Dear Writers, Welcome the New Year with Change

Hey, it’s 2014! I have a lot to look forward to, like a royalty statement that will definitively answer the question, “How’s Elisha Barber doing?” And the release of Elisha Magus in July, which I’ll be sure to talk lots more about later. Also a visit to London for Loncon 3, the World Science Fiction Convention in August (with a stay in a castle, ’cause, why not?).

I hope many of you have some good stuff to look forward to as well. For most folks, the start of a new year is a time for reflection and resolutions. And I’d like to encourage the authors of my acquaintance to take “Change” as a theme for their work in the months ahead.

You see, as a reader (often as a critiquer of the works of writing buddies)I am becoming increasingly frustrated with a lack of change. So many of the stories I’ve been reading have no change from the beginning to the end. The protagonist remains unaffected by the events of the tale, the world is fundamentally the same at the end as it was at the beginning, even the reader, who, in the literary world, is meant to feel the change in their own perspective or understanding of the situation, is left unmoved by whatever has just occurred.

In many cases in these stories (some of them published, some of them not), there is, in fact, no character who has the ability to change the direction of the plot. Stuff happens to them, and they react to it in some small or ineffectual way, and remain as they were, perhaps victims of events, perhaps merely observers of them. To me, this is the most egregious lack of change–that wherein the character never, in fact, had the power to change themselves or anything else. Why would I want to invest my time reading about such people? I certainly wouldn’t want to write them.

Fantasy is often a genre of transformation, and most of these transformations take the small, weak or powerless and give them access to the power to change their world–and themselves and the reader along with it. That’s a story readers return to over and over, whether it takes place in Middle Earth, or Panem, or platform 9 3/4. That’s the kind of thing we love. We want to worry and wonder if the character will succeed, if the powerless can take on that strength, if the power itself will become a problem.

But wait, aha, you say (especially those of you with a more literary or contrary bent) what if the story is *about* the inability to change? To that I say, “Waiting for Godot.” There is occasionally a work which explore themes of stagnation in a different, unique and exciting way. Very occasionally, and I’m not sure the market can sustain a whole lot of them. I think many authors (especially those who are more literary or contrary) think they will cleverly undermine the tenets of genre literature by crafting a tale in which–Ha, ha!–there is no change, no transformation, no development of swineherd into king, no magic which can save them, no planet safe to settle on. Ooh. Big twist–nothing changes!

Yawn. Get over it. It’s not clever any more. This is where the idea of change for the reader is key. If you are desperate to explore a world in which change is not possible and characters will not progress to a new place, then ask what effect you want to create for the reader. Take Fahrenheit 451 versus 1984 Each is based in a totalitarian society that thrives by controlling information. Each features a protagonist who is sparked to consider change. In the first, he succeeds by becoming part of a movement, a group that may be able to change the world. In the second, he fails, smothered by the system. Y’all probably remember which one you preferred to read in school, am I right? But they’re both great books, and 1984 succeeds because the author wants the reader to be the carrier of change, to root for his characters, to fear for them, to feel frightened and wary when they fail–and thus to be more vigilant in his or her own life.

So, if you can, be the change–embody the values you want to inspire in others. If you’re a writer, write about that. And if you’ve just got to write the story of the status quo, then make it stick to the reader like a burr he can’t shake, so that it’s the reader who is inspired to make the change.


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in character development, essays, fantasy, writing, writing advice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dear Writers, Welcome the New Year with Change

  1. Michelle says:

    The hope for change is the only reason I read Thomas Covenant all the way to the end, though by Book 4, I really wanted to whack him upside the head with a 2X4. Slogging through the rest in hopes the “whack” would come took forever……and now I have no desire to ever read Stephen R. Donaldson again.

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