When teaching fiction, I've always told my students that their characters should ultimately "grow, change," move from point A to point Z throughout the length of a piece. Otherwise, what's the piece for? What's the point?
It's tricky, though -- in order to stay realistic, it probably isn't good if characters change too drastically, or if their core belief systems or personalities change. Because in real life, that rarely happens. So, the growth, even if it's dramatic, should be realistic, should be warranted.
Tonight, after watching the latest "Mad Men" episode, it struck me. By "growing" or "changing," we assume that means in a positive direction. That the characters actually learn something, make improvements in their lives.
But what if they grow in the wrong direction? What if they continue to fail, continue not to learn from their mistakes? Isn't that real life, too?
Don Draper is terribly flawed. On the outside, he's polished, dashing, handsome, smooth. But on the inside, he's an absolute mess. He's insecure and unsure. He feels threatened and frightened and unworthy. And he's constantly haunted by decisions he's made in the past, as well as decisions he hasn't made. The regret is palpable.
But after several seasons of Mad Men, those flaws are pretty much the same flaws--if not even stronger than in Season 1. He keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. He hasn't learned a thing. The only difference I see is a stronger conscience, a stronger awareness of his flaws. But that awareness still hasn't helped him overcome them.
It's almost like he's growing in the wrong direction. As though he's grown more toward his flaws and insecurities rather than away from them. And--I think that's okay. I think that's pretty realistic for some people. There are people who never learn. They never do crawl out of the self-made holes they've been digging.
So, maybe, as long as our characters aren't standing completely still, it doesn't really matter which way they grow. As long as they do.