Note: A version of this post appeared way back at the beginning of this blog, but since there were no comments made on that original post, and since most people reading this blog now didn’t even know it existed then, and since I consider it an important point, I’m going to rerun the basics with some added commentary.
Although I certainly recommend Storyteller, by Kate Wilhelm, there was one place where I strongly disagreed with her. She mentioned a male writer at Clarion who turned in a 10,000 word story about a hero and his battles. She then said: "The students loved it, called it exciting, and we said no. It was static. Nothing happened." She went on to explain that it was static because: "Something had to change, either in the character, in the situation, or in the reader." She is, of course, wrong! And I wonder how many fine reads have been nipped in the bud by such awful criticism.
I don't mean to downplay a character's evolution as a person. I love it when that happens. But what is wrong with a story that is just an exciting read? Edgar Rice Burroughs didn't have a lot of character development in his John Carter of Mars books but I certainly devoured them. I still remember them far more fondly than some stuff I've read where the character "develops."
In my opinion, Wilhelm is wrong for many reasons. 1) She admits that the students loved the story and found it exciting. In other words, the "readers" liked it and she's correcting them. How can a reader be wrong about what they like? 2) Male readers, in particular, enjoy action, and what's wrong with a work that appeals primarily to males? It used to be that most books were written for males. Now it seems that most books are written for women. I don't think either extreme is desirable. I certainly enjoy many books that my female friends like, and I enjoy some they don't. That fact doesn't bother me at all. 3) Relating to the story in question, there actually is change if Wilhelm thinks about it, change in the readers. If they experience a lifting of mood, an escape for a few minutes from their worries and cares, then they have been changed. Maybe they haven't had an epiphany, but how often do those come around anyway?
Books and stories touch us as readers for different reasons. I treasure Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard because it took me on a spiritual journey with its transcendent prose. I loved Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men because of the relationship between the characters and how they changed. I've reread Louis L'Amour's To Tame a Land four times because it brims with action and excitement. I read the essays of Lewis Thomas and Loren Eiseley because they make science rich with mystery and possibility. Together they all changed me.
Not every writer has the same goal. Not every piece of writing has to achieve the same things. Change for change sake is, in my opinion, the biggest “bill of goods” that is sold to would-be writers. Character change is a writing “technique,” not a writing rule. It’s a good technique, one that enriches many stories, but there may be times when it is inappropriate. Consider: An author has a worldview that humans are largely incapable of personal change and she writes a story where characters go through relationship hell and end up getting right back into exactly the same kind of relationship next time. According to Kate Wilhelm, such a story would be static and, therefore, a bad story. Unfortunately for the critic, the story would also reflect the basic truth of many lives. Are stories, then, not to strive to tell the truth? To me, telling the truth is a rule of writing, not a technique. It trumps change for change sake.
What do you think?