Where last we left our heroine, she was a bitter, spiteful harpy who saw her faults in everyone around her. Who wants to feel any sympathy towards that?
The answer, of course, is no one.
The wonder and the charm of this fairy tale begin when the old woman changes. It’s the last paragraph of the story. In some versions of “The Tongue-Cut Sparrow”, the story ends when she opens the box of demons. No change necessary for the character in that version. (Didn’t read it the first time around? It’s here.)
This story made me think of several other stories—all of whom have a character who waits until the last minute to change. In some of these stories, it’s believable and even long-anticipated by the reader. But in some of these stories, the change is never noted by the reader. People walk away from the story saying “that’s a bad, bad guy” rather than celebrate the wonder of a life in revolution. Depending on the story, this takeaway value can be either the reader’s fault—or the author’s.
In the Old Testament, the books of Kings and Chronicles both give historical accounts of the same time period, the same events, the same people. If you’ve never heard of King Manasseh, take a minute to read about him here. Most people, insofar as I know, are more familiar with this account. As you can see, he repents in one, but the other ends with God Himself cursing him. I can understand that it is convenient for people to remember him only as a wicked king, but men can be defined by a single moment in their lives, too. The moment he led the team to victory. The moment he turned from a good life, and was stricken with leprosy. The first time he said “I need help!”
These single moments are vital to us. Our lives are frail. Yes, we can trudge endlessly down the same path, never changing our steps or even looking up. That doesn’t mean we won’t look up on the next step, or turn back in the next heartbeat. Humanity is built on such hopes. The times when we turn around or climb to a peak we had considered impossible should be celebrated. Even if only in brief memories.
Characters, however, don’t seem to have that luxury. Words may not be set in stone, but—with a few lines of black ink on a white page—they can carve a complete person into the reader’s imagination. If the words are chosen wrong by the writer, the reader may never know it. But the reader has chosen to accept the writer’s words as an important part of his imagination, so it behooves the writer to give a character enough time to change on the page.
In a short story, like a fairy tale, the last page is enough room to change. Usually. With this fairy tale, the author is helped by the fact that the character’s change is unexpected—because it is sweeter. It’s a welcome surprise, that leaves the reader smiling. For a longer story, the writer has two problems:
1. How far into the story must I carry this character before changing her?
2. Do I owe it to my readers to make the reader want the character to change before it happens?
How do you solve these questions in your stories? These are hard questions for writers anywhere, and there aren’t easy answers. Only guidelines. More or less. But that’s a story for another day...