at most.
Also, self-forgetting can’t be shown. You can show someone becoming aware of something about themselves, but you can’t show them losing awareness. Self-forgetting isn’t an event.
Nor can you make the reader actually experience it. It would be a strange and unsatisfactory novel where we’d forgotten the beginning by the time we reached the end. As readers, we remember and accumulate the whole of the novel in our minds. We comprehend the arc of a novel’s story in a way that we can never achieve for our own lives. Perhaps that’s why we enjoy novels?
When something happens over time but not in any particular moments of times, telling it is the only way to go –
‘Over the next year, Janey stopped worrying about her mother’s constant harping criticisms …’
Or retrospectively –
‘A year ago, that kind of comment from her mother would have eaten away at Janey’s confidence, but not any more …’
Hmm … not very inspiring illustrations. Hopefully, you’d do the telling more effectively—so effectively that you’d persuade readers to change their expectations about Janey and actually create a revised sense of her personality.
I probably haven’t said a single useful thing in this section. Interesting to think about, though …