Characters & Development
The stories we create, in all the forms within which we create them, are multi-faceted. No single element within a narrative can stand on its own – with perhaps, one exception. Ask yourself, what is the most important part of a narrative? Most people would say the plot. It’s a logical answer, isn’t it? I mean, after all, we as writers spend most of our time, energy and creativity laying down the perfect plot. And besides, what’s a story without the story? I’ll tell you. I’ll also go over what things makes a good character, and then how to develop those characters. Even if you are more of a ‘pantser’ than a plotter, this information should help you out.
Take these movies for example. Clerks (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Destination Wedding (2018), and of course The Breakfast Club (1985). What do all of these critically acclaimed/cult classics have in common? Without confusing premise for plot, they have almost none of the latter whatsoever. What they do have, which makes them memorable, are fantastically written characters that develop/unfold so perfectly it becomes a surrogate for plot. That is basically all these movies are - deep characters with exceptional dialogue. That alone has been proven beyond the number of my examples to be compelling enough to work all on its own. Don’t get me wrong, if the plot is important in your book, then it is still essential to do it right. But at the end of the day, a great plot with terrible characters is just a bunch of stuff that happens to people we don’t care about, and who wants to read that?
So what can we do to create these characters people love? Characters are the main driving force within a book. Their actions, or inaction, move or turn each scene. Without them nothing happens, it’s as simple as that. A badly written character is one who does things simply to make things happen the way the writer wants them to, even if it is contrary the behaviour that character has shown previously.
Writers will often say things like “I didn’t do that, my characters did.” Or, “I was going to write it totally different, but my characters had other ideas.” Writers who understand how characters should behave in books will nod along and totally understand, whereas others will nod along and back away slowly…
But there lies the essence of what makes a well written character – the illusion of autonomy. A character who feels real is super important when forming a reader’s emotional investment into your story, and while that is important to create, it’s essential to use it to also grow and develop those characters. If a reader follows a character from the start of their journey, to the end, and they still act and think the same, the reader is going to have an unshakable feeling of having been cheated. Imagine if Bilbo went through all he did, and still ended up being a grumpy old Hobbit by the end who never wanted to leave his house. Okay, so he did regress somewhat by the next set of books, but those are different stories altogether. There are some exceptions to this, but I will go into that in a bit.
There’s an old saying that says people don’t change, which I wholeheartedly disagree with. Of course they do. Be it from events in their life, wilful change, or simply maturation over time. Sometimes people will regress, and often take one step back before taking steps forwards. Sometimes they stumble down altogether before they reach their goal. And sometimes development isn’t always positive. The same should be no different for your characters.
I’ll go over a few things you should consider when thinking up a character, or for when you are writing them into your stories. I would even suggest writing a very basic character sheets for your characters. It’s important not to get bogged down in doing this, as it can distract from actually writing, but if you find it easier to flesh out your characters this way, then do so. The sheets will only be seen by you, so you can even include seemingly unimportant details that no one will ever know, but may come out in subtle ways as you write, which helps to create a sense of realism.
1: Consistency. To be honest, in every aspect of writing, consistency is always my number one rule. In this regard it’s important to make sure your characters stick to their beliefs and actions that befit their personality. Nothing bothers me more than when I read or watch something, and the character does something completely out of character for the sake of moving the plot forward. This should never be the case – ever! If you find yourself having to do this, it’s always a better option to try your best to change the scene, rather than make your character’s actions betray them. Because when you do that, you also disappoint your readers.
2: Goals and motivations. Our wants and desires are what makes us do any of the things we do day-to-day. This is a perfect example of the kind of thing you need not disclose to anyone but your own notes. Objects of desire don’t always need to be a known factor to the reader, but they are always something that needs to be established in your own mind for each of your characters. Often the desires of a character are never spoken out loud, but when done right are understood nonetheless. As above, keeping your characters’ desires in mind whenever they perform actions, helps to keep them consistent. Objects of desire are not always literal objects. A common object of desire, especially for antagonists, is power. Take The Riddler from the Batman series, for example. His object of desire is his pride. Everything he does is to prove his intelligence; in most iterations of the series his motivations specifically revolve around proving himself smarter than Batman. If you took that desire away from him, he wouldn’t be much of a villain. One final note: It is important for these desires to be realistic in and of themselves. It’s fine to say your character’s object of desire is a to win a karate tournament, but the reason behind the desire for that victory is important too. A why behind the what, as it were.
3: No one is perfect. A character who can beat any enemy thrown at them with ease is a bad character. Not only does it ruin any suspense, it offers no room for investment in that character. Same goes for internal traits. A character who knows everything and has no flaws in their personality, is not interesting as a character, and again offers no relatable way to invest into them. Take Peter Quill (AKA: Starlord) for example. I feel Like this may be a bad example, because after this happened it made a lot of people hate him as a character (#QuillDidNothingWrong #LeaveStarlordAlone), but his actions in Infinity War are a good example of a character flaw for two reasons. Quill had just lost the second person he ever loved and was acting over-emotionally about it, and no matter your opinion on the subject, the fact remains that it was nothing more than a character acting out a flaw in a realistic way. Allowing emotions cloud judgement is a common flaw that quite often turns scenes (though usually just not with universe altering consequences). Unlike a character who does something to move the story, Starlord’s actions had logic behind them, and moved the story to where it needed to go. If the heroes had succeeded, that would have been the end of it, and we would never have got to see the masterpiece that was Endgame (#ThanksStarlord). So give your characters some flaws. The more relatable or utilisable to the story the better. They can also be used as a point of growth to the character, as they work through those flaws over time.
4: In the detail. Whether the reader knows it at first or not, detail in everything is important. The characters themselves are no exception. Detail gives your characters depth, and yet another thing for your readers to relate to. It’s interesting what kind of seemingly unimportant things will draw a reader to a particular character. Perhaps it’s a certain nervous twitch, chewing their bottom lip when they’re deep in thought, their compulsion to blink too much when they’re lying, or talk too fast when excited. These are just a few examples of very human things that are common among people who will read your books, and sometimes these banal, inane or inconsequential details are all that’s needed for readers to latch on. So even if it doesn’t mean or amount to anything, give your characters some bad habits and nervous tics.
5: Growth. Finally we get to growth. As I said before, people change, and so do characters. Most stories have a balance of internal and external conflicts and drive behind them. Wherever internal conflict or plot is present, character growth is important, because it is simply unrealistic to expect a character to go through some sort of internal turmoil and not be changed in some way for it. If not, then the internal conflict probably wasn’t worth writing into the narrative to begin with. Growth can come about in many forms but let’s stick with the basics. This may be a bit harder for the ‘pantsers’, but I personally find it best to at least consider the character you want yours to become by the end of your story, and then create events that get them there. Not everything that happens in a story needs to be some big revelation for your character, but in order to realistically develop your character, you need to put them through trials and obstacles that challenge their flaws and helps to overcome them. The slower, the better. My favourite way to do this, is to have them develop so slowly, even they don’t realise they’ve been changing until that defining moment is revealed and they realise how different they are now. My absolute favourite example of character development done well is Zuko from The Last Airbender. He’s also a great example of how characters can often stumble right before they’ve truly emerged a changed person. Zuko goes from being driven by his pride and a clear object of desire in the restoration of his honour via the capture of the Avatar. Through his various run-ins with the heroes, we slowly start seeing a change in his behaviour and motives, as well as a softer side to him. Just as you think he’s about to come over to the heroes’ side though, he does a backflip and turns on them again when his object of desire is suddenly within reach. Only after getting what he wanted, he realises he had been changed in the time it took to achieve it, and sets upon his new object of desire; redemption.
So, what about when the story is more focused on the external side of things? Like I said, most stories have a balance, but not all. Stories that are pure action are somewhat of an exception to the “rule” of character development. Their protagonists rarely shift much during the course of the story because movies like the many iterations of James Bond, The Expendables, and even some super hero movies like Captain America, simply don’t require character development, because the focus is on the action of the external conflict. But just remember, even here with its own conventions, a well written character is still important. Captain America for example, does not really grow as a character throughout much of the Marvel movies he’s in. He’s motives start off as ideal and his object of desire is evergreen, meaning it’s something that he can never truly obtain, but can achieve again and again, which his actions always reflect. People love him not because he is relatable as a character, but because they relate to his ideologies and people like to believe they share them, and so the action from which he fulfills these ideologies, is what people enjoy him for.
This is all but a scratch on the surface of writing a great character. Humans (or whatever species your characters are) are impossibly complex, and so are good characters. So do your research and find what others have discovered and don’t be afraid to experiment and let your characters take the wheel and see where it leads you.
“Put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.” - Stephen King