At a Bouchercon some years ago, Lee Child was part of a panel on characters in thrillers. An audience member asked him a question about character change. “Every character has to have an arc, right?”
“Why?” Child said. “There doesn’t have to be character change. We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”
Everybody in the room cracked up. Child went on to explain that he loves Dom Perignon champagne, and he wants it to taste the same each time. And so, too, he wants his Jack Reacher books to offer the same pleasurable experience every time out. Reacher doesn’t change. Reacher does his thing. It’s how he does it that provides the pleasure.
Later on, Michael Connelly was interviewed in a packed room. He talked about his decision at the beginning of the series to have Harry Bosch age chronologically. In each book Bosch is about a year older. And he has varying degrees of inner development. Talk about your arcs! The series is still going strong and it’s a wonder to behold.
So there you have it, a tale of two writers and two approaches, both of which work. They provide different experiences and readers can choose which they like best—or go with both, for variety.
When I teach about character work, I do say that a lead character does not have to change in a fundamental way. For example, in the film The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble does not become a new man. He does not have to discover his “true self.” What he has to do is grow stronger as he meets extraordinary challenges.
Similarly, Marge Gunderson in Fargo does not change, but shows her inner strength by solving a horrific crime, far beyond what she’s had to deal with before.
So in this kind of thriller, the character is already who he or she needs to be, but gets tested and finds new strength to endure.
A nice wrinkle to this type of story is when the Lead’s strength inspires another character to change. That’s what happens in The Fugitive. Kimble’s relentless search for the killer of his wife turns Sam Gerard from a lawman who “doesn’t care” about the facts of a case, to caring very much indeed.
In Casablanca, you have both kinds of change. Not only does Rick Blaine change radically, from a man who wants to be left alone to one who joins the war effort, but so does the little French captain, Louis. Rick’s act of self sacrifice at the end inspires Louis to leave Casablanca with Rick, and also fight the Nazis. It is, of course, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
One of the most important questions you can ask at the beginning of your novel is whether the main character will undergo fundamental change or not. If not, then the story is about the character growing stronger.
Keep in mind, of course, that in some novels the character resists fundamental change and ends up worse off at the end. Or has a negative arc, from good to bad, as in The Godfather. The various ending “shapes” I discuss in my book The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings.
Because unforgettable is what we want our books to be. Knowing the variations on character arc is an essential part of the process.
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.