Compelling characters tend to change over the course of the story–that is, they develop. Good character development is the art of creating a dynamic character who grows with the story and becomes more nuanced as the reader learns about them. Below is a quick crash course on what character development looks like and four distinct opportunities to include it in your story.
Static and Dynamic Characters
There are two types of characters: static and dynamic. Static characters stay the same over the course of the story. Dynamic characters change. Pretty simple.
You may have heard that dynamic characters are better than static characters. That isn’t necessarily true, and tends to depend on the medium. It is entirely possible to tell a good, enjoyable story without a lot of character development. Think of a slasher flick: it’s rare for the characters to go beyond bland stock personalities, but they don’t need to.
That said, if you want to tell a story where readers will care about and invest in the characters, development becomes much more important.
What Character Development Looks Like:
Character development means that the way that readers understand a character changes over the course of the story. These changes can be positive or negative. In particularly well written characters, they’re often a combination of the two. This may mean that the reader’s opinion of the character changes, that the characters gets more complicated, or that the character simply learns something new. The longer the story is and the more important the character is, the more development you are generally able to accomplish.
4 Ways to Develop a Character:
Change Over Time:
The character changes throughout the story based on the things that they go through. This can happen gradually, or may be particularly pronounced after an important event. This sort of development makes the characters feel more real and can drive home exactly how much is at stake. It can also be used to highlight the differences between characters (or to emphasize similarities) since not everyone reacts to events in the same way. What makes one person more resilient may absolutely break another one.
Consider what your character is going through and what they will take away from it. What are the short term effects? What are the long term effects? How do they change and how do they stay the same? Do their goals change over the course of the story?
Revealing the Past
Showing a change over time results in a direct change in the characters personality. Revealing parts of a character’s past helps readers understand how they got to where they are now. Rather than changing the character, it changes the way that readers view that character. It places that character’s actions in context and provides insight into that character’s motivations. This is often used to make characters more sympathetic, although it could just as easily be used to complicate a character who readers empathize with. (Please note that there is not a correlation between how tragic the backstory is and how much people empathize with your character. It’s also worth noting that a tragic past may put a character’s misdeeds in context, but rarely excuses them.)
Consider where your character came from, and how it shaped where they are now. How has their background shaped their outlook? Is there anything in their past that would surprise readers?
Show a Different Side
A character may have unexpected attributes that they don’t show often. This isn’t a matter of how they’ve changed, and it isn’t a matter of a hidden past—it’s simply what’s already there coming out. This could be something as small as the meat-head bruiser being surprisingly well-read or as big as one of the heroes being a complete puppy-kicking jackass when no one is around. Giving the character a few unexpected attributes can make them more interesting and separate them from similar characters in the genre. Small deviations subtly suggest that there may be more to them. Big deviations radically change the way that readers think about a character.
Consider what side of the character readers haven’t gotten to see yet. Who are they when no one’s watching? How do they deviate from the standard character archetypes?
Develop Through Relationships
Relationships give characters a chance to play off of each other. They provide an opportunity to set up comparisons between characters or to contrast them. Using foils and mirroring is an especially sharp way to define your characters in relation to one another. Relationships also allow you to show how your characters interact with others. This means that there are more chances for characters to reveal different aspects of their personalities and to influence one another’s future development.
Consider how characters interact with those around them. Which seemingly different characters are actually quite similar? The reverse? Which characters are good influences on each other? Bad influences? Who does your character want to be more like? Who rubs off on them?
Writing Like a Boss: Natural Character Development
It certainly helps to know which direction you want to take your character, but if you aren’t sure of how to develop them, don’t freak out. Some character development will happen naturally as you write. The more time that you spend working on a character, the better that you understand them and the more things that you’ll learn about them. It may take a bit of time to hit your stride, but a character’s voice and personality often emerge as you write. When in doubt, trust your abilities and try to make it to the end of the story. Then look at who the character is at the end versus who they were at the start. This will give you some jumping off points, so that you can go back into the story and strengthen the character’s development arc.
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