More On Character Development

Further notes on this not-so-mysterious topic

Through the magic of Google Analytics, I can see that my most popular article in my Creative Butt-Kicking section is the one on character development. I wrote that several years ago, and while there have been no astonishing breakthroughs in character development since that time, maybe a bit more explanation is in order for those who want to understand the very basics and how it can help you become a better writer. Or, it might be helpful for those of you in high school or college who have been assigned to write a paper on a certain character’s development, and have realized with a flash of panic that you have no idea what on earth that means, and your paper is due tomorrow, and if you don’t hand it in on time you’re going to fail the class because your teacher has assured you that this is your last chance, ever, and if that happens you’ll never get a good job, and you’ll end up living in a box on a street corner somewhere. In that case, character development could very well save your life!

What exactly is character development?

Sometimes it’s easier to say what it isn’t. If a character is badly developed, they won’t be very interesting. They’ll do the same things over and over, or their actions and dialogue won’t make sense. They won’t change over the course of a story. They won’t do things unless something is done to them first. They won’t evoke any emotion in you. Badly developed characters leave our minds as soon as we put down a book, and more often than not we won’t even finish reading a story with bad character development. It just doesn’t pull us in the way a good story should.

A well-developed character, by contrast, feels so real to us that we forget it’s just a person on a page. We find ourselves thinking about them later, wondering what they’re up to, how they managed to work things out after the book ended. When a writer can pull that off, it’s a real accomplishment.

How to talk about it

One of the most common metaphors used to describe characters has to do with shape. When characters are well developed, we say they are well-rounded or three-dimensional. When a character is badly developed, we say they are flat. Usually, you don’t need to have it explained to you if a character is flat or rounded. You can just feel it. Sometimes we may disagree with others about whether we like a character or not, but that’s different. It’s possible to dislike a character who has been well drawn. After all, we don’t like everyone we meet in real life, either.

If you’re analyzing a character, either your own or someone else’s, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do they move the story along through things they do and say, or are they just furniture?
  • Do they act a certain way because of who they are, or is the story something that just happens to them? (The former is desirable, the latter not.)
  • Do they cause you, the reader, to feel sympathy for them? That is not to ask if you feel sorry for them, but if you are able to feel what they are feeling in such a way that you want what they want.
  • Do they stick in your mind after you are done reading the story? Do you wish you could meet them in real life?
  • Did the character’s presence in the story have an impact on how things turned out?

There are many more things you can ask yourself, too. Your answers to these questions will help you figure out whether the author has done a good job of character development or not. And if you’re an aspiring writer, maybe it can help you develop your own characters as well.

More questions about character development, or writing in general? Use the contact link in the menu bar to drop me a line.