The Reality of Character Development
Sometimes known as a character arc, character development is simply the ways in which your characters change throughout the span of your story.
Real life is an ever-evolving thing. We move forwards through space and time, each of us on a unique path which has never happened before and will never be repeated in the same way. Whatever life throws at us, we assimilate into the fabric of the self and in so many ways, some subtle, some dramatic, we change as a result of our experiences.
Yes, even the most staunch, hard-headed misanthrope of a human changes, because if their external appearance shows no discernible difference to others, the internal struggle is something else. If it means hardening further still, as a result of some dramatic trauma, or the daily grind of life, it still takes energy and effort to remain in such a state, and that in itself, counts as change.
As ever, books seek to imitate real life. To hold a mirror up to reality and observe the reflection with a touch of the whimsical added for flair. Therefore, as each of us changes, throughout our lives, so too must your characters.
THAT, is character development.
Whether it is formulaic, considered, plotted, planned, designed from the beginning by the creator, or a more organic kind of growth that pans out as the story progresses, each and every one of your characters will grow and change in some way. If they don’t, then your story is dead in the water. A story lacking character development is shallow at best.
But be careful, for with this sort of tool at your disposal, it can be easy to go overboard. You ever read a book and have something happen within the story that jars you, and leaves you thinking “wait, that guy wouldn’t really say/do that…”? The trick is to build in enough foreshadowing and subtle character exposition along the way to ensure that some action or dialogue which your character wouldn’t “normally” do, still seems natural when it happens, so as not to bring the reader out of the scene and start questioning your ability as a writer. For example, your dashing hero comes riding on his white horse to rescue the damsel in distress but gets distracted along the way and stops for a pizza… ok that’s a little silly (and if you’re writing a comedy, then I guess it would fit), but unless you’ve done the ground work to build food-related distraction into his makeup, it won’t work.
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Changes to character should be relative to the size of the event they face.
The cowardly woman can find her heroic side when trapped in a burning building with other people, and saves lives.
The terrorist in training can have a change of heart when he learns his mother has a terminal illness.
If your story doesn’t include this level of dramatic event, then the development of your characters need to be more subtle and nuanced, unless they’re skittish and inconsistent from the outset.
The only way to achieve this is to know your characters better than you know yourself.