Character Development and Why It’s Horrible

Don’t be put off by the title.  I’m actually here to endorse character development.

Which is strange, since I’m horrible at it.

Which is exactly why I’m writing about it.

The best-loved characters are, believe it or not, human.  I’m using the term figuratively; your favorite character might be a dragon, or a fairy, or a Vogon, or a hamster with maracas.  I wouldn’t know why exactly, but I won’t judge you.  What I mean is that the best-loved characters in literature make mistakes and learn from them.  They begin the books as jerks, with so many flaws you’d think they’d fall apart when someone looks at them too closely.  There isn’t too much of a difference between them and the antagonist.  If this is a middle-grade fiction book we’re talking about, the main character will be extremely whiny and talks back like an iPhone’s Siri program. If this is teen fiction, the character is probably estranged from his/her parents, wants to do his own thing and wouldn’t take orders even if they came with a free drink.  If this is any type of book, the character is probably pretty full of himself and a mite arrogant, which of course leads to his downfall.

But, through all of these flaws, we also see the good in the character, which is what makes him different from the antagonist.  It’s the “I’m not like you” of every single good vs. bad book.  The only thing that makes that effective is the fact that at the beginning of the story, the character seems very much like his enemy, but as we go on the story brings out his good parts.

That, my dears, is what we call character development.

If we don’t have it, the character remains as he starts out: a jerk.  There might be extenuating circumstances that justify the character’s utter imbecility, such as a horrible-seeming family or a bad situation, but the fact remains that the character is still rather deplorable.

The other option is that even worse occurs: we have a character without flaws.  I have been here numerous times.  Every time I attempt to make a protagonist, he ends up absolutely picture-perfect.  This is why I wrote my last novel without a protagonist or antagonist.

The problem with a perfect protagonist is that you cannot do anything with him.  No matter how many inciting incidents you have, no matter how many muscle-bound trolls you bribe into pounding on this guy’s door, it won’t matter because, well, he’s perfect.  He can’t lose a fight, he has no weaknesses, and no matter how much you try, you can’t get that confident smile off his face.

In short, you have the stereotypical hero of legend.  Saint George, Prince Charming, Sir Frank the Smelly-of-Foot.  You’re left with a short story where the hero rides out against a mythic villain and, after five minutes of posturing, sticks a sword into the bad guy’s tummy.  It leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling, but it doesn’t do much for your chances in the epic fantasy department.

The problem with a flawed good guy who never gets any better is that the bad guy is better than he.  You could switch the two halfway through your second draft and no one would ever know, just because the antagonist is more human and redeemable than the protagonist.

Today I was reading The Cry of the Icemark by Stuart Hill, and was struck by the fact that I was enormously pleased when a small army, almost overwhelmed by a larger force, called for aid from a logically nonexistent fighting force and received it.  Why?

I had come to like the main character.  She was flawed, yes.  She was uppity, snotty, and all the rebellious princess you could hope for.  It wasn’t clear who was in the right in her struggle.  When there’s one army who’s conquering everything in its path, what says that it’s wrong to do so?  They hadn’t brought the moral problems of the invaders’ strategy yet, though they became obvious later.  At the moment, both forces were morally equal; both wanted the same land and were willing to kill each other to get or keep it.  The main character had actually been happy to be able to go to war; the main character’s father had reveled in the “beautiful” sight of a bloody battle.  How do we know which is right and which is wrong?

Well, that’s slightly off-topic.  But the fact was that though the characters had these flaws mentioned, they also showed admirable traits.  In short, they were human.  When confronted with the carnage of her first battle, the main character weeps.  Oh, the humanity!  Though the main character delights in the prospect of war, she is crestfallen at the idea of losing her father to the same thing she wants to take part in herself.  Though she is remarkably full of herself, she shows that she cares for the people around her.  She has flaws, but she gets around them.

We all love it when the character who can’t stop talking realizes that she doesn’t need to keep up a running commentary on life.  We enjoy it when the hardened exterior of an impassive character finally melts to show something better.  Though Dark Lord Mor-[insert suffix here] and Sir Jake have both killed the same number of enemies in the same battle, we know we like Jake better when he refuses to kill an unarmed man.

The definition of character development is shown in this:  A character has flaws, but doesn’t feel the need to change because his circumstances don’t demand it.  When circumstances do demand it, however, he doesn’t throw a temper tantrum because his arrogant scorn fails to cow those he believes to be beneath him; he realizes that arrogant scorn is rather out of place in his circumstances and decides to change for the better.  He doesn’t cling to his stupidity like a limpet with glued lips; he lets go and changes.

First step to developing a character: force yourself to realize his faults.

Second step: force the character to realize his faults.

Third step: change him.  Use supporting characters as necessary.

We all like to see characters change for the better.  It’s how we fall in love with them.  A story is not just a series of things happening to a character; it is a journey, the journey of the main character in particular.  Show how what happens to him, but also show how that changes him.

You change every day with everything that happens to you.  Why shouldn’t your character?  You’re flawed– you’re only human, after all.  Your character is too, no matter how much hamster DNA he has.  If a character isn’t flawed, he isn’t lovable.  If he isn’t lovable, no one cares how close that purple fireball came to shaving off his eyebrows; some would even enjoy it if he lost his head in that instance.  We don’t love a character because he has a quip for every occasion.  (By the way, he has a book of them in his back pocket: “Great One-Liners for Fight Scenes”.)  We love a character because we can identify with him.  You can’t identify with a character unless he’s flawed.  Make him flawed.  Then make him compensate.

Your character needs development.  You are the developer.  Develop.

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79 Comments

  1. Interesting theory. I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter.

    Reply
  2. Charley R

     /  July 17, 2012

    Awesome post! Though I do argue that a protagonist need not start of revoling – they could just be plain weak, like one of the leads in my currently rewriting-in-process trilogy, or just shy or underprepared … or a git, that works too. Besides, putting the character’s development in alongside the plot itself is great fun, and makes for a far more engrossing story.

    Great article! I really feel in the mood to go and develop someone now xD

    Reply
    • Exactly what I was thinking. Not the part about the article being great– more the part about actually developing a character parallel to the plot itself, which I never do. I’ll work on it too.

      Reply
      • Charley R

         /  July 17, 2012

        Glad I could be of help 😛

      • What? You weren’t of help at all. Don’t get a swelled head, Charley.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Swelled head? I’ll have you know my head is actually rather small. I also meant that comment very sarcastically, hence the emoticon.

      • I don’t read this thing you call “emoticon”. It is nothing to me, and if anything it shows that you have even more of a swelled head, if you think that you can get away with writing nonsense on my blog.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        *backs away slowly and exits the building at high speed*

      • What? Come back! I was kidding! Most of what I write on my blog is nonsense!

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        *jumps out of the floor behind you*
        I know! I just wanted to try out my new ambush technique!

      • Oh. Well, if that’s all, then I’ll insult you more, shall I?

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        If thou fanciest!

      • Ah, why did you go and say fancy words? I can’t understand.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        If you fancy. You great lummox.

      • Is a lummox some relative of lemming? Or just a species of beaver? I’m confused. Again.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        It’s a word that describes nothing, but is often applied to daft people like you.

      • You want to know who’s daft? You are. You’re not only daft, but you’re a ridiculous nitwit with a head too big to fit through the door. Your brain hasn’t seen your body in twenty years– which of course is longer than you’ve been alive. In fact, your brain is currently on permanent vacation in Dubai of all places, while your empty skull is having open houses every day to find anyone silly enough to take up residence there.

        Of course, don’t take this personally. I’d hate for you to show the world your true colors and break down into tears like a coward.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        You, sir, are the single most dim-witted piece of pond life I have ever had the misfortune to encounger. Crawl back from whence you came, lest you embarrass yourself with any further display of your infinitessimal intellect. Your foolish attempts at insulting me only compound my certainty in the belief that you, my friend, are the world’s finest specimin of nincompoop.

      • Well, that makes you rather more dim-witted than I had first supposed. For I know many life forms less intelligent than I– you, for example. I even know inanimate objects more intelligent than you. Considering how much you have learned in your life, however, it only makes your origins that much more mean. If ever I encounter another life-form as supremely idiotic as you, I will get you two together and bash your heads together. For a fee, of course.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Ha! Suppose you should ever have the misfortune to encounter me, I would soon have you curled up in the foetal position, sobbing that you stood no chance of comprehending even my simplest words. You are not as half as intelligent as you believe yourself to be, yet I fear your idiocy is so deep-set that you do not stand a chance of recognising this until you have performed your last dim-witted act and brought yourself to a premature end.

      • You’re right, my intelligence must not be very great, because I cannot comprehend why you’re misspelling any word you can. Of course, your intelligence must be significantly lower than mine if I can figure out that you’re misspelling words but you cannot. You seem hypocritical, ma’am, and you have my pity.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Your woeful attempts to insult me by criticising my spelling, of all things, is simply yet another arrow in the quiver of proofs concerning your brainlessness that I am swiftly accumulating. Be that as it may, I applaud your meagre efforts – unfortunately determination never did make up for actual brain power.

      • Of course, there is also the object of racial heritage to consider. Not to seem prejudiced, but the British are definitely more strange than Americans. Though they might have good taste in kilts, that’s about all they have. And you, my friend, are one of them. Thus… *sticks tongue out*

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Ha! You are reduced to the level of such childish antics! I would also like to point out that your feeble attempt at attacking my noble race fails magnificently – odds are that you, as a white American, are most likely descended from a British settler, or a French one. And if you are a French descendant . . . I pity your worthless excuse for genetic heritage!

      • I am neither, sir! I am descended from a long line of aliens that started just yesterday. For in fact I am not Liam, but one of his new characters who live for only two hours in this strange world you call Earth! Yes indeed, my home country is Vorse, and I am proud– urk.

        Hello, Charley. The creature you had been conversing with has suffered a fatal accident called death. I will be available for another two hours until I, too, succumb to the void. Now, what can I help you with?

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Oh my . . . what manner of force have you been meddling with in order to bring a critter like that into this world?

      • Who are you talking to? And are you saying I am a “critter”? Now I know why Dan was insulting you.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        I was referring to “Dan” and, to me, “critter” is a somewhat affectionate term that I apply to non-humans. Forgive me if I insulted.

      • You’re right I’m insulted! I have two hours to live and I’m confronted by horrors of humanity like you!

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        You’ll be pleased to know I’m probably the most pleasant horror of humanity you will ever have the misfortune to meet.

      • You’re still horrible, you gubfish.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Thou dribbling pustule of gnat’s spit!

      • Madam, please! Has Liam not warned you before not to use inappropriate terms and language in comments? I’ll have to report this.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Apologies … I thought the scientific term wouldn’t qualify.

      • Unfortunately, it does. I’ve changed all overly offensive terms, however. Captain Victor would have you keelhauled for this. Well… He wouldn’t, because he’s a sailor and… well, you know their views on cursing.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Ah. Can I bring you some manner of magical item from a hard-to-reach location to make up for it? I’m particularly good at rubber gloves and interestingly-themed pyjamas.

      • Are those really magical? I’ll have to tell Liam; he’ll want that as part of his story. It would only work if it was third-person omniscient, however… Hint hint, nudge nudge.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Bah, take your wretched third-person-omniscient! I am feebly trying to cover up the fact that I can’t write it for beans behind my somewhat abusive use of exclamation marks!

      • And Liam is just trying to hide his inability to write this story in first person only!

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Charley sympathises! Her first person skills are so rusty they make the Titanic look pristine.

        And hello. The author is currently trying to free herself from a very inventive series of paradoxes. I’m getting my revenge.

      • If you don’t use third person or first person… what?

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Third person limited. That’s what she uses, most of the time.

      • Well, what I call third person omniscient isn’t too far from that anyway. In different scenes it can change perspective– but not usually in the same scene.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Oh, rotating perspectives! I do those – sorry, to me “omnisceient” (which I can’t spell tonight) means you see everyone’s perspectives from a third-person standpoint side-by-side at the same time.

      • Occasionally, yes. But the way I’m using it is not like that. Apologies for confusion.

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        Confusion is now cleared, no drama.

      • Good. Now what do you think of the idea of switching to third person?

      • Charley R

         /  July 18, 2012

        I think that would probably work best for your story, if I’m honest. I say go for it.

      • Okay, then, that’s final. I’ll have to rethink my awesome introduction, but the rest of the story will be much better.

        Actually, I won’t rethink it. I’ll just scrap it and go for a dark prologue or a gripping first chapter.

      • Charley R

         /  July 19, 2012

        Whichever floats your proverbial boat.

      • I’ve already got it figured out. It’s going to be awesome. You know the amnesia forced on Vorse/Earth travellers? Well, the main character (Fathom) has a prized possession that he always keeps in his pocket when he’s on Earth– sort of like a security blanket. When he wakes up in Vorse, having no knowledge of his past life, he often checks his pockets for that, out of habit. But the thing is that it had been stolen from him before he woke up, so he’s searching Vorse for this thing without knowing what it is. Of course, that is compounded with the fact that numerous rather angry people are wishing harm upon his person, so things get interesting.

      • Charley R

         /  July 19, 2012

        Aww, poor critter! Sounds like an awesome story you have there 😀

      • I sure hope it will be. It sounds better in my head… *would put smiley face but doesn’t want to to keep his commentary consistency*

      • Charley R

         /  July 20, 2012

        Hehehe, enjoy. And long may your anti-smiley resolve last 😉

      • Oh, it will– don’t worry about that.

  3. Very good post! I must have forgotten to read it yesterday.

    I have a problem with all my characters being too similar to each other – and none of them develop very much. Next time I write a novel I must put a lot more work into this area. I think it kind of helps if the novel is long, too.

    Reply
    • It does help if the novel is long, but it doesn’t depend on it. One feature that separates novels from short stories, generally speaking, is the fact that you can introduce and develop your characters instead of just following them for a short while. So yes, length adds to your ability to develop. But short novels can still develop characters.

      You and I are in the same boat, I think; all my characters seem to have the same sarcastic, arrogant personality. Except the humble ones, which are too Uriah Heep-ish for my liking.

      Reply
  4. Okay that makes sense.

    I’m just trying to think who Uriah Heep is… is he from David Copperfield? I’m almost certain he’s from some Dickens book but I can’t think which one. (the only unabridged Dickens books I’ve read are Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol).

    Reply
    • You are right on the button: David Copperfield. The funny thing is that I haven’t read it either– I’ve only read Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. I’m planning to read Tale of Two Cities soon.

      Reply
  5. Ah yes I read an abridged version of A Tale of Two Cities and even that was enjoyable, so the real thing should be good. I started reading Great Expectations but I had too much other stuff to do, so I have put it off for a couple of months. What I read of it was very enjoyable though.

    Reply
    • One person I know needed a sweater to write out all of the interconnected relationships in Great Expectations. It was quite involved.

      Reply
  6. A sweater… as in, a jumper? Was that so that they would be reminded of the family structures in Great Expectations when they wore it? That’s a creative idea.

    Reply
    • No, it was just so she could see how each person was related to whom. It gets rather confusing having to remember who exactly M. Jaggers is working for, or how many people Miss Haversham is related to.

      Reply
  7. Okay. Maybe I should do something like that when I read Great Expectations. I plan to read it eventually…

    Reply
    • I was able to mentally keep track fairly accurately, but do whatever works. You might not need the diagram until you finish the book and want to figure out how everyone was connected; during the book it’s pretty clear what connections are there when you need them.

      Reply
  8. “You’re left with a short story where the hero rides out against a mythic villain and, after five minutes of posturing, sticks a sword into the bad guy’s tummy. It leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling, but it doesn’t do much for your chances in the epic fantasy department.” Aww, but it worked so well when my protagonist was five years old and I didn’t care at all that there was no climax of any sort! *pretend pouts*

    Reply
  9. Wait a minute…how can you write a novel without a protagonist or an antagonist? How is there any story?

    Reply

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