I created these people but I can’t control their votes!
Back in 2007 I received a rejection on my novel, That Demon Life. It was a bad rejection—the agent basically liked my book, and we corresponded for a couple of weeks, but then she finally said No. She turned the novel down because she felt there wasn’t enough movement in the protagonist of the book. She also really hated the epilogue.
I was more than bummed-out. This was a blow. I wondered if I should massively revise the book. And so I took a day or so and reread the manuscript and wrote a memo to myself about character changes in the book—or lack of character changes in the book. I was trying to get my feelings sorted out....
I forgot all about the memo until I found it yesterday on my hard drive….
Thoughts on Character Transformation in That Demon Life
1. There are structural impediments to large-scale change or character transformation in the novel. TDLtakes place over the course of a week (with an epilogue two weeks after that). The tight time frame limits how far any single person can be transformed, unless it’s Saul on the way to Damascus or something.
2. Many novels have characters who don’t change. Four examples that have influenced me:
A. War & Peace. Pierre’s happy at the end, and wiser, but he’s still the same kindly, bumbling, idealistic, over-intellectualized man he was 15 years earlier. Andrei is dead--so there's a change! Nicolas is an adult version of the young man he was, Marie has moved from having an overbearing father to having an overbearing husband, Sonya is likened to an energetic kitten in the opening and a content old housecat in the epilogue (okay, change, though still cat-like), and though Natasha has moved from a young girl concerned with singing and dancing and flirting around to a grown woman concerned with being a mother, does that really count as a transformation or is it a recognition of the aging process? When Denisov looks at Natasha, he still sees the 14 year-old, which says more about him than Natasha….
B. The Sun Also Rises. The whole fucking point of this book is that Brett & Jake will never ever change! Never ever!
C. A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius’s valve opens up and he hits the road—but he is going to be the same nut in New York that he was in New Orleans. (On the other hand: Ig’s mom does change, as do Jones and Levy….Ignatius could then be a catalyst for change?)
D. The Gay Place (“The Flea Circus”). Over the course of a busy week, Roy actually does some legislative work, helps out the governor, and kind of makes a commitment to Ouida, but he’s still the same lazy, sardonic drunk he was before….(Hmm, kinda TDL-ish?) Is the sorta-commitment a change? Don’t think so, not really….
3. EM Forster warns against privileging Round Characters over Flat Characters (I think; it’s been a long time since I’ve read Forster). This is only pertinent if you concede that a Round Character must have the“potential to change.” Though at any rate you need flat & round both….
4. People don’t change, anyway. I deeply believe this. Behaviors may manifest themselves in different ways over time, but the Person’s basic character remains the same. In striving for verisimilitude, the novel needs to remain true to human character (or at least true to my perception of it).
5. Desire for character change a reflection of the aspirations & wish-fullfillments of the reader? Should I care and if so how much?
In the end, I didn’t do any revisions. I even kept the epilogue. I liked That Demon Life—it was the book I wanted to write. I still like it….