Struggling for Character Development

Just a few years ago, I was a die-hard critic of any movie made from a book.  Regardless of stupid mistakes in the book, I would still say the movie should have stuck to it.  After all, it was the book I fell in love with– why do I have to watch a horrible movie to accompany it?  I disliked Eragon, I disliked Percy Jackson and the Olympians… but for some reason, though everyone said it didn’t follow the book, I loved the adaptation of the Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

The main problem most people had with it was the antagonism between Peter and Caspian, the antagonism between Peter and Trumpkin, the antagonism between Peter and… well, everybody.  Peter was always fighting someone in that movie, and more often than not, losing.  He wasn’t the greatest role model.  But in my opinion, that was a great improvement on his character from the book.  In the book, Peter had learned everything he had to learn, and now all that was left was to help Caspian and leave Narnia forever.  In the movie, he actually had a character arc.

Unfortunately for the critics, it was a very obvious and very violent character arc.  Peter rushes headlong into fights he can’t win, just because his pride is hurt.  At the beginning of the movie, he’s in a fight with some bullies.  As the movie progresses, he fights with Trumpkin and Lucy, then starts swinging at Caspian before they’ve had a chance to introduce themselves.  He decides to override everyone else and order a raid on Miraz’s castle, which ends in horrible failure.  After that, he saves Caspian from freeing the White Witch– so he’s partially successful– but then almost does the same thing himself.  The only thing that keeps him from failing that time is Edmund.  Peter keeps fighting– and failing– all through the movie.

But then, after all that failure, he decides to fight Miraz directly.  Considering his record, is this a good idea?  No.  But are his motives better?  Absolutely.  This time he’s fighting for something other than pride.  He isn’t rushing into a fight he can’t win.  Has he conquered his violent flaw?  Not really– he’s conquered his motivational flaw.

In Pixar movies, they have this style of character development (just like everything else in their arsenal) down to a science.  In Finding Nemo, Nemo is trying to be independent successfully while his father is trying to let things go without losing them while Dory is trying to remember things.  Each of them fail at the very beginning, keep failing all the way through, but finally succeed at the end.

This cycle of failure and success works so well for any kind of story– and character development is just another story.  All the characters should want something, right?  Is the character development just another name for those characters meeting those goals?  No.  Character development, even in this case, is usually unseen by the characters.  Peter wants to be respected as High King again– winning fights, though it’s a must, is not his goal.  It’s merely another product of his journey, one that makes him a better person.

So, how does this process work?  It isn’t exactly like a regular story; it doesn’t follow the Hollywood Formula.  There is no midpoint, no low point, no choice to be made in order to erase this flaw.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t know how to incorporate it.

In order to use character development like this, look at it as a series of struggles, just like Peter’s fights.  In the beginning, the character will struggle for something, but will be stopped by the flaw and fail.  As the story progresses, the struggles go on, gradually growing in scale until the failures are so great they add to the overall low point of the story.  (That’s a really cool effect once you figure it out.)  Once the final battle comes, however, have them fight the same sort of battle with one different element– and succeed.

Occasionally it’s difficult to figure out how to weave those struggles into the plot, but if your characters are affected by the plot, you should have no problem finding ways to add character development.  Good luck with your struggles.

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17 thoughts on “Struggling for Character Development

  1. Great Post. I had a really difficult time digesting ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, the movie, after reading the book. Good writing is good writing, and I think everyone should accept that, especially when the adaptation has had a lot of thought put into it. But I hate Hollywood cop-outs.

      1. I’ve heard many theories, but as far as a novel goes, it’s this – I wind up rewriting the same book two to four times before it comes together. The plot and characters are one with the story, and I believe it is a grave mistake to think one or the other matters more. Furthermore, I don’t believe in ‘making things up’. I believe we truly see something in our head, and only through much contemplation does everything become clearer. That is why I write a bad first draft, a decent second, than a much improved third. Not until that point to things seem to stick, and after that point, true editing can begin. A good character is someone who you would like to hang out with, be they a hero or an antagonist. The development comes with the story, and the story comes with the development. That is how I view the subject, at least.

      2. A willingness to write something today and over haul it sometime in the future. Not as a change of direction, but in growth, working towards a very real end that you just have yet to reach. To put it simply, write and it will come.

      3. I tend to subscribe to a more technical school of thought– as you can see from this blog. Yes, you can sometimes sense innately where development and plot points should happen, but there’s something to be said for knowing what you’re doing instead of running around a dark room full of deep pits. I don’t claim to know everything I’m doing– a lot of things I still do by instinct– but following a process definitely helps.

        Thank you for your thoughts.

      4. Good advice. If you don’t have a process you can never get done, nothing worse than floating on air day in day out. Good stuff.

  2. So true! Something I read somewhere that says the same thing you did is make your characters fail, so they actually seem believable. Pixar does a good job with this, as you said. Love the idea of making their failures worse as they go, I will use that. 🙂

  3. I’m with you. I’ve always been a fan of the Narnia movies, despite the fact they don’t follow the books as well as they could have. Peter was actually my favorite in the movie because he was flawed and struggled with his pride. He had more depth to his character in the movie than he did in the book (I love C. S. Lewis, but I don’t think that character development was ever his strongest point as a writer). Plus, Caspian was a jerk. I can see why Peter didn’t like him…

    1. Lewis did well with character development in the Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe, but once he got into Prince Caspian he just kept everyone static. I disliked that.

      Caspian was okay, I’ve found. He’s got his own motivations for acting like a jerk.

  4. Great post. The Narnia example washed over me because it’s been SO long since I’ve seen a Narnia movie and I barely even remember Prince Caspian, but since we’re talking about it, my favourite character is bound to be Edmund, at least in the first movie. He’s the only one who isn’t completely good and has his motives and morals really mixed up and despite that, he comes through in the end. I’ve always liked him ^_^

    As for formulas on character development…Can’t stand them. I don’t really like formulas in general and I find it incredibly difficult to stick to them, (for example: the novel I’m currently writing…it doesn’t even HAVE a main character. It has a set of four or five characters that have been developed to the tiniest detail and if you remove even one of them, the whole story loses its charm.) Some of the struggles that the characters face don’t have a direct impact on the plot. One of the romance themes (there are three. This comes from someone who loathes romance with a passion), is simply to add flavour to the story and develop the character some more. Take it out and it doesn’t affect the plot. Despite all of that, I think it really works well. Maybe it’s just me blowing my own trumpet. I’ve only just started writing it, so the people that I’ve asked to read my story don’t know what’s coming yet, so I haven’t had a chance to hear someone else’s opinion on this.

    Still, I have this feeling that despite not adhering to formulas, it might just work. If I can do it right, that is.

    Characterization is one of my absolute favourite topics and there’s nothing I enjoy more while writing a story than to develop a character. This post was very interesting. 🙂

    1. I’ve got a post on formulas and such in the works, and I think you’d be interested. But I know where you’re coming from. My first novel, Wise, was written with 7 to 13 protagonists and no antagonist– a comedy of errors, if you will. It was “inspired by” Les Miserables, which is famous in my mind for justifying everyone. Javert is like an antagonist, but when you see his side of things, you really feel for him as if he’s the protagonist. Anyway, I wrote that when I was just getting into writing seriously, and I didn’t know anything about formulas like these. It turned out fine. I think, however, I actually followed several formulas just by instinct from reading a lot of great books. There’s a formula for everything that works in a story, and if you can find it, you can use it. It doesn’t matter if you’re conscious of it or not.

      Perhaps I’m throwing the word formula around too much. These are more like guidelines than actual rules, like the Pirate Code. It’s a process you can follow to get the most out of your character development, but you can do it just as well by throwing away the formulas completely and relying on instinct.

  5. I think I do a bit of both. Formulas and instinct. One thing I’ve noticed about my own writing is that even unconsciously, almost all of my characters have this One Great Defining Moment of Grief that inadvertently impacts everything they ever do. (Which is something I’ve noticed and picked up from other books)

    This is true of four out of five of my characters of my current novel. The only one who is saved from my wrath of having a childhood trauma has to suffer through a really psychologically taxing profession that he finds incredibly disturbing.

    Goodness, I am such a sadist… O_e

    Ooh, by the way, I need to ask. Have you written a post about procrastination? Because that’s what I’m going right now. I have fifteen minutes left to my ‘One Hour of Writing A Day Minimum’ rule and I’m having a bit of a block and well…here I am. *Angelic smile*.

    1. Moments of Grief are awesome, but they aren’t for everyone. Consult your doctor before giving a character a Moment of Grief.

      I have not written a post about procrastination because it would inevitably end up as a way to procrastinate. Instead, I write posts about doing things in hopes that they will inspire people to do things. My advice: turn off the internet. If you’re really having trouble feeling good about anything you’ve written, write it by hand in the nicest letters you can form, in pen. You’ll change it later, but it can get you past that one troublesome spot.

      Another trick is if you don’t think your characters will let you go any further, backtrack and see what’s stopping them.

      I know procrastination is difficult to overcome, but sometimes you just have to separate yourself from whatever distracts you. That’s the only advice I have.

      1. Hehehe. Depends on how it’s done, right? If they’re done just for the sake of being done then it’s pretty cheesy and predictable. I’ve seen movies and read books where basically the characters will have this deep in-depth talk about their traumas and then suddenly Character 1 will fall in love with Character 2 because they understand their “Sad Past” and then it’s all kiss-kiss-happy-ending-let’s-get-married-and-have-ten-kids-and-teach-them-how-to-love. (Yes, I just made a Taylor Swift reference. Shoot me now, please).

        I had actually switched the internet on in the first place because I was looking for a nice name for a supporting character. And then I remembered to check for comment replies over here and the rest is history. It’s not about not feeling good about what I’ve written. I’m feeling pretty positive. But I’m writing a fight scene that I hadn’t properly thought out so I find myself backspacing and rewriting and stopping to think, “Wait a minute, that stunt defies gravity and the space-time continuum just a little bit, doesn’t it?”

        I basically need to lock myself in my room and listen to some rock music. That always helps me with fight scenes.

        Sigh. And now I have homework to finish. Which, of course, I am procrastinating with as well.

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