Teaching Character: Positive & Negative Change

For several semesters, I have had the great fortune of teaching an introductory level creative writing course at my community college. The popularity of the course has increased by leaps and bounds since I began as an adjunct here in the fall of 2006. As a full time faculty member, I am privileged to teach two or three sections of the course a semester and it is by far my favorite course.

The class consists of covering all the basics of creative writing: imagery, voice, character, setting & story. Once the students feel like they have grasp of the fundamentals we move onto the four genres: poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction & drama. The textbook we use for the course, Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway, is always a hit with students and is one of the few textbooks that they don’t gripe about buying. It is a challenging course to teach, especially for this poet who is seriously challenged in writing prose, but I love learning from students and discovering something new each time class time rolls around. 
Recently, we have begun to delve into the realm of character. As I often do when we reach this topic, I ask my class to provide me some examples of what they would consider “round characters.” Prior to this brainstorming session, we discuss what makes a round character. Typically, this discussion results in students deciding that “round” or “developed” characters incur significant change throughout the course of a story or television show or movie, and that is what makes them interesting and complex. Then we get to the brainstorming of examples. Here is a sample of what my students called out last class:
  • Harry Potter
  • Darth Vader
  • Charlie (Perks of Being a Wallflower)
  • Christian Grey (50 Shades of Grey)
  • Walter White (Breaking Bad)
  • Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
Clearly, this is a diverse grouping of characters and what struck me the most was 1). the pervasiveness of popular culture 2) how many of these characters embody “negative” change as opposed to positive change. 
The second observation was particularly interesting to me, so I asked my students about it: “Does all change have to be positive?” And of course, they said no and then went on to explain to me that the complexity of these negative changes are what make these particular characters memorable. There was the predictable groaning and eye rolling at the mention of both Harry Potter and Christian Grey, which made me wince a bit on Harry’s behalf. There was also a rather tense but thoughtful discussion about whether or not Darth Vader really underwent much change on his journey through the universe. Finally, it probably worth noting that Katniss Everdeen is the only woman appearing in this particular sample, but I can assure you that once some of these men came into the conversation, their female counterparts were not too far behind (Hermione Granger, Princess Leah, Skylar White* and Anastasia Steele).
As the conversation came to an end, one of my students made the observation that negative change in character development is more realistic because “that’s how real life is.” Basically, and I’m paraphrasing her comment, she said it isn’t necessarily realistic that a real life person will win the lottery or buy a new BMW or fly off to Fiji to get married. However, it is realistic that someone could lose their house or get in a car accident or deal with the death of a loved one. The idea of realism is interesting given this list of characters because many of them are operating in highly fantastical world (space, a school for wizards and a post apocalyptic America) 
While on its face these observations may seem rather obvious, I think that these comments also tells me something important about who my students are, where they come from and they type of world they are living in. Most importantly though, I think it gives me some insight into what kind of writers they will be. 
*Click on the link above to read Anna Gunn’s piece about fan reactions to her character on Breaking Bad

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