Monday, January 28, 2013

4 Steps to Showing Character Development

by Stephanie Morrill

We all know that our main character's need to change over the course of a story. Otherwise, what was the point of it all? But a lovely writer in the Go Teen Writers Facebook group asked about how to show that the character has developed without it feeling like a clunky aside.

While there's no one way to do this, I have a progressive checklist you might find helpful:

Let them fail the first time

Once you've figured out how your character needs to grow, show them failing at it early on. Say you have a character with oppressive parents and she wants to do something to strike out on her own. In the first chapters of the book, I would have her attempt this and fail. Maybe she goes into the conversation planning to be mature, but gets angrier and angrier until she knocks over her mom's shelf of cookbooks in a fit of frustration.

Allude to times of practice

Throughout the book, you'll want to build in times for your character to practice this new trait or skill they want/need to learn. For a trait like bravery or independence like we were just talking about, you might put your character in a situation where she's learning to speak her mind in a clear, productive way. Like student government or debate class. Something that doesn't directly relate to the conflict with her parents, but that will help prepare her for a future battle with them.

For a skill, the example that comes to mind immediately is Harry Potter. We don't have to be with him when he practices every single spell or charm because we know he has classes everyday. The reader automatically gets that Harry and his friends are growing as wizards.

Have another character point out the changes taking place

If handled wrong, this can be completely cheesy, but it doesn't have to be. Again, in one of the Harry Potter books, he's confused why girls are suddenly paying attention to him, and Hermione points out that he's grown about 5 inches over the summer. It's a much more natural thing for Hermione to say than it is for Harry to think.

Give them another chance to win their battle

They failed the first time, and now you need to present them with another chance. So for our character who needs freedom from her parents, winning might look like a conversation in which she communicates effectively with her parents and gets what she wants ... without flying into a rage.

Or in the movie The King's Speech, we open with Bertie failing miserably at a speech, and he's given a chance to redeem himself at the end.

Can you think of other examples where this is done well in a book or movie? (Try not to spoil anything!) Have you build in tests for your characters?

26 comments:

  1. So helpful, because I'm working on this now in my book. I love how that happens. :)

    I actually tried something different that I'd read about: writing the ending before the beginning. I wasn't sure how it'd work, but...it turned out really well. I already knew how I wanted her to change, so I showed that in the end (and added a bit of circularity there, too!) with that sort of "final test." I think it turned out okay! :D

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    1. Oh, what a fun idea, Amanda@ I can see how that would be very effective. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Great post, Stephanie. Thanks for putting character development into manageable steps for us.

    One of my favorite movies for character development is Patriot. It's one of my favorite movies in general, but the character work is excellent. Benjamin's change is gradual, and there are many times when he fails, but he continues to grow and change, and when he finally wins the battle in the end, it is all the more victorious.

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    1. I haven't seen the Patriot. *Ducks head in shame* Actually, I have this weird thing with war movies. I don't handle them well at all, so I just don't watch them. War movies or anything that involves torture scenes.

      But I've heard that movie mentioned in classes about character development, so I feel pretty confident telling you you're right on, Gillian ;)

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  3. I love a good list :) it's so hard develop a story without being clunk or contrived. I'm re-reading Sandra Byrd's French Twist series and think her character development is amazing, I'd love to write books like that series.

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    1. I love that series title :) Haven't had a chance to read it, though.

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    2. Wellll, watch the free kindle books the week of Valentine's day ;)

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  4. The Hunger Games! Katniss changes more times than i can count. Especially in book 3 :)

    Amazing post! Just what I needed!

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  5. I always LOVE how the MC's change over the course of a book, but it's SO HARD TO DO!! *sigh.* hopefully this post will help. ;)

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    1. Oh, and since for some reason, I couldn't reply to your answer back in an older post, Thank you for your advice! :D

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  6. I love the character development in the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's done in a way so that you barely notice the changes happening (the characters maturing, their skills improving, some of them coming to terms with and facing personal challenges), but when you suddenly go 'wow, they have changed!' you realise it's been happening all along - it's just woven into the plot so well that it's not 'in-your-face'.
    I've been thinking about big issues and themes in my book right now, so this post is very useful. Thanks!

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  7. What do you think about a goal being set for an MC that she feels she needs to reach in order to please a very important person to the MC...and then she fails (like coming in second) I'm kinda thinking about that. But I'm planning another way to succeed in another area. Plus our falls only prove to teach us and I'll probably be able to pull some moral lesson from it once I give it a little more background and thought. These are all great pointers and I'm definitely going to remember them. Sierra
    Keep growing beautiful!

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    1. I think that could work really well, Sierra! I love it when characters think they need to achieve something, only to figure out why they really don't. Great thought!

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  8. From Amo Libros:
    One of the things about character development that always strikes me when I'm reading or watching a movie is the way the character's behavior changes. Take Return of the Jedi, in the beginning, where Luke, Leia, etc., are trying to rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt. They have mixed success, Leia gets Han out of carbonite - but then they get captured. Luke comes to barter for them and gets thrown into conflict with a rancor pit monster. At one point, they are all captured (and, if I remember, on a sand skiff about to get fed to the sarlacc monster) when Luke leans over to Han and says, with complete calm and confidence, something like "Just stick close to Chewy and Lando. I've taken care of everything". Han looks at him rather skeptically. He's had to rescue Luke twice to date, and doesn't think much of his friend's abilities when it comes to rescue attempts - not successful ones, anyway. But Luke has been training. I suppose this would be an example of the try-fail, try-succeed step. Because not only does Luke get everyone away, they also get rid of the bad-guys and blow some stuff up. It's great! And it shows you just how far Luke has progressed. And the difference in his demeanor, his overall "calm, cool and collected"-ness is very striking.
    Another really good example of moments when you realize characters have changed would by the next-to-last chapter in Return of the King (The Scouring of the Shire). Contrast the actions and demeanors of the hobbits we see there to the bunch that stumbled there way out of the Shire (with a great deal of help) back in book one.

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  9. Great post Stephanie! I've had some problems with my secondary characters being really flat since I'm so focused on my main character. If I have ten major characters in a book, I think only three change at all. This is kind of bad because my book is based on a life changing situation. Hopefully your advice will hep!

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    1. Kaitlin, that's one reason it can be so hard to base books on real life. I've done a post or two about secondary characters, so maybe something in there can be helpful:

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2011/01/secondary-characters.html
      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2012/05/making-your-characters-matter.html

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  10. Thanks so much! Stephanie, you are so smart. I'm in the beginning throes of a book right now (read, first 10 k of first draft), so this will be a good thing to keep in mind, as well as when I'm editing. As always, you manage to have perfect timing. :)
    -Katia

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  11. In my story, there is somthing called the "Agents Assesment" and my MC struggles throughout the story to pass. Does that count?

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  12. This is so great! Thank you so much, Stephanie. The best part is that I can kind of-sort of see where I've used these steps without knowing them. Now that I do know them, though, it will be much easier to put them into practice...

    I know this is kind of a cliche answer, but one of my favorite examples of character development is Jane Austen's Emma. She thinks she's so smart and a perfect matchmaker. But her main attempt at matchmaking fails miserably, which leaves her humbled (but not so humbled that she doesn't keep on making more mistakes!) All the way through the book, there's Mr. Knightley, who exposes her faults, criticizes her, rips into her, and of course, is desperately in love with her.

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    1. I don't think Emma is a cliche answer at all! That's a great one. Love Emma :)

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  13. Tris changes lots through Divergent as does Ron through the harry potter series. Also Katniss in the Hunger Games.
    My mail character will change lots, but still keep her original personality. If that makes sense

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