There are two ways to get rid of a bad character. One way is to destroy every mention of them within your manuscript and smite them ’til you can’t smite no more. Another way is to change them.
The second option is so much more fun.
As Robyn Hoode pointed out in one of her many comments, one way to make characters interesting is to develop them. Though this process takes a long time, it does work if done correctly. In this post, I’m going to call “Making bad characters into good ones” character development. If that isn’t your definition, assume it is for the moment while I expound, then tell me why it isn’t in the comments.
The character most open to character development, in my opinion, is the jerk. Jerks are overly interested in petty things– such as themselves– and don’t really care about anything else. Usually, jerks are introduced by a scene which shows exactly what they’re interested in and exactly how little they care about the things around them. Right from the start, the reader hates the jerk just because he’s a jerk. But, inexplicably, the readers are stuck with the jerk for the entire story. If he stays the same, the readers won’t hate him because he’s easy to hate, but because he’s a horrible character. He’s stagnant. In that case, take the first suggestion at the beginning of the post– that character is doing nothing for your story. But if the jerk starts to change, little by little, the reader will be as interested in him as in the hero.
Creating a sympathetic character out of nothing is hard, however. You’ve already established him as a jerk. How do you turn that around and get him going in the opposite way?
The trick is to find the polar opposite of the character’s most hate-worthy flaw, and apply that opposite until the character has changed. For instance, you have a jerk. He’s interested in petty things. Now, directly contradict that. Get him interested in something bigger– way bigger.
If you’ll pardon a mathematical interlude, think of it as an equation. Something bad is negative, and something good is positive. In order for the equation to end positively, the positive must outweigh the negative. Negative two plus positive four equals positive two.
This rule is true on any scale of this process, but it gets harder and harder as the character’s flaw gets bigger and harder to contradict. Traitors are traitorous. They don’t keep promises or guard your back or tell the truth. In order to change a traitor, then, you must make him keep a promise, guard the main character’s back, and tell the truth. Not only that, though– you have to contradict and outdo the original flaw. Not only does the traitor fight alongside the hero in the final battle, but he destroys the only enemy warrior on the battlefield that could defeat the hero. He doesn’t just pay his debt– he gets the hero in debt instead.
As I said, this gets harder and harder as you get bigger and bigger. The villain, for instance. He’s a power-hungry liar who kills innocents and generally does evil. That makes him nearly irredeemable. In order for him to change, he has to give up his power, tell the truth, save people, and generally do good. But not only that; he has to go above and beyond the call of duty. Perhaps sacrifice is in order. (Sacrifice is a huge sympathy-winner.)
Do this too quickly, however, and your credibility is gone. People don’t change overnight. Since the villain character arc I just outlined is so massive, pulling that twist ending would only work with loads of foreshadowing.
Let’s imagine the scene, shall we? Our hero braves stormy oceans, dry deserts, and thick jungles, until he finally finds the villain’s lair hidden in a mountainside. He barges in, slaying minions left and right, fighting his way to the inner sanctum. There he finds the malicious villain sitting on his throne. Seeing him, the villain throws himself to the floor, tearfully crying, “I hate myself! I’ve decided to become a philanthropist. But first, let me dismantle the Death Ray I just set to destroy Paris. Whoops, pressed the wrong button. Alas, I am killed by my own contraption! At my funeral, make sure you wax eloquent about my heroic efforts in the last moments, and don’t forget the irony of fate!”
If I were the reader, I’d hate this author. That trick is more evil than anything this villain ever did.
If you decide to contradict the flaw on the same scale as the flaw itself, you only equalize things. For instance, the army of the dead I mentioned yesterday. They broke a promise to fight in a war, which counts as their flaw. Later, they keep a promise to fight in a war. Now, this does not make us love them– but it keeps us from hating them and looking them as traitors. They feel– as do we– a sense of fulfillment, but we don’t view them as heroes. By contradicting the flaw, they’ve gotten themselves to level ground, but they are still far from heroic.
Dustfinger, from the Inkheart Trilogy, is a perfect example of this process done multiple times. He betrays Mo and Maggie to Capricorn, then gets trapped in turn and helps them get away in the end (I think I have that right, but I may be mistaken). In the second book, however, he is selfish at times and selfless at others, continually getting people into trouble and saving them spectacularly later. Through all this, he grows as a character, falling a little, then shooting up higher than he was before.
From the Phil Phorce, there’s Quirk– and this is where this post began. He’s a self-centered jerk, but in episode three, in the basement of the Castle Under the Cloud, after he’s been attacked by My Little Ponies (yes, I realize how weird this sounds), he makes a choice– blame the Phils and save himself, or stand by the Phils and blame himself. He chooses the second option and, as I said before, shows that he is interested in something much, much larger than himself.
What do you think? Does this make sense considering your favorite examples of character development? Or do you have a different definition of character development?