Hello, and welcome to Episode 2 of The Writer’s Everything. Today we’re going to be discussing character development and how to know where it belongs in your story and what to include. But first, let’s go over the writing term of the week. This week’s term is “Antagonist”.
The antagonist is the force that stands in opposition to the protagonist, or the major characters in the case of an ensemble story. The antagonist brings conflict to the story, and usually the only reason a story is worth reading is to watch the main character’s struggle to overcome that conflict and come out victorious.
The antagonist is often, but not always, a person. Such a character is usually referred to as a villain. But, the problem with this is that it insinuates that they have ill intent. However, an antagonist has the potential to be the most morally upright character in the story, and at times may even be doing the right thing. But as long as they’re standing in the way of the goal of the protagonist, your readers will look forward to learning how their opposition is overcome.
In other stories, animals, natural events, or elemental forces may serve the function of antagonist. While it might not always be accurate to call such things “antagonists”, they can easily be called antagonistic forces.
For example, in Twister and The Perfect Storm, inclement weather serves as the antagonistic force against which the main characters struggle. In Jaws, Sharknado, The Shallows, The Meg, and countless other films, sharks serve as the antagonistic force, and the main characters must fight against their animalistic urges to hunt and kill.
In the case of superhero films, the antagonist is often “defeated” in a climactic battle. In other films, there may simply be a moment where the main character proves the antagonist wrong, or exceeds their expectations.
Who, or what, has been your most creative antagonist? Let me know on Twitter @QJ_author.
The Secret to Character Development
Ok. So, what is the secret to character development? When I was a kid, I loved developing stories. The scenes of my epic adventure would play out in my head as if they were appearing on the big screen at the local theater. Well, every scene with the exception of one: Those with character development.
Now I knew character development when I saw it. 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 didn’t even know where to begin.
So when I started writing my stories out in little notebooks, I would leave entire pages blank with a caption at the top of each one. They would say (Insert Character Development Here). 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 clue what made high quality character development, or how long those scenes needed to be.
Now, your first thought may be: Well, is character development really that important for your story? The answer, in short, is yes. 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 really be compelling? Can you root for a character to beat the odds and come out victorious if you don’t even know who they are, what their history is, or what drives them?
Besides 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 apocalypse arrives, then he’s not going to struggle against unbearable odds in order to survive. In fact, if he really has nothing to live for, well, it’s more likely he will simply end his existence rather than fight for it.
So how do we as authors develop characters? How do we make sure that they have the proper motivations, and how do we make sure that they’re dynamic and interesting? I’ve come to believe that there are three steps to developing solid character development.
The first step is to do your research.
If you want your characters to have the best development possible, then you have to establish a starting point for them. You have to clearly develop your characters before you even start writing your story. If you want your characters to evolve, to be motivated by the inciting incident, and then to be changed by the climax of the story, then you need to have that starting point firmly established.
What does it take to develop a character’s starting point? Well, a quick Google search will give you all sorts of tips and tricks for developing characters, establishing their history, their social and economic conditions, their physical attributes, and more.
My own upcoming guide, If So, Why? The Ultimate Character Development Guide, will contain 850 questions along with descriptions and explanations of each one. I believe that the purpose of questions like these is not to detail every single aspect of your character’s history and life. Rather, it’s to get in the mind of your character, to get to know who they are, what drives them, and what makes them unique. The purpose really is to open your own mind to the possibilities that this blank slate that is your character presents you with.
But how do you know what categories of questions to focus on when developing your character? The answer is that you carefully choose the ones that give you the greatest insight into how your character thinks and how they developed as a human being.
Questions related to physical attributes, such as, “What color are their eyes?” or, “How tall are they?” aren’t going to be as important as ones such as “What was their economic situation growing up?” and “Were either of their parents abusive?”
Of course, that’s not a hard-set rule. Films like Netflix’s Tall Girl, Alex Haley’s Queen, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button all focus on characters whose lives are deeply affected by their physical attributes. In fact, physical attributes can be the cause of depression, insecurities, and inferiority complexes in your character, or, on the flip side, feelings of privilege, pride, and vanity.
Give plenty of thought to what questions might be of the greatest importance for your characters. To do this, you’ll have to really focus on the plot of your story.
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 his current life.
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.
What about characteristics that aren’t directly related to the motives of the character or their character arc? Well, you can develop those however you’d like, but it might be better if you don’t spend all that much time on those sorts of elements. More often than not, you’ll “discover” those sorts of mundane details as you write your story.
I mean, think about the first Thor movie. What’s the chance that the writers had a note on their cork board the entire time they were working on it that said, “Thor MUST love coffee”? More than likely, they were finished with their first draft and working on a revision pass when they had the idea for Thor to down his brew and slam the mug on the floor. It wasn’t a moment that affected his character arc in any significant way, and so it wouldn’t have been something you’d have needed to develop ahead of time.
The second step is to plot your character arc.
Now that you’ve done your research and you’ve established a starting point for your character, you need to plan out what effects the events of the story will have on them. This will help you to discover the moments in your story that are truly significant, and thus allow you to zoom in on those moments to fully capitalize on their character-developing potential.
All of these moments will come to be known collectively as a “character arc”. Basically, a character arc is the transformation of a character over the course of the story. (If you’d like a deeper explanation of this concept, be sure to check out Episode 1 of this podcast, The Writer’s Everything.)
Now there are three types of character arcs your character can experience. Either they’ll become better over the course of the story, known as a positive arc, they’ll end up in a worse place than when they started, known as a negative character arc, or they will stay virtually the same, known as a flat character arc.
If your character begins the story as a heroic and selfless individual, then there may be no point in having them be altered by the story. Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, are two examples of characters who have these 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 with both positive and negative character arcs offer the opportunity for many more scenes of character development that aren’t just limited to the establishment of their personalities and ideals.
So, finally, third step is to identify key events.
Every story will have key events that affect both your character’s arc and the story arc itself. As you plot your story, you’ll discover that these events are the times when you need to write with the detail of a magnifying glass to show how your character is evolving in such significant moments.
For example, in Iron Man, Tony Stark is a selfish and self-centered business-man who doesn’t care what is done with his weapons. Then he’s nearly killed by his own missile. The camera focuses on his face and his reaction to this development. If it were a written story, his thought process would have been clearly on display in this transformative moment in his life. This is when he realizes that he’s not untouchable. He realizes that it matters what happens with his weapons.
Then he makes his first genuine friend, someone be let’s past his selfish exterior, someone who sacrifices himself so that Tony can live. This is a life-altering moment for Tony Stark, and so, once again, we zoom in on his face and see his reaction to this tragic loss. We realize that this will come to define his character moving forward.
Tony Stark leaves that cave with his idealism and sensibilities renewed. Then he is once again confronted with the fact that his weapons are 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 these weapons, just as it was on the missile that blew up in his face. We zoom in on his face as he watches the news, preparing the tech he needs to be able to make things right and use his life for something meaningful.
As you write your own story, you need to identify the major life-changing events that your characters will experience, events like the ones we saw Tony Stark experience in Iron Man.
Determine when your character will experience the greatest changes, and when you find those moments, zoom in close on them. Make sure to take full advantage of each of those scenes, and don’t let any such moment 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, as long as you don’t forget to flesh it out eventuality.
What are your character development tips and tricks? Let me know on Twitter @QJ_author.
Character Development Question
Ok. So, now it’s time for this week’s character development question, which is:
What is your character’s name?
I discussed a few reasons why a character might be given a certain name in Episode 1 of The Writer’s Everything.
In addition to those reasons, it’s also possible for the name of a character to be integral to the plot of the story itself. For example, in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, Ben Solo was named after Ben Kenobi, the Jedi who saved Leia’s life and guided Luke to save the galaxy.
In Game of Thrones, Jon Snow has the last name of a bastard, which changes from region to region, and in this case indicates he’s an illegitimate child from the north.
These plot-centric naming habits are even more common in prequels. More often than not, we’re intimately familiar with the characters going into such stories, and so the writers take advantage of the opportunity they have to offer copious amounts of fan service to explain how they received their names.
For example, in the 2009 film Star Trek, we learn that James Tiberius Kirk is named after the fathers of both of his parents, and McCoy’s nickname Bones comes from an expression he used when describing his divorce.
In Solo: A Star Wars Story, we are shown that Han Solo received his last name because he is alone, without anyone to claim as his family.
Writing Prompt of the Week
And finally, we’re going to have our writing prompt of the week. This week’s prompt is to write about a world where an animal of your choice is given the ability to fly, whether it’s rhinos, cheetahs, dolphins, spiders, or whatever else you can imagine.
Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of The Writer’s Everything podcast. If you’d like to read a transcript of this episode, you can find it at TheWritersEverything.org/transcripts. If you’d like to listen to future episodes, be sure to subscribe on whatever platform you’re currently listening on, and be sure to give it a rating while you’re at it to let me know what you think of the podcast. The Writer’s Everything is also available as a free downloadable magazine. If you’d like to read it, simply go to TheWritersEverything.org/magazine, and download the issue of your choice. If you’d like access to exclusive bonus content, such as my list and review of the top Character Name Generators on the web, you can go to TheWritersEverything.org/newsletter. If you’d like to support the podcast, you can do so at Patreon.com/QJMartin. For your convenience, all the referenced links will also be in the show notes.