When I was a kid, I loved developing stories. I always pictured each and every scene of my epic narrative in my mind, as if they were playing on the big screen at the local theater. Well, every scene except for one type: those of character development.
I had no idea how to develop them. I didn’t even know where to start. I knew what the types of scenes I was looking for were. I knew that there was character development going on between Han Solo and Leia Organa when they were stranded together in the Millennium Falcon. But in my stories, starting from scratch, I was worse than clueless.
I used to write a title at the top of the page at certain points in my story, where I knew the “character development” beats needed to go. It would say (Insert Character Development Here). It would then be followed by roughly five blank pages.
What belonged in those blanks? I had the rough impression that there needed to be talking. I needed to zoom in on the characters and their motivations. But I had no idea what made high-quality character development, or how long those scenes needed to be.
You might ask, though, is character development really that important for your story? As a matter of fact, it is an essential aspect of storytelling. Sure, you could have one-dimensional characters with no goals, no aspirations, and no desires. But you have to ask yourself, would the stories of such characters be compelling? Can you root for a character to win the day if you don’t even know who they are, what their history is, or what drives them?
On top of that, if you don’t establish the motivations for a character, then who’s to say that they would do anything at all when presented with the events of the story? If John Doe doesn’t have something to live for when the zombie apocalypse arrives, then he’s not going to struggle against unbearable odds to stay alive. In fact, if he really has nothing to live for, it’s more likely he will simply end his existence rather than fight for it.
So what does it take for you to develop your characters? How do you make sure that they have the proper motivations, and how do you make sure that they’re dynamic, constantly evolving?
1. Do Your Research
The first thing that is required for quality character development is a starting point for your characters. You need to develop them to the greatest extent possible so that you know exactly who they are from the get-go.
If you want your characters to evolve, to be motivated by the inciting incident, and to be changed by the climax of the story, then you need to have that starting point firmly established.
So, what does this require? Well, there are many different options for developing your characters. Countless websites and guidebooks are available with the intention of walking you through the process, with questions as varied as what their history is, what their social and economic conditions are, and what their physical attributes are.
My upcoming ebook, If So, Why? The Ultimate Character Development Guide, will contain 850 questions along with descriptions and explanations of each one. The purpose of questions like these isn’t to detail every single aspect of your character’s history and life, down to how many times they shake it when using the restroom. The purpose is to get to know who your character really is, what drives them, and what makes them unique. The purpose is to open your mind to the possibilities that this blank slate that is your character presents you with.
The question is, how many of these categories are essential to the development of your character? The answer: whichever ones give you the greatest insights into how your character thinks and how they developed as human beings.
Physical attributes, questions such as, “What color are their eyes?” or, “How tall are they?” obviously won’t be as important to their development as questions like “What was their economic situation growing up?” and “Were either of their parents abusive?”
But don’t turn this recommendation into a rule. Any abnormalities in the appearance of a character in comparison to that of the fellow youths they grow up with can cause insecurities and inferiority complexes or, on the flip side, extreme privilege, pride, and vanity.
So be sure to give plenty of thought to the questions that are of the greatest importance for your specific character. How can you identify them? The most important thing you need to do is think about your plot.
For example, in Avatar, Jake Sully needs to be compassionate and caring if he’s going to give up his old life and accept the new one that friendship with the Na’vi offers him. So that means that he has to be dissatisfied with his current life. There has to be something on Pandora for him which humanity is no longer able to offer him. In other words, he can’t be rich and well-to-do, and he can’t be satisfied with the hand he’s been dealt.
In Iron Man, Tony Stark needs to be incredibly smart if he’s going to be able to develop his suit, and he has to be egotistical and self-centered if he’s going to have room to grow as a character by learning to care about others and sacrifice himself for them.
Can you develop characteristics that are not directly related to the motives of the character, nor to their inner self? Of course you can. But it might be better if you don’t put too much effort into coming up with them right out the gate. You’ll be able to discover plenty of insignificant and mundane details about your character as you write your story.
It’s reasonable enough to assume that when the writers of the first Thor movie were establishing the details for their eponymous magical hero, a love of coffee was nowhere to be found in their notes. No doubt, it wasn’t until they wrote the scene in the diner that they realized the comedic potential of that aspect of his character. It’s not an essential detail, but it made for a great scene, and it fit the character’s personality.
2. Plot Your Character Arc
Now that you have the starting point for your character, the next step you have to take is to plan out what effects the events of the story are going to have on them. This will help you to understand which moments in your story are significant, and thus allow you to identify where to put your focus so as to fully capitalize on their character-developing potential.
These moments of evolution that your character experiences throughout the story come to be known collectively as a “character arc.” We discussed the general concept of character arcs in Issue #004 of this magazine. Basically, the character arc is the transformation of a character over the course of the story.
There are three different types of character arcs: positive character arcs, negative character arcs, and flat character arcs. The question is, do you want your character to end in a better (positive) position than when they started, a worse (negative) position than when they started, or do you want them to be the same (flat) as when they started?
Characters that are already heroic and selfless at the beginning of the story, as well as characters that are classified as anti-heroes, or even villains, may not be significantly changed by the plot of the story. Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark are two examples of characters with flat character arcs.
In that case, your character development will be limited to zooming in on them as individuals and showing what the standards and morals they hold dear are, and perhaps what caused them to be so resolute in the first place.
On the other hand, characters that develop positive traits, becoming better human beings by the end of the story, as well as those who become worse, offer many opportunities for character development that aren’t just limited to the establishment of their characters.
3. Identify Key Events
There are going to be key events over the course of the story that you will discover while plotting your character and story arcs. As you find them, you’ll realize that these are the points where you need to write your story as if viewed from under a magnifying glass, if not a microscope, to show exactly how the characters are developing in these significant moments.
Tony Stark is selfish and self-centered. He doesn’t care what is done with his weapons. Then he’s attacked, nearly killed by his own missile. We see the reaction on his face. If this was a written story, his thought process about the significance of this event would be clearly on display. He realizes that he’s not untouchable and that it matters what is done with his weapons.
Then Tony Stark makes his first genuine friend, someone who he lets in past his rough, selfish exterior, someone who selflessly sacrifices himself for Tony. That death is a life-altering event for Stark, and thus, we zoom in on him and his feelings, the tragic loss he experiences, and we know that it’s going to come to define him down the road.
Following that loss, Tony Stark, with his idealism and sensibilities renewed, is presented with the fact that his weapons are still being sold to and used by terrorists. He now knows that he has a responsibility to do something about it, because his name is on those weapons, just as it was on the missile that nearly killed him. He can no longer stand idly by, so he builds his Iron Man suit and takes the fight to them.
You need to identify the major life-altering events of your own story as well. What are the most significant changes that occur to your character, and when do they take place? When you get to these moments, be sure that you really zoom in on them, and don’t allow anything to to fly under the radar.
So do your research. Plot your character arcs. Identify your most important events. Once you know where they are, don’t be afraid to write a little note in your manuscript that says (Insert Character Development Here). There’s nothing wrong with that, in spite of my earlier antidote. Just don’t forget about filling it in down the road.