Character Development

Character Development

Last week I wrote about formatting. Regardless of whether I’m working on a stage script or a manuscript, I always try to write with correct format on the first draft. For me, it saves time later, and I find it easier to read. (For those of you writing stage or screenplays, there are some great programs that will format as you write, Movie Magic and Final Draft are the most common. I use Final Draft). For stage and screenplays, correct formatting can also help to more accurately estimate running time.
Once you’ve gotten your manuscript correctly formatted (scroll down to read the previous blog post for advice), it’s time to read for rewrites. 
Sometimes it’s easier to rewrite with specific aspects in mind. For example, I might do one rewrite focused on nothing but word count. If I want to add 10,000 words, I might not worry about grammar or even the logical nature of the material I’m adding. I just want to get the words down on the page and see what I discover as I go along, knowing I can go back later and tweak the manuscript and fix grammatical errors. Then, on the next rewrite, I might read only for grammar, and do the rewrite solely for that purpose.
There are several aspects I might choose from each time I rewrite. In addition to length and grammar, I might read for the tactile nature of the material. Have I included the sights, smells, taste, touch, and sounds of the world I’ve created? Do I have enough details about location? Does my dialogue move the story forward and does each character have a distinct voice? While I may read a draft aware of multiple aspects, it can be a great exercise to focus on just one at a time.
This week I’m going to focus on Character Development.

Characters typically change over the course of a story, regardless of the genre or style of writing. Readers enjoy going on a journey with a character, but this experience is most satisfying if something is learned along the way. Readers like characters to struggle, fail, struggle, fail, struggle, fail … win. Through the course of these failures, the character must try new tactics to change the outcome, learning something each time they fail. Because this mimics life, we relate to the character. Because the character ultimately succeeds, the reader is able to vicariously experience that success as well.
The overall change a character exhibits is called “Character Arc.” This arc can be defined as the shift from who a character is at the beginning to who the character is at the end.
It can be useful to read your manuscript solely to look for what changes your character exhibits during the course of your story. Does your independent character learn to accept help? Does your dependent character learn to stand on her own feet? Does your unemployed character find the ideal career? Or your lonely character find the love of his life?
The changes your character experiences may or may not be central to the plot of your work. For example, if you are writing a mystery, the plot may have nothing to do with the personal hurtles your character leaps over to get to the end, however, you will most likely find they are entwined, even in a plot driven story like a thriller.
So while a character arc may feel more obvious in a story about a young girl learning to live with bi-polar disease than a surly ex-cop, turned private investigator unraveling the murder of a socialite, both stories will stay with a reader longer if the character changes in a positive way.
The surly ex-cop, for example, might be just a tad less surly by the end of the manuscript.
One way to help demonstrate a character arc is to explore your character’s flaws.
That’s right. FLAWS. No one wants to read about characters who are perfect. It’s annoying. We want characters that reflect us to some extent, otherwise they are just one more person we can’t live up to and we get enough of that from the overachievers at work or in our family. Flaws make characters human and accessible. Having said that, be careful what kinds of flaws you pick. If you make your character kick dogs, a lot of us are going to stop reading right there, but if your character is afraid of dogs, then is forced to care for a sick relative’s enormous pit bull and overcomes their fear, learning to love the enormous pit bull, that, we can cheer for.
We understand characters who are petty, self-centered, egotistical, passive aggressive, and fearful. We just don’t want them to act that way all the time. Balance your character’s positive and negative personality traits. Maybe they are passive aggressive, but they are also incredibly generous… If we don’t like your central character, most of us will stop reading. If they aren’t likable, they better be fascinating! (Dr. House!)
How much your character sees their own flaws can add depth to your story.

One way to exploit your character’s flaws is to have them unaware of them in the beginning, discover them through a painful experience, then work to overcome them at the end. 
If your detective discovers he has personal similarities with the victim of the murder he’s solving, this can augment your central plot and create a character arc simultaneously.
In your Romance novel, if your emotionally unavailable, female character has a fling with a handsome and incredibly flexible, but emotionally unavailable, male character, she may learn to open herself up to true love (with another handsome and incredibly flexible but emotionally available man).
Flaws in ourselves are often the things that drive us the most nuts in other people. This can be true for your character as well. What irritates your character? What makes them short-tempered? What scares them? What difficulty can you add to your character that you can then force them to overcome?
The more complicated and difficult the better.
Don’t make it easy on your character or your reader. No one wants to read 300 pages only to discover the main character can take a pill and make it all better. We want the stakes to be high and the danger of relapsing to be significant. Leave us wondering if the girl can stay out of the mental institution and have a life in the real world. Make us root for the surly ex-cop to maintain the new friendship he’s formed with the younger private investigator he’s now mentoring. If you want us to keep thinking about your work and your story, give us something to think about at the end. We know how fleeting and precarious happiness and success can be in the real world, it’s okay to reflect that in your fiction. We love the warm feeling of a happy ending, but we also love the little voice inside that says, “…yes, but will it last?”

Make a list of your character’s personality traits at the beginning of your story. (This can be for your minor characters too, not just your main character). How many are “negative” or at least make the character’s life more complicated? Then, make a list of their traits at the end. First of all, do they change? Is there at least one major attribute (like selfishness) at the beginning that is different at the end (like demonstrating a selfless act). If not, analyze what kind of flaw you want your character to have and do a rewrite solely to include that arc in your work.
If you already have at least one change, can you locate in your story where that change takes place? Is it gradual? Or sudden. If it’s sudden, does the change happen in a believable way? Does it happen near the end? If not, that’s something to address. If you’ve got a character change happening early on, maybe you can then have them slip back into their old routine, which makes things even worse, which then has to be overcome again.
Make your characters suffer before you let them have a little time in the sun. The greater the challenge your character faces, the more engaged we’ll be. The more we care, the harder it will be to put the book down. 

Lastly, keep in mind you can have a sad ending and still have a satisfying character arc.

Your main character might die at the end, but they can still have learned something, which allowed them to accept their impending demise. Or, perhaps the character dies suddenly in a hail of bullets, but in the moment before death, the character experienced a moment of freedom and happiness like no other in their life. (Thelma & Louise). Find the most satisfying ending possible, with the strongest character arc, regardless of the kind of story you are telling.

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.