This post was originally written and posted February 19th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.
Characters. There’s no force more central to any story you tell.
Be it a run-and-gun thriller or a dramatic love dodecahedron, a tale focused around a lone wanderer exploring a crumbling city or a baker expanding her rivalry with a butcher (that last one sounds like a potential rom-com, doesn’t it?), your stories are going to have characters. Characters that laugh, characters that scream, characters that live … Well, you get the picture.
But it’s not enough to simply have characters. Having a character is a lot like having a picture: You can display it to your reader, and they nod and get a good idea of what that character is like. “Oh, I see he’s got a big scar on his right arm, yeah.” A character walks into your scene, you give them a quick description, and your reader has a vague idea of what they’re like based on how they act and what they do. You now have a character, but as I said, it’s a picture of one. Worth a thousand words, and a thousand words only.
Developing a character, on the other hand, is like having a moving picture (can you just imagine what that would be like?). In the reader’s mind the character comes to life, changing from a flat—if detailed—picture to a living, moving, vibrant individual with goals, trials, aspirations, and most importantly, aspects that the reader can relate to or sympathize with. In a moving picture, we can see all sides of the character, not just the one look we got at the side of their face in the static image. The character changes from a flat stand-in to a fully realized, three-dimensional actor in your play. You’ve heard of making three-dimensional characters? Character development is one of key elements of achieving this, and should be nearly every writer’s goal if they want to create characters that resonate with the reader long after the work is read.
So, you know what you’re here for. How can you make sure that your story’s characters are getting the development that they need? How can you bring them to life, make the reader cheer with their every triumph? How can you give them growth? Conflict?
All Characters Need Somewhere to Develop To
The first thing you’ll need to realize upon making character development a goal is that in order for it to happen, your character has to have something that they can develop towards. This is one reason people despise the “Mary-Sue” character trope: These characters are darn near (if not straight out) perfect. There’s nowhere to take them. The have no weaknesses, flaws, or goals.
Think about yourself for a moment. Why are you here, reading this right now? It could be because you’re recognizing that your writing lacks in an area, and you’re looking for reinforcement to help develop it. If so, you’re undergoing character development just by reading this. Trippy, huh? Point is, you’re looking to move in a direction. You’ve desire something, and you’re taking steps to acquire it. Why? Because you recognized that you lack something.
So it is with our characters. They have lacks. They have wants. They have flaws. Remember a few months ago when I posted my big write up on how I write characters? I happened to say this about having flaws:
The second question is just as vital. I sit there, and I ask “What are all the flaws of this character?” No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and I want to know what mistakes my character is going to make. I look at abrasive personality defects. Physical shortcomings. Decision-making chains that will result in weak points. If there aren’t enough flaws, I make more. No character is perfect, and I want a good, starting list for all the ways this character can screw up, either with the plot, with their interactions with others, or some other way. They must have shortcomings. If their shortcomings are the kind that aren’t immediately visible (for example, Sky rarely actually stops talking once she gets going), how do I point this out or draw attention to it so that the reader can understand what the other characters see?
Flaws are a wonderful place to give your character someplace to develop too, and quite possibly the easiest and most straightforward. You write a character with an anger control issue, it becomes very clear to reader that this is something that could be a character development: The character acknowledging and then learning to control this anger issue. If you’re having trouble giving your character a direction to grow, a flaw is a classic development area.
So it is with lacks, wants, goals, even quirks (a flaw can be the most straightforward to work with but is both a blessing and a curse, as some authors never move past flaw-resolution plots). Giving your character a combination of these different elements isn’t enough to be character development, but taken together they build a more complete picture of your character and broaden the opportunity to develop them.
Up above, in the quote from my character post, I talked about ways the character can screw up either with regards to the plot or interactions with other characters. You want character development? Put a character who is incredibly friendly and close talker in an elevator with a character who is shy and likes their personal space. Something is going to happen in that elevator the moment those two interact, and as that something transpires (what exactly is up to your characters and you) you have a chance to develop one or both of those characters via dialogue, actions, expression, or even something else. Perhaps the sub-plot of your story revolves around the shy character getting over a chronic fear of tight spaces, and she finds that while she doesn’t really want to talk to this overenthusiastic individual next to her, it helps her keep her mind off of her claustrophobia. When the scene resolves, she may have come to a realization that she can cope with her fear in new ways. She hasn’t solved her problem, but she’s developed a little.
There’s was a key concept there: the concept of a catalyst. A catalyst is “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action,” and in your works, character flaws, quirks and desires can become catalysts. They give your character direction, yes, but they can also provide unexpected levels of depth when combined with another character, such as the scene idea presented above. This is why while you can give your character a direction to develop to, they may not always reach it. Nova in The Dusk Guard has a bit of a mouth on him, and that’s a character flaw, because he’s a little grating. However, it’s a flaw I’m never going to get rid of, although it will temper over time. Why? Because it’s a wonderful catalyst for his interactions with the other characters. It’s even a catalyst for his own development with the reader as we learn why he is like this in the first place.
Giving your character a direction (or better yet, directions) to develop towards is a requisite starting point to having both character development and growth. Then give them catalysts that will react with the characters and situations around them. When you sit down to brainstorm your characters, think about what they need, and what they don’t realize that they need. Again, looking at Nova, his solitude was a core part of his character at the beginning of Rise, and he’s content to keep it that way. To the reader, his solitude (and his own inner doubt) develop that mentality and reinforce it, which makes his later growth all the more resonant.
Understand Your Character
Alright, so we understand that our character must have a direction to grow to. But as important as that is, when we start with a character as a writer, we must understand where they are coming from as well (and these may be very different directions). I cannot stress this enough: If you do not know your character, you’re not going to be able to develop them in a believable manner. You must know your character almost as well as you know yourself, or your best friend. Why? Because every time they interact with something, they’re going to react in their own, unique way, and if you want them to grow towards something, you’re going to need to know exactly how they’ll interact and react to events in order to shape a situation that will move them in the right direction. The alternative is a character whose actions seem random or illogical to the audience, and no one wants that. And if you start with a character that is effectively a blank slate (with little character to speak of), the impact of any development is hollow, because there wasn’t anything established beforehand for the development to build on in the first place. Sort of like how it’s far more impressive to watch an artist to take a piece of junk and make it into something beautiful than it is to simply see the finished product with no idea what it was beforehand.
If you want to write a story about a character who overcomes a decade-long rivalry with their father, you’d best figure out not just the large majority of the details of how that rivalry began, but also the details of the character’s personality and life. Start simple, then extrapolate. What was the initial falling out over? Why and how has it persisted for over a decade? Is the mother involved? What kind of rivalry is this? An angry one? A prideful one? A sad one? Ask questions about everything. For every answer you have, ever detail you craft, you move yourself closer towards a resolution that is both satisfying to you, the reader, and the character. All these details will solidify your characters, and thus more fully illuminate the path you’ll need to put them on in order for them to grow in the direction you desire. Maybe the son has his own son who he dearly loves, and a fight with his own son prompts him to realize how much he means to his father. I don’t know. But, if you understand your characters, you will know, and the path will be clear.
Character Growth and Theme
If you really want to punch home the growth and development of a character, than make it relate or tie in to the theme of your work. This is more for larger, multi-character works than short stories, although the principle can be applied there. One of the reasons that the character development of both Steel and Nova in Rise worked so well was because both of them related to some of the themes of the overall story. It’s one thing to have your character struggle to overcome her feelings for someone she knows will never return them while also battling giant dinosaurs. In fact, the two sort of detract from one another, don’t they? But if she’s struggling to overcome those feelings while at the same time battling giant dinosaurs lead by a mad scientist who’s tragic backstory is that he never got over being rejected by someone … well, it’s still ridiculous, but it works at the same time.
Of course, this can be overdone, so take care. The point of a work isn’t to jam a theme down your readers throat and scream to the world that it needs attention, just as your character development shouldn’t be forced either. But if you want to add an extra layer of impact to your characters for the reader, plan to have some of their own development and growth mirror or reflect the overall theme of the story in some way.
Speaking of jamming, we’ve talked about some ways to make your characters come to life, now let’s talk about a way to make them dead and lifeless: Melodrama. Melodrama is what happens when you take a story with drama and crank it up to eleven. It’s not enough that your character is having rough day at work. You’re going to have them explode in tears, collapse in their cubicle, and everyone around her is going to agree that her life is so difficult, all while the author constantly reminds the reader how sad this is and how you should feel bad for the character. And then, just as things start to wind down … A phone call! Her mother is dead! Again!
Yeah, that’s melodrama. Usually a mark of an author trying way too hard to appeal to a reader by pulling out ever sympathetic emotion possible and reminding you of them at every opportunity. Not only does it make for bland reading (personally), it leaves your character a hollow shell that’s dragged along by an almost near omnipotent force keeping them in perpetual state of flux, always jumping from one “emotion” to another without any real time to play with the impact (although the work will usually just sum up the “impact” and remind you why you should be emotional). Twilight, for all it’s success, is a melodrama. It wants to appeal to the readers emotions so badly, and it’ll do just about anything to try and yank those feels.
Now Twilight is huge, so there is a market for it. You can write melodrama and have plenty of success, even here on the internet; and as most of the “drama” stories out there demonstrate, it is attractive to a certain audience. However, you’re not going to be known for your characters if you do so. Just ask a “Twihard” exactly why Jacob or Edward were a better match for Bella. If you get more than a single sentence, you’ve hit a truly dedicated fan. Most likely, you’ll just get the one sentence. Why? Melodrama. There isn’t exactly much to those characters.
So, instead, avoid melodrama by letting your characters react in developed, realistic ways. Part of this is pacing. Melodrama is about the destination. Drama and development about the journey. Carefully pace out your character’s growth. People don’t change overnight unless they’ve been prepped for it, and neither should your characters. Emotion, growth, development, these things take time. If you want to have drama in your work, don’t overdo it and don’t tell the reader how _____ the scene is. Let the characters show it without overselling it.
Going back to Nova, his growth over Rise is long, carefully planned, but most of all, believable. Upon his introduction, he’s terse, sarcastic, and fairly unfriendly. Then he takes a very minor offense to something Sabra says and he’s pulled out of his “shell” a little into the exchange. Then there’s the training field where Nova stays silent but works together with Sabra to set a record, although Sabra gives Nova a help first, etc, etc. Finally, several hundred pages later, Nova has opened up enough that a third party is able to finally get him to voluntarily open up.
Had the scene with that third party taken place almost immediately after his introduction, the whole thing would have been flat, forced, melodramatic, and a bit of a let down for those looking to see the journey instead of just jumping to the destination. So as you set out to make your own characters grow, let them do so at their own pace and in their own time. It may take longer than you expect, but the reward at the end will be so much the better for you, the character, and most importantly, the reader.
If you want to give your characters depth and meaning, let them grow and develop as you write them, then keep the points in mind:
—Give them somewhere to develop to. Give them goals, a path, a direction, weaknesses.
—Don’t neglect catalysts. Let characters react with one another and build one another, or even damage on another.
—Understand your character. The more you know about them before you set them on their path, the better the journey will be.
—Avoid melodrama. It will kill your growth, make your characters flat, and keep your reader from focusing on the real core of the growth and change in your characters.