For as long as I've been teaching creative writing I've told students that in some respects finding the subject and focus for your short story and then writing that story is a fairly simple, transparent matter
or should be. Just write something which takes your character from point A to point B and which shows how that character is changed in the process. This isn't a formula exactly (writing formulas are for genre fiction, right?), it's more like a very open-ended, descriptive template. A tarot card that would work to effectively read almost any life situation, positive or negative. The change can be big or small or even a refusal to change; the trip from A to B can be inward, outward, upward, sideways, virtual, whichever way you want to go. No rules, no prescriptions.
To be sure they get off on the right foot going from A to B, I also advise students to search out characters whose lives are under just the right amount of pressure—characters who are, as my teacher Jim McPherson always said, in a "thin place." That is, anywhere in the world where the ordinary day-to-day presumptions about the nature of reality suddenly seem worn out, questionable and wrong; anywhere at all that the real but invisible forces moving us through life can suddenly be glimpsed behind the screen/mask of custom, culture and habit whose normal job it is to protect us from ever seeing the invisible stuff for too long or too seeringly. You don't have to push your character off a bridge or into extreme poverty, violence, séances, war, hallucinogenic drug use, etc., in order to find a thin place for him/her (though these things do often generate existential thinness
just, potentially not the right thinness for you or your character; in fact, often as not, dialing back the volume on dramatic content and focusing in on your character without all the clutter is the way to go). Depending on your character's situation and sensitivities, you might find a thin place in a bus ride to the YMCA, a public garden, a front hall window through which you watch the girl next door, or a cup of coffee swirling with Pet Milk. Memory can evoke it. Story action, setting, other characters
Point is, characters in a thin place are more likely to change or to think about changing than characters who are not. So go there with your fictional people. Begin in a thin place if you want. Or end there. Or stop on the way. Or never leave.
But what I suspect hangs up beginning writers most, because it seems so daunting, or because they flat out misapprehend it, is this business about change. What does it look like for a character to change, what constitutes change, and how do we know if a character has earned the right to change, or the right degree of change at the close of the story? Most people, by the time they come to a serious appreciation for literary fiction either as readers or writers, have seen enough of life (and survived or witnessed a sufficient number of lapsed New Year's resolutions) to have learned that in general people don't change much, if at all. In fact, people change regrettably less often than we might wish, and much too slowly and reluctantly for their own (or our) good. Most of the time people in real life who come to us with stories of thunderstruck conversion seem more suspicious than inspiring, possibly deluded or in need of help, so why do we hold fictional characters to a different standard? If in our fiction we're trying to give an accurate and lasting (and nuanced, hilarious, beautiful, musical, engaging, heart rending) reflection of the human condition, why do we organize stories around this great big lie—a character goes from point A to point B and is changed by it?
An answer I've given often enough over the years and still think of as simple and truthful, viable if a little evasive: fiction isn't life. It's not supposed to be. It's lifelike. Characters change more often in stories than in life because we need them to—for the drama and the excitement, because it's good for us to see what change might look like. We need an un-lifelike amount of grace in stories because otherwise the stories would be too boring. Too lifelike.
But the other problem is this word change. We talk about it all the time like we really know what it means, like it's a given—and sure, when you encounter a character like Joyce's unnamed narrator at the end of Araby, or the tragically despicable Julian at the end of O'Connor's Everything that Rises Must Converge, it seems transparent and obvious if unparaphraseable enough—right there, look
that's how a character changes, that's how it works—but maybe we're too loose and uncareful with the term. Joyce and O'Connor were Catholics after all (practicing or not), and come out of a tradition rich with rituals, iconography, images and narratives all emphasizing the truth and power of real miraculous conversion, from baptism to transubstantiation, immaculate conception to resurrection, etc. In the Catholic faith, changes of the highest and most dramatic order are de rigueur. And through Joyce and O'Connor, whose influence on the short story form is indisputably profound, to this day, secularized or not, we have this inherited adherence to that kind of change. But is it fair to expect readers and writers of today to engage with stories modeled on miraculous, epiphanic conversion anymore? Is it still as culturally relevant? For all of us?
I want to believe that it is, but also that we need to keep in mind broader and possibly less Catholic definitions for the concept of change (meaning no disregard to Joyce and O'Connor) as it applies to fiction. For my own part, when I'm talking about a story—my own, a student's, Chekhov's, the latest stories in Glimmer Train—if I say that a character goes from point A to point B and is shown to change along the way, what I really mean is this: she doesn't actually change. She doesn't transform. She doesn't necessarily undergo a cellular or spiritual metamorphosis of any kind, unless the story calls for it. What I mean is she becomes more purely and fully herself. She becomes the person she was destined to be from the outset of the story (a la Heraclitus's "Character is destiny"), if you were paying attention, and if the story was building right from beginning to end. Like the grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find, she becomes who she was all along, just a little more fully realized and mortal, if only for a final few seconds of her otherwise miserable life.