When we talk about a good story—whether book, movie or TV show—one of the quality criteria we often put forward is character development. What we mean by this is that the characters should grow to become better people over the course of the story arc. This makes sense. We want our heroes to learn something, to become stronger and braver and wiser.
But that doesn’t always happen in real life. We’re sometimes thick-headed, and not all of us obtain wisdom. So does a good story really need its main character(s) to develop?
I don’t think so.
Now before you tar and feather me, let me make myself clear. Most of the time, especially in today’s publishing arena, you must have positive character development. Especially if the book is written for entertainment and doesn’t strive to become the next great American novel, the characters need to grow and change for the better—otherwise, publishers won’t look at you twice. However, this isn’t the case for all literature. Some of the world’s most renowned stories tell of characters who don’t change, and this kind of narrative documents what happens because they’re stagnant, stubborn or continuously wicked.
One famous example is the beloved Peter Pan.
Mrs. Darling came to the window, for at present she was keeping a sharp eye on Wendy. She told Peter that she had adopted all the other boys, and would like to adopt him also.
“Would you send me to school?” he enquired craftily.
“And then to an office?”
“I suppose so.”
“Should I soon be a man?”
“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things,” he told her passionately. “I don’t want to be a man. O Wendy’s mother, if I was to wake up and feel there was a beard!”
Peter Pan and Wendy has risen into the children’s literary canon since its publication in 1911. If you wander into the classics section at Barnes and Noble, you’ll probably see a beautiful illustrated hard copy. Authors such as Dave Barry retell the story in book form, and we all know Disney’s 1953 animated adaptation. Clearly, the tale is both well-known and well-loved.
But Peter Pan doesn’t develop as a character. In fact, the whole story revolves around the fact that he never grows up. He never moves forward—he stays stubbornly at the age when throwing clods of earth is a great joke, and you only wash up for supper when forced. In fact, part of the tragedy (I think) of Peter Pan is this stagnation of his character. We’re meant to grow up, and the fact that our culture seeks after Peter Pan’s eternal youth speaks poorly of us. Little boys can be cruel and devilish—have you ever read Lord of the Flies?
But is Peter Pan still a good story? Absolutely. It has that irresistible appeal of a good tale, and readers have gobbled it up for over a century.
Other examples of stagnant literary characters include Ana in Ana Karenina, Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, Fyodor Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov and Lawrence Wentworth in Decent into Hell. All of these books are captivating and analysis-worthy, and part of the reason they’re interesting is because their main character doesn’t develop.
So should we judge a story by the amount of character development? Sometimes. If sloppy writing and story telling is the reason there’s no development, then absolutely it’s a black mark against the narrative. But if the lack of development is intentional, then it falls into a category of its own.
Can you think of other good stories with stagnant main characters? Post a comment!