It sounds obvious, doesn’t it, that in a novel things need to change; that to keep a reader interested the characters must change. In reality is is a more complex process than that. As the character changes, then so does everything and everyone the character comes into contact with.
A childhood home that seemed stultifying and dull, becomes a charming haven after the protagonist has endured some hardships away from it. In fact this is the only way a reader can see a character grow – to see the world change through his or her eyes.
It is easy to think that once you’ve established a setting, that’s it. That readers will just see it as background each time the character goes there. But what really brings a novel to life is when the same setting changes as the person re-visits it. Not only that, but it will be changing in different ways to each person who views it. An orphan might think a country house to be grand. A visiting maidservant might see the same house as tatty and uncared-for. Years later, the orphan might re-visit it and think it less imposing, and the visiting maidservant who has now worked there for years has ceased to see its tattiness, but only its warmth. When writing these changes I try to focus on small details that the individual character notices, because these count for a lot and act as anchor points to show how things have changed. The way the stone has been newly-polished on the front steps, the slight scent of old carpet that has been replaced by a smell of air-freshener. Settings change, they are not mere backdrops.
Every single scene and dialogue needs to move the story forward. You’ve probably heard that a million times before. In my view the move doesn’t have to be forward, as long as there is actual measurable change. In literary novels, the plot is usually that each person in the novel has a developing relationship with each of the others in the book. The relationship could be getting closer, or drifting further apart. These tensions are what form the plot. As long as the relationships are changing, and this change in turn is visibly affecting everyone else, then you have life in your novel.
In historical fiction the pivotal changes in political and moral attitudes can be really useful. Revolution, war and religious upheaval cause protagonists to pick sides, and almost always the opposing view is there too, to help the person change. A person who is grappling with the moral imperatives of slavery or suffrage for example, might change their mind (or have their mind forcibly changed for them) in the course of a book. By the end of the book everything will look different to them. This is what you want. In order to have the maximum amount of change in a character, look for a cause in which he can have maximum investment, and then show how the events of the novel change that view. Find circumstances that force pro-monarchists to become rebels and anti-monarchists to become kings. The power of reversal is that it gives the most opportunity for change. Find the most contentious historical viewpoint you can and give it to your protagonist. Give the opposite to your antagonist. Make them change.
No 10 to come soon!
Picture from BBC : London Then and Now. The old photographs used in the post were taken by renowned late 19th and 20th Century photographers, including Henry Grant, Wolfgang Suschitsky, Roger Mayne and George Davison Reid, who made this image on the corner of Long Acre and James Street, Covent Garden, in 1930.