Character Development

Character development is an essential aspect of any story, and there’s quite a lot that can be said about it! Here we’ll cover what character develop is, who should have it, how to weave it into your story, and some things not to do with it.

Character development is the transition your character undertakes over the entire course of the story, which either:

  • Changes them for the better.
  • Changes them for the worse.
  • Changes them in a way that’s neither inherently positive or negative but has direct consequences on their actions and views of the world.
  • Almost changes them but at the last second they retreat to being the way they were before.
  • Brings them back to a way they once were prior to the story.

Character development is not

  • Characters suddenly deciding to change without any buildup.
  • Characters hearing a Really Good Speech just before the climax that grants them a miraculous epiphany.
  • Characters monologuing themselves into new opinions without ever acting on them.
  • Characters suddenly revealing they were the changed way all along, with no repercussions or foreshadowing.
  • Characters completing their character arc only to immediately return to their old self for little or no reason.
  • Any situation where the character flip flops their personality in order for the plot to proceed unchallenged.

What are some things that can change during a character’s development?

Flaws. These are the most common examples of character growth. Arrogance, anger, jealousy, insecurity, cowardice: a character arc involving the character overcoming these sorts of negative traits is simple but timeless. (Note that you can also have a character develop flaws instead of growing out of them.)

Strengths. These work in tandem with flaws, as often a character who grows out of a flaw will grow into the “opposite” strength, such as cowardice turning to bravery. There’s also an argument to be made that many strengths become flaws themselves after a certain point. A character may have to learn to be simply confident without arrogance, or perhaps instead they may have their original confidence slowly turn into arrogance.

Beliefs. A more complex form of character development, beliefs can be based in flaws and strengths or produce may flaws or strengths at once. Beliefs can be negative, such as bigotry or colonialism, neutral, such as many political alignments and religions, or positive, such as altruism. They can also be conceptual, such as a character’s concept of what it means to be in love or where they think a person should seek their happiness from.

Actions within relationships. While this is usually a subcategory within one of the above, it’s good to note how specific of a focus certain type of development can be. A character who’s untrusting doesn’t need to learn to trust everyone they meet in order to develop — perhaps it’s only their family or friends they have to grow to confide in.

Note that your character doesn’t need to develop in more than one aspect, but it’s perfectly acceptable, and for longer stories often recommended, to have more than one area of development for primary characters.

What composes a character arc?

At the start of the story: 

The character has one (or more) characteristics which define the choices they make and the actions they take.

It’s incredibly important to establish the traits you want your character to develop very early on in the story, fitting at least one of them into the first scene where that character is present.

Show the character exhibiting their trait, front and center. Quite often, at this early point in the story, they’re still “getting away with” their trait, meaning that the story world isn’t working to change them yet, but for strongly negative traits, it’s often a good idea to show some sign that the story believes the trait is in fact negative and wants the character to develop away from it.

** For additional information, check out this post on establishing the status queue and this one on first chapters.

Throughout the bulk of the story:

Many of the situations the character faces while seeking their main goal will challenge their way of existing. They are forced to either:

  • Continue with the same choices they’ve been making since the book started, and face continually greater consequences for it.
  • Slowly start making new choices and see that the new way of acting is better in some regard. (This could mean better for them, better for the people around them, better for their end goal, etc.)

This means your plot should be built of situations which play on and bring out your character’s development traits, and force the character to make hard decisions using those traits.

A main character who can succeed without developing as a person is a replaceable character. If the reader already knows they have the skills to achieve their goal, then the suspense relies entirely on outside forces, and the character looses much of their agency.

Things to avoid:

  • Characters who learn by being lectured. Sometimes characters do need to talk about their thoughts with someone, or simply get a slap upside the head, but if the story isn’t actively teaching them that they need to change by giving them consequences for their choices, then no amount of wise old monk advice will convince the reader they’re really learning.
  • Characters who make all (or even many) of the right choices too soon. Sometimes you need to grant your character’s success, but their success will mean little if they haven’t failed first.
  • Characters who internally monologue about their own character growth constantly. Sometimes a pov character needs to go a little self reflection, but if this self reflection isn’t created by actions and doesn’t result in choices, then it probably doesn’t belong in the book. Character thoughts should be a secondary viewpoint on the character’s development, based in and backed by their external progress.

Just before or during the character’s personal climax:

The character is faced with the biggest, most terrible choice of all.

This choice should have a direct and massive effect on the climax. A coward who chooses to hide during the climax will watch every one of their friends die, but if they take a stand and risk dying themselves, they might be able to save everyone. A closed off lover who chooses not to bare their heart for their significant other will watch that person disappear from their life forever, but if they let themselves be vulnerable, there’s a chance the other person might stay. A arrogant competitor who chooses to go after the prize at all costs will lose the people they love, but if they give up the win in order to help a friend, they’ll find something more important than a medal.

The above examples are a bit simpler than some climaxes though…

  • Sometimes characters with multiple areas of development will have more than one choice to make, and these choices can be conflicting or have opposing consequences, or take place at entirely different parts of the climax.
  • Some choices have internal consequences instead of external ones (guilt, shame, isolation, etc).
  • Some choices may harm the character just as much as they help them.
  • Some choices have to be make in tandem with the choices of the other characters, or are direct results of those character’s choices.
  • Sometimes characters need to agonize over their final choice, and sometimes they’ve already subconsciously made up their mind.

If you play around with it enough, you’ll find what works best for your characters and plot!

** If you’re considering ending your protagonist’s character development with their death, check out this post on the topic!

Who should have a character arc?

  • The protagonist, always.
  • All reoccurring pov characters, as often as possible.
  • Non-pov love interests and other primary characters can (and for longer books, should) have some sort of development as well, though it may not be covered to the same extent as the pov characters.
  • Side characters can also have character development, but don’t necessarily need to. Occasionally, development by side characters doesn’t end up looking like actual development, but rather seems to be the pov character finding out more about who the side character has been all along.

What does a character arc look like for a non-pov main character or a side character?

Portraying character development in a non-pov character gets tricker, because the reader has to clearly see the character development happening, without the benefit of being inside the character’s head. Development must be shown through actions and dialogue, and plot may need to be tweaked to make sure the pov-character is present for all prominent points of growth.

Some other things to consider:

  • In some cases, a side character’s development may be shown through vaguer implications. This should work similarly to foreshadowing, giving the readers pieces that might not make sense at the time, but will later fall into place to prove the side character has been developing throughout the story.
  • Characters who experience major character development should impact the climax (or, if they’re not present for the climax, some other major plot point.) A character who changes as a person but is never given a worthwhile opportunity to demonstrate that change might as well not have changed at all.
  • Everything in the story has a purpose. If a side character’s development doesn’t change the plot and isn’t invested in by the pov character, consider whether it’s necessary to take time away from the more relevant parts of the story in order to include it.

Your turn:

1. In which areas do you want your characters to develop?

2. How can you challenge these traits or beliefs? What sort of hard decisions will your character have to make when they’re challenged?

3. What choice can you throw at your main character just before or during the climax to make them decide either to change for good, or stay the same? What effect will either decision have on the outcome of the climax? (If you’re not a planner, this may be something you figure out later, but don’t forget to think about  it once you’re nearing your climax!)

For more writing advice, view the archive catalog or the complete tag!

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