by Barbara D'Amato
Many years ago, my husband and I were staging a musical. He was the composer/lyricist; I was the writer/lyricist. During the rehearsals, one of the cast members came up to me to complain about her role. [I’m changing the character’s name here, to protect her privacy.] She said, “I don’t know how to play Petunia. She doesn’t grow.”
I didn’t say what I thought, which was that Petunia didn’t need to grow. Petunia was a minor character. But lately I’ve been hearing a lot of criticism about some popular series characters in detective fiction: “She/he doesn’t grow.” As if that meant the series couldn’t be taken seriously. Unrealistic. Not literary enough.
What is “grow” anyway? Must the character start going to AA? Give up smoking? Learn about her inner devils and exorcize them?
There is a contrary opinion, which goes like this. A fan will say, “I like to pick up an XXX book. It’s like meeting an old friend. He’s always the same.”
Part of the problem with growing a character is that readers don’t necessarily read the books in order. They may happen upon the fifth book and then go back and read earlier ones. It can be quite disconcerting to read about a character’s angst over his divorce and then find an earlier book in which he is delighted with the new love of his life. Or--by the time later books in a series come out, earlier ones are unavailable.
Certainly I’ve now and then bought, say, the seventh book in a series I've read and liked, found the character very different, and been unhappy with the change. In real life, people don’t change much. The person who was irritable and quick to anger at twenty is still quick to anger at fifty. The easygoing, cheerful person at thirty is still cheerful, maybe barring serious illness, at sixty. People may learn a bit about themselves, and with luck overcome their worst habits. But I’d be uneasy if my friends changed very much.
I’m not arguing that series characters should never “grow” whatever that means. But when a character remains quite consistent, it’s not right to use “He doesn’t grow” as a stick to beat the author with.