Monday, May 26, 2014

Character Development

1. Emotional or intellectual
2. Physical
3. Their relationships with other characters
4. In the eyes of the reader

What does it mean for a character to develop? And is that development necessary for a story to succeed?

Some writers and instructors hold up character development as the focus of any good story. They are advocates of the epiphany, a turn in a character's inner life that divides them into who they were before and who they are after. There is no question that this kind of personal realization has its place in storytelling, but it's hardly the epitome of the craft, and it certainly isn't necessary.

Self-styled literary writers have wrung out the epiphany in their novels and short stories until the trick has dried up and become stale in its predictability. Not uniformly so, there is always outstanding work, but it's gotten so that many writing programs have forgotten the flavor of any other kind of writing. Ask yourself, how many of your favorite stories have an epiphany as their climax? How many use it at all, and was it even the most interesting part of the story?

Character development does not have to be pronounced. Big, dramatic change isn't a must, but neither are little changes either. Take your lead character and spin them through a few challenges, or stroll alongside them during an moment in their life. Write them as just exactly the same person at the finish as you did at the start. I have it on good authority that, in spite of every superstition to the contrary, neither you nor, more importantly, the story will be consumed by fire the instant you type the final word.

In any event, characters always develop. Contrary to your best efforts, they do so. It happens because of the most crucial element of this discussion: the reader.

Every new character you write, you introduce to the reader for the first time, and each subsequent page is an opportunity for the reader to get to know that character a little better. Even if you write a totally unoriginal character like a lone gunman of few words who rides into some downtrodden town and doles out justice in hot lead, the reader doesn't know what he's going to be like as he crests that first hill at daybreak. They don't know what few words he will say, or how he'll say them. Or if he'll talk differently to the barkeep than he did the stable boy. Anyway, no character is ever totally unoriginal if they are authentically rendered.

All reading is discovery, and as we discover the characters of a story, they develop in our minds. Maybe some of those developments change our impression of them. Maybe not. But on page 800 or the fourth book in a series, the process continues. Each event and interaction, every moment of quiet contemplation, represents a choice. The decisions your characters make constantly redefine them.

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