Thursday, November 5, 2009

Do People Change?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Near the beginning of my new mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him, Barbara is trying to explain the relationship between her friend Luz and Luz’s abusive boyfriend Frankie, who’s just been found murdered. Frankie had a habit of picking a fight and then walking out on Luz.

“And a few days later, he’d waltz back in, swearing he’d change, and she’d believe that this time he meant it.”

“Right,” Bruce comments. “Pigs may fly. But first you have to go down to Kitty Hawk and build them some wings.”

It’s one of my favorite lines in the book, even though I sometimes wonder exactly what I meant when I wrote it. To tell the truth, I didn’t write it myself. Bruce dictated it to me from his permanent position inside my head. And I do kind of know what I meant: that change takes time and process and plain hard work. Bruce’s take on it may be more pessimistic than mine. After all, he hasn’t been sober very long. He’s still skeptical about the possibility of change. But if it happens, he knows it doesn’t come easily.

I’m going to tell a story I may have told before, because it made a great impression on me. A while back, I was sitting around schmoozing with a group of writers including an award-winning author whose work I admire greatly. “People don’t really change,” she said. My jaw dropped. I’ve invested twenty-five years in a career as a psychotherapist, social worker, and addictions treatment professional—all aspects of the mental health professions, which are entirely dependent on the premise that people can and do change. So obviously, I believe they do. And the characters and stories I’ve created in my mysteries show it. In fact, their growth—and capacity for further growth—is what interests me most about my characters.

Let’s say that there are two kinds of writers: those who believe that people can’t change and those who believe they can. It follows that there are two kinds of mysteries: those with characters who don’t change and those with characters who do. Both of these approaches give authors plenty of latitude. Unchanging characters may be perennial, consistent, and beloved by readers: Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Miss Silver, Jack Reacher, Stephanie Plum. Unchanging characters can also exist within a single novel, in which their inability to change drives the story. Such a story can have great depth. Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River and SJ Rozan’s Absent Friends are both tragedies about people who have failed to outgrow—or let go—their childhood.

Since I want my books to show that people change, I’ve stacked the deck in choosing to write about people in recovery. You could say I’m cheating—or that I’ve picked the perfect theme to support my thesis. Recovery is a moving and inspiring process in which people overcome enormous handicaps—including compulsion, denial, and despair—to change radically. Recovering people change their values and beliefs, their health, their relationships with others, their assessment of themselves, and their behavior in every aspect of their lives. It’s difficult, courageous, and dramatic—and that’s exactly why I write about it.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think a story is stagnant if the characters don't change at all. We all have the capacity for long-term change---maybe not a radical change in *character*, but we can all rise to the circumstances we're facing or work on personal challenges to become better people.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sheila Connolly said...

You raise a good point, or maybe it's a question. For those who write a series, their readers want a "known" product--they want to know that they're getting something familiar when they buy your latest release. But how many get frustrated when your characters don't ever learn anything and move forward?

We probably all harbor the hope that the series will go on for a dozen books, but that means that time passes and characters age. I for one would like to see that reflected in the books.

On the other hand, how much older is Kinsey Millhone than when she started? Sue Grafton seems to be doing something right.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think some emotional/psychological traits are so deeply rooted -- maybe we're born with them -- that they can't be changed, only resisted. Learned attitudes, including racism and sexism, can certainly be changed. I've seen it happen many times. Because addictions have a physical basis, I have nothing but admiration for people who manage to overcome them.

kathy d. said...

What an interesting topic. I have been thinking about this since I read Sara Paretsky's latest V.I. Warshawski character. Has she changed over the years? She has aged, that is true. She's still tough, full of grit and self-confidence and very independent. This book is even better-written, I think, full of wit and good politics and characters. And I couldn't put it down. I think the main character has developed and changed over the years.
And can people change? I agree people can change and drop bad thinking. Can people develop empathy and compassion if they hadn't had it? Can people become pro-active and not passive? Yes. Can people change their own reactions to tough life events or disappointments? I don't know. A lot of things can affect one's perceptions and reactions, including health problems and tiredness. An idea to ponder.

Jody said...

Elizabeth: I believe the characters should change - just not in an unbelievable way. I also understand, though I don't necessarily like, when supporting characters are killed off. It changes dynamics & keeps a series going.

Sheila: All of Kinsey Milhone's cases take place in the 1980s. She hasn't had to change as much as we have through the 90s+