Our characters are supposed to change.
In our stories, characters have arcs. They begin as one sort of person and gradually transform into another, usually in response to the events of the plot.
It shouldn’t happen all at once, though. Those are the bad stories, where the character just snaps his fingers one day and – boom! – now he’s different.
No, the better stories contain scenes that show little changes over the course of time – a few weeks maybe. Months or years. An entire life. Little changes that add up to him being a different person by the end, and it all happens in a way that makes the transformation as a whole feel entirely plausible.
Sometimes these changes are so small, so subtle, the character – or the reader – doesn’t even notice them. Or maybe they have an awareness of…something, but it isn’t quite clear exactly what’s happening.
This creates a wonderful intrigue in the story that keeps us turning the page. Something is different, sure. But we’re trying to puzzle out just exactly what, to put our finger on the transformation happening just beneath the surface. The what. The why. We want to see the next little change, to find that new clue that might point us in the direction of the answers we’re yearning for.
And these little changes, these barely noticeable things, well, eventually they do become something big. Ultimately our character is a different person at the end of the story than they were in chapter one.
Change, change, change. It’s one of the inevitable things in life, like death, taxes.
It hasn’t even been a month since I received my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Not so much time at all, really, but enough to grant me an opportunity to collect up all those scenes in my head. The subtle little changes that were merely puzzling at the time but now, with the benefit of hindsight, reveal the path to a much larger transformation, like someone sweeping the dirt off a track that had always been there.
Maybe one scene is at a kyudo practice, where lately our hero’s left arm is explicably shaking when he gets into kai – full draw – the arrow wavering at the center of his chest, his aim difficult to maintain. He practices again and again, listens hard to his teachers, but he can’t seem to correct it. He decides to take a break from Japanese archery, just for a little while. A few weeks that become months. A year.
On another day our hero notices his arm’s in a strange position while he walks. Sort of fixed at his side. Weird.
Our hero’s a writer, did I mention that? He loves critique groups, and one day when he’s heading into the local library for one, the librarian asks if he’s all right. “Of course,” he says, wondering what she means. “You’re walking like you’re hungover,” she laughs. Odd.
Stupid, but lately he can’t find the hole in his shirtsleeve for his left arm. His hand hunts and hunts, continually failing to locate the sleeve hole. For the first time, he makes a change to compensate – trying to put his shirts on left arm first, the opposite of what he’s been doing his entire life. A little better. Still…strange.
And why is it hard to dig his keys out of his left pocket all of a sudden? And how come his left hand feels sluggish when he’s typing? And where’s this shaking when he takes a heavy casserole dish down from the top shelf of the fridge coming from?
He always had those video game fingers. There was a time when he was pretty darn athletic. Is it carpal tunnel? Arthritis? Nope, red herrings. He tries keeping his keys in his right pocket. Every once and a while he finds it more comfortable to hunt and peck on the keyboard with one hand. Oh, and make sure to remember to use the right hand to grab things from the fridge. Change.
Change, change, change.
His wife starts complaining about his right turns while he’s driving. He has to admit, they have been a little wide. What’s up with that? He’s always been an excellent driver (cue Dustin Hoffman’s voice from Rain Man). Why, now, does he have to think so hard about it all of a sudden?
One day the pinkie and ring fingers on his left hand start to hurt, then go abruptly numb. They come back, eventually, but now those little changes on our hero’s left hand are bigger. It’s clear – his fingers aren’t moving like they’re supposed to.
“I think something’s wrong,” he says to his wife.
There are CT scans and MRIs. “Normal.” He keeps telling doctors he has diabetes, could it be related to that? The neurologists squint at him skeptically. Those same doctors make him walk up and down their hallways, test the strength in his hands by gripping them, assess how big and fast certain movements with his fingers are. It surprises him how much trouble he has with some of these tests.
Still, maybe it’s just a pinched nerve. It could be that, right? More squinting from more doctors.
And eventually one of them says, “Parkinson’s.”
Our hero will always remember the day of his diagnosis, because it’s the day before his wedding anniversary. The next night, he and his wife dress up and head out to the fancy restaurant they planned to and everything is fine, because he’s pretty strong about these things after all.
But when he goes to pay, he has trouble getting his credit card out of his wallet. Then, try as he might, he can’t get the card into that little slot in the card holder. Such a basic thing, but It. Just. Won’t. Go. Finally his wife reaches over and does it for him.
In a series of small changes, it’s hard to pick the one that will be the Dark Night of the Soul for our characters, the moment in the story that becomes our hero’s low point.
This point in time, this little struggle with the card, it shouldn’t be any bigger than all those other scenes, but somehow it is. Somehow, it’s this moment that almost brings our hero to tears right there in that fancy restaurant. Because he thinks, is this what his life is going to be about now? All the things he can’t do?
He can’t pay for his own anniversary. He can’t drive right, put his shirt on right, take something out of his damn pocket. Walk without limping, open a fucking door. He can’t.
Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.
Eventually, though, in the really good stories, our hero reaches a point on the arc where he gains a new sense of who he is becoming, when he emerges from that Dark Night of the Soul with a renewed purpose and vision.
There are things he can do.
He can take the medicine the doctors have prescribed. It’s already making him feel better, loosening his hand up again.
He can join support groups, participate in studies, read about balance and stretching and other physical activity that might slow things down. He can make sure to get to the gym more often.
Our hero can make sure to use that Wii his wife decides to buy him for Christmas, for more work on balance.
He can find that boxing therapy a couple of towns away, designed specifically for Parkinson’s patients, where he might get to learn boxing from a former pro nicknamed “The Truth.” And, really, what guy doesn’t want to learn boxing from a dude nicknamed The Truth? Do they play Eye of the Tiger? They should play Eye of the Tiger, like the whole time, every time. (Oh, and maybe he’ll even get a matching nickname, like The Falsehood or something).
He can become a better writer by remembering all those little changes that got him here, how those scenes worked, how small and insignificant they seemed at the time, but how they added up. He can take the same approach in his own work, create better arcs for the scores of people in his head.
Can. Can. Can.
And the great thing is, even though I am different now (aren’t we all?), even though the big transformation hinted at by all those little changes has happened, this isn’t a book. It’s real life.
And the end is still a long way off.