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On Character Development

Female Warrior by Doo-chunA broken soldier overcoming his failings to make a stand for his home, a powerful sorceress corrupted by her magic and falling into darkness, a boy embarking on a journey and reaching its end as a man. Character development is one of the core aspects of fiction, many readers love watching their favourite protagonist grow and change as the narrative takes place, suffering hardships, taking on responsibilities, or seeing their beliefs shaken and changing their nature. This process of transformation can be as exciting as the greater plot of the story; indeed some novels revolve around the concept of character development and change such as the classic A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is encouraged to mend his ways. But even if it’s not the central focus, the process of development adds a human factor to the story that evokes a greater sense of realism and depth, showing the impact of the momentous events in the story on the inhabitants of the world.

It’s not enough to have an intricate plot or a big battle to show off, without the human element the writing can seem flat and sterile. And one of the best ways to bring a sense of humanity to the work is to show the effects of all these events and trials on your characters. How the loss of a friend in battle changes a man from a solider to a butcher, or seeing a rich aristocrat realise what life is like for the poor when he goes into hiding. By delving into the journey of development, showing the links and triggers between events and the changes in personality the events themselves become much more grounded and plausible. This also provides more dramatic impact, showing the gravity of great moments in the story’s plot when it actually changes the characters who go through them. Think of the ending of The Lord of the Rings where Frodo leaves with the elves, so affected by events that he cannot stay in the Shire, it really hammers home the consequences of his adventure.

The Grey Havens by Matthew Stewart

An understanding of character development techniques can bring many benefits to your writing and help improve your work, so let’s start by establishing what it is. In essence character development is the change in nature of a character brought about by events in the narrative, it can be subtle or pronounced, and it may happen over a long period or reasonably quickly. The difficult part is actually showing it on the page, and just as importantly, showing it’s justified. For a character to change their whole nature for no apparent cause or just because the plot requires it is sloppy writing and obvious to the reader. While the methods and timeframe may very per character, a well-constructed piece of character development will follow a set formula.

Establishment

In order to show change an author must first establish an original nature to change from. When the author introduces the character they must detail their personality, opinions and mannerisms in order to make us view them as a believable and realistic person, particular focus should be given to any traits that might be relevant to later development.

Mother of Dragons by YamaOrce

For example, if you’re planning to have a cowardly character show a moment of bravery and save the day at the end of the novel, then you need at least a couple of scenes showing his cowardice in action. It could be crumbling in an argument with a shopkeeper, avoiding a hostile boss, or literally running away from a fight. Before the development even begins the author must cement a character’s nature quickly in the reader’s mind, this can be done with a variety of traditional characterisation methods and tricks and ideally is accomplished as quickly as possible. Without this establishment there is no baseline to measure development against and the change will lack meaning. Think about our introduction to Daenerys in A Game of Thrones as she is appraised and abused by her brother:

“You don’t want to wake the dragon do you?” His fingers twisted her, the pinch cruelly hard through the rough fabric of her tunic. “Do you?” he repeated.

“No,” Dany said meekly.

Without seeing the timid girl she was at the start of the story her later accomplishments and changes would be far less moving for the reader, but after Martin has shown us some early scenes of her life the reader gains a greater perspective to realise how pronounced her development is through several books.

Groundwork

Unassuming Town by KyomuThe next stage is more difficult, the author must lay the groundwork to justify the change they want to take place. Even a fairly rapid change in temperament will still need a bit of a build-up as the author lays the foundation for the development so it is believable for the reader. Before the character can visibly show a dramatic change they might take lesser steps towards that goal. The coward from earlier might pull a prank on a bully, without him knowing who did it of course, or a character might see something that shakes a long held prejudice, like an aristocrat who thinks the poor are lazy receiving help from some peasants. There are endless variety of methods depending on the nature of the change the author wishes to enact. Some will be more difficult than others depending on if the change is something concrete or more philosophical.

This is the longest part of the character development process, and many readers find it interesting for its own sake, watching the progression and lead-up to change, and enjoying seeing the character grow. This development can be heavily intertwined in the story as with Tris in Gail Z. Martin’s Chronicles of the Necromancer series. Over several books the reader watches in stages as the young man is forced to face the challenge of his older brother and later take on the kingship of his realm. The reader is shown scores of scenes throughout the series which show his development from a spare prince hanging with his friends to a haggard king with the responsibilities of the crown and the knife edge of his Summoner powers. Step by step the reader watches him grow, maturing as a king, but also fending off temptation when he lays siege to an enemy lord and the needs of the war chip away at his morals as the fighting drags on.

“You have to survive. Curane’s mages left you no choice. In that situation, you had to use every weapon available to you – including the full scope of your powers. What makes you different from the blood mages, from Lemuel, is what you do with your magic off the battlefield.”

Crisis Moment

Warrior for LotFP by RhinevilleThe last stage is the climax of the development; in order to clearly illustrate change the author needs to introduce a crisis event, a dramatic decision point where the character can showcase their change in nature by making a choice or acting in a different way to their previous persona. While there may have been some lesser choices during the build-up, this moment will be an evident cross over with much higher stakes and narrative gravity in their choice. For maximum impact this may occur at some pivotal point in the story where the character’s change of heart saves the day, as in the superhero novel Devil’s Cape, where the formerly villainous Julian joins the final battle to help turn the tide of the fight at a key moment.

Note that this change doesn’t have to be dramatic to have an impact on the character and reader, while you can have that coward from before choose friends over fear and stand up to a deadly enemy, it could be as simple as a brutal mercenary starting a new mission at the end of the book and this time just knocking out the guard instead of murdering him. Baby steps can still show the potential for a change in nature and imply a message. Still, in most books the crisis moment is made as epic as possible, committing the character to a particular path as in a fall from grace story arc like Gav Thorpe’s Malekith. After a great build-up of successively more suspect actions, the title character finally makes his play at the finale of the novel and attempts a coup, irrevocably damning himself.

“It is my right to be Phoenix King,” growled Malekith. “It is not yours to give, so I will gladly take it.”

Era One by simon goinardWhile there are some books that don’t show character development, such as long running serials like Conan where the main character remains largely unchanged as they go on to the next adventure, these books can miss out on all the amazing potential for growth in their protagonists. Great characters in fiction have the ability to evolve, the reader takes that journey with them through the pages, watching the events of the story affect them, same as they would us. The level of depth it gives a story, watching a protagonist change by degrees gives an unmatched view into a character’s psyche. It can change the whole nature of the story you’re reading, evoking greater emotional response and engagement with the protagonists.

Writing successful character development is possibly one of the hardest techniques to master, but the benefits are huge, so whether it’s over a series or a single book, make sure your characters and writing grow to everything they can be.

Title image by Simon Goinard.

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7 Comments

  1. ScarletBea says:

    One of the best character developments I’ve found is Malta Vestritt, in Robin Hobb’s “Liveship Traders” trilogy.
    You go from hating her and wanting to slap her, to really loving and wanting her to succeed!

  2. Seán Gray says:

    This was a great article, I really enjoyed it. It’s rare to see character growth broken down into different stages. I have only one nitpick, and that is using the term development in place of growth, which I recently discovered refers to a different way to flesh out a character.

    The linked video below makes the point in a better manner than me, but to summarise it: character growth is watching the character change due to their environment, while character development is when we find out more about a character.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlC0XZiDQgs

  3. Nancy Foster says:

    A concise and fun post to read even though I haven’t read any of the books in the examples except LOTR. I love writing how my characters change over time, it’s just really enjoyable to do and even though a lot of the path is bumpy and painful, it serves an ulterior purpose and makes the story all the more interesting.

    A lot of people that have read my novels comment how much they liked the protagonist Spaulding. Officially my novels are YA but Spaulding is the main character of the entire story. He intrigues me due to his hasty decisions and stubborness which actually helps move the story forward. People that have read the novel seem to unanimously detest the series antagonist Froylan which I find to be curious because he’s one of the characters I like to write the most. He also develops in his own way throught the story albeit at a much lesser degree than Spaulding, Richard and Damantin. Because let’s face it, the guy is a heartless psychopath and will never fully turn into a generous good guy.

  4. […]  I researched character development (This article on Fantasy Faction was particularly helpful http://fantasy-faction.com/2017/on-character-development ) and went to work on the BLOODY GENTLEMAN again and I do believe it has significantly improved. […]

  5. Yora says:

    Conan is actually an interesting example of character development. While he doesn’t really change within the stories, there is a gradual but consistent development over his lifetime from a selfish young thrill seeker to an old pricipled king. Which is even more impressive since the stories were written completely out of order.

  6. Aleta K Dye says:

    Thank you so much for this article. The novel I have out had characters that were easy to flesh out, but my WIP is much harder. I had hoped to have this re-write done from its first printing by the end of this year, but I have a long way to go if it’s going to be my best. This was very helpful. I am bookmarking this page. Wish I could reblog. It’s that important.

  7. SLB says:

    I read the first sentence of this article and thought, “Uh oh!” because “a broken soldier overcoming his failings to make a stand for his home” is actually the plot of my WIP novel! I was pretty sure I was going to read this and find out I was doing it all wrong, but fortunately everything I read about actually happens in my book. So, yay!

    Great article, and it doesn’t just go for fantasy novels either – when I read about the crisis moment I immediately thought of my favorite book, “Les Miserables”. Jean Valjean has a huge crisis moment where he has to decide whether to stay in hiding and remain free, or reveal his identity as an escaped convict and return to jail, thus giving up everything he’s accomplished in his years of freedom. Victor Hugo wrote a masterful sequence where Valjean pivots back and forth, and it’s a great moment where the reader sees into the very center of his character. Powerful stuff!

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