On Character Development
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.”
The 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.”
While 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.