N.M. Kelby, in The Constant Art of Being a Writer, says “Characters do two things: They either evolve or reveal themselves.” (pg. 79) Evolution involves some kind of transformation of the character between the beginning of a story and the end. Maybe the transformation is no more than a subtle realization by the character that will alter his path after the story’s end. The story will be satisfying if the reader recognizes the realization’s effect. Often, a big, obvious transformation will take place, which is also satisfying for the reader. If characters don’t evolve over the course of a story, readers will feel cheated.
The other term I’ve read about in relation to a character’s evolution is ‘redemption.’ James V. Smith, Jr. covers this in his book The Writer’s Little Helper. He offers a Redemption Checklist, which includes the following definitions of redemption:
“To recover, to set free, to buy back, to atone, to avenge, to reward good deeds, to punish bad deeds.” (pg. 198)
He then adds “literary ideas” to his list of definitions, including “to know, to be aware (epiphany), to see error, to correct error (resolution), to know the difference between right and wrong, to vow to do better from now on, to be better, and, if no form of redemption applies, at least to be witty ….” (pg. 199)
All of these are signs of character transformation, so Kelby’s evolution and Smith’s redemption are part and parcel of the same concept. What of Kelby’s notion of characters revealing themselves?
I’m reading a book of collected short stories by science fiction writer Harry Harrison called 50 in 50 that is full of stories featuring the reveal. In the story “Toy Shop,” the secret of a toy’s operation and its makers’ intentions are revealed. In “The Streets of Ashkelon,” an alien culture’s interpretation of the crucifixion is revealed. Story after story is like this, with only one (so far) that I recognize as presenting both redemption and a reveal – “I See You.” In this story, a man sentenced to twenty years after a criminal act saves a man’s life (redemption), which knocks time off his sentence. His further attempts to have his sentence reduced lead to the reveal … which I shall not reveal here!
What I’m wondering about the reveal is whether it’s truly about the character or if it’s more about the author surprising the reader. Episodes of The Twilight Zone, with their impersonal Rod Serling narrator, black and white images, and mannequin-like characters, seemed more about changing viewers’ minds than giving the characters opportunities for redemption.
Prior to having read about character redemption or reveals, I intuitively put them into Greenville. As I think about the stories, I’d say I used both in an almost even mix. Lenore in “Longing,” Sully in “Loss,” Nancy in “Spotless” and Frank in “Googers” are all offered redemption. The stories “Miss Fortune,” ” Baby,” “Chris Dickle,” and “Revelation” all feature reveals. (Very appropriate for a chapter named “Revelation,” eh?) While I was writing the reveal stories, I was very conscious of how the reader was going to be let in on the reveal, particularly with Chris Dickle, which was a bear to write precisely because of the nature of the reveal.
It is my experience with writing a reveal story and reading the reveal stories of Harry Harrison that makes me think these stories are not so much about the characters as the readers.
Fiction writers, what do you think? Have you written a reveal story? If so, who were you thinking more about as you wrote it – the character or the reader? Which do you prefer to write – a character with a shot at redemption, or one that is revealed in some way?