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.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Thanks so much, Randy. You cleared it up perfectly 🙂
Jonathan Cain says
Interesting read here.
Just to play devils advocate, I am not entirely sure that I agree 100%- and the reason is that ambition and values are often times based on abstract ideas. Think about a man vs. self type conflict- the first thing that pops into my mind is the metamorphosis by Kafka- in these tyPes of conflicts, don’t value and ambition almost have to change? What if you were writing a book about racism in the deep south, and you had a white character who had grown up knowing nothing different, but then was confronted by the violence and somewhat illogical nature of racism, and decided that they needed to work for social change? I don’t know if that core racist value would still be there (even though that’s a good opportunity for internal conflict).
Also, what about ambition? I sort of feel like this is almost the least likely to change- because what if my ambition is to be left alone (ala the hunger games) but to do so requires me to go against my values and nature and become a symbol of a revolution that doesn’t even really care for me, or to kill other people? Maybe I suppress my values and nature a little it so that I can get what I want.”
I guess the way I always understood conflict is that it is the change that characters go through in a book (even though I think it’s not the best word to describe what’s happening) am I sort of feel like the way we manage these three aspects is one of the biggest ways that fiction either comes out feeling flat or robust.
Robert Gerton says
I’m new to the blog and also to the Ezine, but I’ve been absorbing as much as I can from older posts and back issues.
Like Jonathan, I would like to hear more about those exceptions where values do change. Racism is a fine example of a value that I could see cahnge over the course of time. Is this the sort of thign seen more in literary fiction?
Thanks so much for everything Randy.
Abraham O. says
Thank you Randy.
The impression I take here reminds of the Season film, “Alias“ by J.J. Abram. Pardon me if irrelevant. But, if it is, then I the Characters (Arvin Sloane, Sydney Bristow etc) did have their goals changing, values and ambition stabilized all through.
In my writings, I use two yardsticks but I‘m open to advice. First, my fictional character differ from what he should be in real life because only a part of his life comes into the plot. Once his values/ambition changes, I should be talking of another fiction, or I‘m ending the plot. Second, I try to foresee why I want readers to read it. Example, if a bad guy becomes good guy without he bringing another bad guy, I fall the curtain.
Preston Fuller says
This helped me out a lot, gave me a bit of reassurance about what I’m doing. Are there any major examples of a character’s values changing in a big-selling novel?
Brent Pope says
I’m just re-reading this and as I glanced over the second comment above, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t believe about about someone who valued the tenets of racism and changed midway through the book to value the opposite of that. I can definitely see that happening towards the end of the story, representing the change that takes place in the protagonist.