The key to narrative?

Watching the Korean movie Oldboy the other day was an interesting experience for me, because of the sheer energy (melodramatic, to be sure) with which it pushes the main character to the ends of trauma. By comparison, thinking back to the good but slightly disappointing Philip Roth novel American Pastoral, I realized that the main deficiency in that book by comparison was an absence of real change in the characters. Sure, they all suffer their traumas, but they are ranting about exactly the same things at the end of the novel as they were at the beginning. This may be more true to the way life actually goes than the typical narrative arc, but it is less than enlightening, as one has the same impression after 400 pages as after five.

The conclusion of my ruminations was that what separates the great examples of narrative art from the decent is an ability to actually illustrate convincing dynamism of character. Anybody can describe reasonably well how a personality exists in relation to its environment, but it takes a greater talent to show how it will react when that environment changes. Just as what really distinguishes science from other belief-systems is its ability not just to explain but to make predictions, so too does demonstrating verisimilitudinous character change show a deeper grasp of the true essence of character, because that too is a form of prediction as to how that character will behave under certain conditions. Of course the standards of success are more amorphous and subjective, partly because the scenarios are usually made-up, but I think that ultimately we look for, even if only subconsciously, evidence that the creator has understood the personalities that he describes sufficiently to induce deep changes in them in a believable fashion, and judge his accomplishment accordingly. Or at least I do.

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