On the Potential to Change

This started out as a conversation on Twitter. Since I have longer thoughts, I’m expanding on them here.

There was an interesting profile in the Washington Post this morning called “Love Thy Neighbor?” about a Minnesota doctor named Ayaz Virji. Dr. Virji began to feel uncomfortable in his small town after the election, and so he made several attempts to talk to his neighbors after his Muslim faith in order to (perhaps) change their minds. I’m not doing the piece justice; the entire thing is worth reading.

For my purposes here, it’s the last bit that interests me the most. Around the election, there were a host of articles about voters experiencing economic anxiety that led them to support the candidacy of the current president. For example, sociologist Arlie Hochschild wrote one for Mother Jones detailing the five years she spent interviewing people in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in order to understand their lives and world views.

But a notable difference between today’s Post article and Hochschild’s (and the other authors I’d put in this category) is that the latter never attempted to change her subjects’ minds. To be clear, I don’t mean that as a criticism; I’m describing a difference.

It might be, however, that it’s impossible to change minds as Virji attempts to do because people aren’t persuaded by facts. In fact, research suggests that confronting people with facts that are counter to their worldview can lead them to become defensive, to dig in, and to become, in other words, less likely to change.

I could make a bunch of political points about this, which I’m purposefully avoiding, but the pieces also raise writing questions, including: do people, and by extension characters, change? if so, what motivates them to change? how can I write change realistically?

They’re hot questions. I’m an unabashed fan of peak TV and the criticism that accompanies it. A quick skim through the literature reveals that when the subject is Tony Soprano, Don Draper, or Walter White, two of the key questions were whether he changed over the course of the show and if the respective shows producer/show runner believe humans are capable of change (see exhibits A and B; I could list interviews and reviews in which this subject comes up relative to these characters all day).

It’s interesting these questions aren’t asked of female characters as often. (Maybe because women are at the center of television narratives less often?) But in the cases of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, the creators, critics, and fans all seemed as skeptical as sociology researchers about the possibility of change. A pessimistic reading suggests that while the protagonists of those series changed in superficial ways, they remained the same in the important ways.


Don Draper might be at McCann-Erickson at Mad Men’s conclusion, but he’s still pulling ads out of the air that spin people’s desire for connection into advertising pitches. Walter White might have become a drug dealer, but he’s ultimately done in by his pride, which was already present and destructive in the pilot episode. Etc.


But because genre romance is more optimistic than peak TV, the conclusion that people/characters just don’t change isn’t satisfying. Without change one both protagonists’ parts, I can’t imagine how you could structure the narrative in genre romance. Every book I’ve read on romance structure, whether descriptivist works, like Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel, or prescriptivist ones, e.g., Gwen Hayes’ Romancing the Beat, emphasizes the growth and change characters experience in romance.

I suspect this is because romance has justice at its center. The protagonists in romance must be heroic. That both means the romance protagonists are dynamic (they go a journey), but they are also more than “regular” people; they’re more deserving of happily ever afters, perhaps, but also more open to change.

I think a few things are necessary for change, both in real life and in narratives:

  • The character must realize s/he has a problem. So for example, in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy’s letter smacks Elizabeth Bennet in the face by with her (unfounded) prejudice against Darcy and for Wickham (I wrote about it here). What’s key in this step is that the character correctly and specifically identify the behavior that’s causing the problem. Most people lack sufficient self-knowledge to achieve even this first step. For characters, you have to make them just self-aware enough that the eventual change is believable but not so enlightened at the start that the reader wonders why they were so bone-headed to begin with.
  • The character must resolve to change the behavior. It’s one thing to know you procrastinate or resist trusting others (or whatever). The character has to be serious about editing that part of him/herself.
  • The character must know what to replace the problematic behavior with. This is where people and characters with good intentions get tripped up. If you’ve spent your entire life doing one thing, do you know what else you might do instead? What models have you had for other behavior?
  • The character must succeed. I mean, well duh. Or else you end up the peak TV/cynical position. As a writer, you have to begin the change process early in the book so that the reader can see the character acting differently, or else the change isn’t convincing. If anything, sometimes it works best to make the change happen fairly early and then the knowledge about why and the promises to happen *afterward.*

Ultimately, I have to believe change is possible, in fiction and in life. It’s simply too depressing to contemplate things if we’re all stuck in our patterns forever. This genre of empathy think pieces, however, might be placing the emphasis on the wrong steps in the process by focusing on individuals who don’t have the self-knowledge or will to face up to their faults.

6 thoughts on “On the Potential to Change

  1. Hmm, this is very interesting. I’m not sure that romance characters are more deserving of love, at least they shouldn’t be initially. Maybe they are by the HEA and that’s also maybe another reason why the HEA is essential to the genre and many readers and writers call “not romance” when it’s not present. I think, and maybe I’m wrong, that it isn’t justice that serves as the genre’s premise vis-à-vis characters, but virtue?

    1. Except doesn’t that make love conditional? Or maybe the genre is founded on conditional love.

      You could argue that love isn’t conditional but relationships are. But that makes non-HEA love stories just as much about love and as valid as HEA ones.

      I guess what I’m saying is genre romance is a preferred way of accessing stories about love, not an endpoint. It’s no better than other ways of writing about love, just different.

      1. I definitely think that while people would like to think genre romance is about unconditional love, the reality is that the genre places all kinds of limits on who qualifies for an HEA. I do think that to take the full measure of human love, you have to look to stories outside of genre romance, because not every worthy/interesting/compelling love story is romantic nor do they all end happily.

  2. I don’t think it’s so much love being premised on a character changing, as much as it is on growing. Quite often, for example, in Maisey Yates’s romance, the potential for growth is incipient in the character and it’s been blocked by the past, wrong-doing, etc. (The rom writers cop-out in this case is misunderstanding, which is why I hate conflict built on that.) Love makes it possible for that which was blocked to be freed: more about love bringing out the the h/h’s best selves than conditions, IMHO. At least when rom is done well. Which is why we critique it.

    1. The only thing I’d add to what you’ve said is that growth *is* change, and if done well, it often follows the same structure I’ve outlined above.

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