Character development is a long, careful process that can produce truly engaging and stellar story telling. Which is why we are going to use cheap shortcuts! Why put the effort into developing a character when we can fake it instead? Pretending to develop one’s moral character is such a great trick that I use it in real life!
My Honest Thoughts on Character Development
Character development is often mistaken for other more superficial things which explains why it is so often lacking in a lot of fiction (especially amateur fiction). Younger writers often struggle with this. I should know. It took me a long time to really understand how people change. Experience and perspective reward the wise with insight into human behavior. However, said experience and perspective often only come with age for most of us.
I think a good starting point would be defining what is not character development. Character development is not…
Getting cool powers. I repeat; Getting cool powers is not character development. I wrote it twice for emphasis. As I mentioned in my honest thoughts about chosen ones, characters are not their powers, but the choices they make and how they react to possessing power. A character gaining the ability to shoot fireballs is not character development. A character burning their best friend with their power by accident and afterwards refusing the use their power unless in a crisis is a character development.
Entering a romantic relationship. Romance is not character development. Lots of people enter romantic relationships. Said relationship doesn’t mean they change as a person. How a character handles a romantic relationship can be character development. Also, when writing romance, try not to let the romance strangle character development too much. At least have the character worry about something else other than their reproductive priorities from time to time.
The other major issue I often see is flaw scrubbing. Flaw scrubbing is the simple act of erasing a character’s flaws. For one, this is kind of tricky since flaws are usually the flipside of a strength, both of which combined make up a personality trait. Also, as I learned when I got older, recognizing you possess a flaw does not mean you can actually do anything about it. A lot of flaws take years of therapy to get over, not a single adventure with a revelation at the end. Even then, lots of people end up backsliding into their old habits even years later. A better alternative to flaw scrubbing is simply giving the character insight into themselves. A subtle shift in perspective will feel more natural than a character’s drinking problem vanishing overnight.
So how does a writer develop a character? Well a lot of that really depends on what kind of book it is, what the genre is, is it plot or character driven, what is the target audience? The character development in a coming of age story is going to be very different from a tragic revenge story. Really it often comes down to choices. Choices is what I find to be the best way to develop a character over time. Choices reflect change in a character far better than gaining a cool new ability or listening to another character drone on about how much the protagonist changed over the course of the story.
I think something that can really help in developing characters is to draw upon your own experiences. Change is usually gradual for most of us and often that change takes the form of simply gaining the ability to look at things from a perspective we never considered before. In my waning college years I finally began to step outside myself and see things as more complex than ‘the world sucks so I don’t have to do anything’. Yeah that really was my attitude way back when. My jaded apathy ended up hurting those around me and when I realized this I began to change. However, I didn’t wake up and become a better person the next day. Changing perspectives takes time and is rarely something people are aware of.
Developing characters is not a linear construction where a character is heading in one direction before suddenly shifting course after one major event. While there are events that can drastically alter the direction of a character, there are also peaks and valleys along the way. It’s a journey and like all journeys, it can be hard to see the entire road ahead or see just how far you’ve come. There are peaks when you can look back and appreciate the progress you made, but there are valleys that can obscure your vision and make you loose your sense of direction. Man, if only they made a character development GPS, this would all be much easier.