Character Transformation in Fiction

Much of good to great fiction is characterized by character transformation. Usually this occurs in the protagonist, although it may involve more than one person. One might add that much of creative living is similarly played out as the individual is transformed from one type of person to another.

In either narrative, fiction or real life, the protagonist is effected by personal epiphanies, the influence of another, an openness to new experiences, the consequences of having committed an evil act, a religious conversion, acts of volition, participation in military combat, a terrible illness, altruistic behavior, and sometimes even by mere chance.

I would like to illustrate this through two of the three novels by Ayn Rand. She is an author who has never been accepted into the ranks of the literary elite, although her novels have been best sellers for decades, often on college campuses and off, as well. She has authored stage plays, written screenplays, along with three novels and dozens of ideologically oriented essays. Rand is best known for her two last novels: "The Fountainhead," which was subsequently made into a film, and "Atlas Shrugged." The second of these would have been made into a screenplay, but for the fact that Rand felt the envisioned screenplay compromised the integrity of her novel. Both of these works have garnered an enormous readership over the years and new editions continue to become published periodically long after her death.

Yet despite this, Rand's characters are all one-dimensional. They are crafted as good or evil. The good characters have no flaws and represent ideal human beings who never change over time. The evil characters are thoroughly so and have no redeeming factors in the author's eyes.

In "The Fountainhead," Howard Roark, the protagonist rapes the heroine to whom he is attracted and they go on to have a passionate affair. For this he is regarded as heroic because of his display of masculinity. Roark is an architect, who regards himself as superior and is depicted as very much an individualist whose values transcend those of the community.

He designs a uniquely creative building that is constructed by those officials responsible for implementing his design, but they approve major changes without his knowledge or approval. When he learns of this he destroys the building by blowing it up. During the trial, the reader is subject to what amounts to a strong "sermon" about individualism and capitalism through the process of his defense. As an ideally crafted character there is never any change in his personality, behavior, or views. Howard Roark is a single dimensional character, yet he has won many admirers since his initial creation by Rand. I might add that many who adulated this fictional character when they were young, became less enchanted with him as they matured.

As for John Galt, the protagonist of "Atlas Shrugged," he is portrayed by Rand as flawlessly heroic and superior to any human being that anyone is ever likely to encounter in real life. To illustrate, in the latter part of the novel, he is bound by his pursuers who plan to torture him by wiring him so that they can electrify him repeatedly. They seem to be unable to succeed in making the electricity work. Galt, with his outstanding intellect and moral courage cannot resist explaining to his captors why the device is not working and proceeds to explain to them how to fix it so that they can get on with torturing him.

Rand, a committed atheist who looked upon faith with disdain and who places reason as supreme over all other human capacities, creates an almost supernatural character. Galt comes across as omniscient and omnipotent. A large portion of this lengthy novel ends with a non-stop treatise on Rand's ideology.

Ironically, Ayn Rand, although a one-dimensional thinker, not taken seriously by professional philosophers, was anything but a one- dimensional character in her actual life. She gathered around her a group of people from whom she demanded obedience. Dissension was not tolerated and she ruled the group tyrannically. She was opinionated to the point of being rude, sharp-tongued, and vitriolic when in public debate. It was as though she saw herself as a flawless John Galt. Yet she was subject to depression, seduced a young member of her cultish group, who went on to become a famous psychologist.

He later wrote an autobiography covering this episode. She had a long-term affair with him, way beyond the point that the man wanted to continue, but he was too intimidated by her to sever the relationship with Rand, who was capable of going into rages. By having this affair, she also betrayed the friendship of the man's young wife. In addition she violated her own marriage vows to a man who drank excessively.

Rand smoked endlessly and eventually died of lung cancer. She presented herself as though she was of heroic proportions, but she was far from flawless and was enigmatic when comparing her fictional heroes to her own life. Their existed a significant discrepancy between her self-image and the real narrative of her life's story.

I feel obliged to acknowledge that while never a disciple of Rand, I enjoyed reading both "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged," when in my youth. With the shaping of my own values over time, the development of my literary creed, and the disclosure of Rand's personal life in separate autobiographies by Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, who became divorced from one another, I have become disillusioned with her.

These are separate conclusions, as I do not believe that an author's work should be judged by her personal life, even though one's private story may provide insight into her fiction, as is the case with Ayn Rand. I view her as a towering, but very flawed figure in both life and literature. But where does one ever find perfection in this life?

About the Author
Hugh Rosen is the author of Silent Battlefields. Visit his Web site to learn more about his novel of second generation Holocaust survivors.

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