How much can your lead character change over the course of a novel? Can his values, ambitions, and goals change — or should they remain locked in place?
Beka posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hey Randy I’ve got a question I’m hoping you can help me with. I’m reading through your “Writing Fiction for Dummies” book and am having trouble understanding the whole “values – ambition – goal” thing.
I understand what each of these mean in regards to character development, and I can come up with a good set of conflicting values that branch into ambition and goals. My problem comes when I start thinking about those goals as they pertain to the inciting incident.
It seems like the character’s values, ambition, and goals can be one thing at the start of the story, and then something completely different once that first plot point comes around that changes everything for the character.
In creating a character’s values, etc., should we be thinking about what his goals are after that first plot point, at story start, or both? I’m stumped.
Randy sez: Beka is referring to Chapter 7 of my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. I should say here that my thinking on all this was heavily influenced by the book GETTING INTO CHARACTER, by my friend Brandilyn Collins.
As a side note, the May issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine had a long article on the values, ambitions, and goals of the two lead characters in THE HUNGER GAMES. If you’re unfamiliar with values, ambitions, and goals, this article is a good place to start because it’s free.
The essential question here is what changes in the character over the course of a novel? Values? Ambitions? Goals? All of the above? None of the above?
Let’s start with values. I define values to be the essential “core truths” that a character believes.
As an example, the Godfather in Mario Puzo’s novel THE GODFATHER has one core value that I would express this way: “Nothing is more important than respect.” The Godfather is a man of respect. That’s how he earns his living. If you take away his respect within his community, then you take away his life.
I believe that values are so central to a character that they are rarely going to change. They may have to defer to some other value. The character may have some radical, life-changing epiphany that causes him to reevaluate his value.
But a value is a very deeply held belief, and it’s not going to change willy-nilly as the plot of your novel unfolds.
What about ambitions? An ambition is an abstract thing that a character wants to have or to do or to be.
In the Godfather’s case, his ambition is simply to be a godfather to his community — a man of respect who provides for his people and protects them from the malicious and capricious government, which cares very little about poor Sicilian immigrants.
The Godfather’s ambition follows naturally from his value. If nothing is more important than respect, then it’s a fine thing to be a man of respect. And a man of respect takes care of those who pay him the honor of their respect. The Godfather’s relationship to members of his community is a patron-client relationship.
Once again, I think that ambitions are so central to a character that they’re rarely going to change during the course of the story. It’s possible, of course, but this is rare.
What about goals? I define a goal to be a concrete thing that represents the ambition. What does it mean for Vito Corleone to be a godfather?
It means that when a poor widow comes to him for help when she is evicted by her evil landlord, Vito intervenes at his own expense, at no charge to the widow.
It means that when a baker in his community needs proper immigration papers for his future son-in-law, Vito finds the correct Congressman to bribe and makes the needed connections.
It means that when a Sicilian trusts in the American justice system and finds himself cheated, he must come on his knees and beg forgiveness from the Godfather — and only then will he get the justice he could have had from the first, if only he had shown proper respect from the beginning.
Each of these is a minor working-out of the Godfather’s ambition. Each of these is a small goal appropriate to a single scene in the novel.
As for the large-scale goal of the novel, that can and does change as circumstances change.
Early on, the Godfather’s primary goal is to find a suitable heir for himself. His two older sons are made of the wrong stuff to be a Godfather. His youngest son, Michael, is made of the right stuff but he has morals, and the Godfather sees that it’s hopeless to try to change him. The Godfather must look elsewhere for an heir, and he needs to act soon.
But goals can change. When the Godfather is shot and nearly killed by his arch-enemy Sollozzo, his clan vows revenge. Nobody has a good idea exactly how to get it. Then that pesky moralistic third son, Michael, volunteers.
Michael offers to murder Sollozzo, and his corrupt cop ally. Michael has morals, yes, but one of Michael’s values is that blood is thicker than morality.
Michael succeeds, and now he’s on the run, because a cop-killer can’t get off with a little bribe to a congressman. Michael goes into exile in Sicily. The Godfather gets well and regains control of his business.
That now resets the Godfather’s goal for the rest of the novel. He will bring Michael home. He will get him off the hook on the cop-killing charge. He will make Michael the next Godfather. This is in line with his original ambition. It’s in line with his original values.
Goals often change over the course of a novel. But ambitions don’t change very often. And values hardly ever change.
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