Monday, January 13, 2014

How to know if you've done a good job with character development

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

We are so excited to share that there were 204 entries to the 100-word contest that closed on Friday! Finalists should be announced later this week.

A writer emailed me with a great editing question. She wanted to know how to judge if her character had developed well over the course of the story.

Even when you enjoy the editing process (which is an acquired taste, in my opinion) there's always the possibility that you're so close to your novel that you can't see the flaws. This happens to novices and seasoned writers alike. That's one of the reasons why it's helpful to know about story structure even if you never fill out a plotting spreadsheet in your life; you can use it after you've written the book to be sure the building blocks for a strong story are there.

A faulty character arc is, in my opinion, one of the easiest things to accidentally overlook. Maybe it's like how mother's don't always see their kids with the clearest eye. (In the Harry Potter books, the way that the parents fawn over Dudley is hilarious because we all know parents who look at their super bratty kids and somehow think they're wonderful.) We love our main characters, and it can be hard to see them clearly.

Here are a few questions you can ponder as you try to determine if you've done your work with character development: (Warning: I use Cars and Pride and Prejudice as examples of character development so if you haven't seen Cars or experienced Pride and Prejudice and don't want to spoil it for yourself, I wouldn't read on!)

What can your character do at the end of the novel that they couldn't do at the beginning?

My favorite scene in Cars is that last one, where Lightning McQueen sacrifices winning first place in order to push The King across the finish line. The first few times I watched that movie, I actually got teary at that scene. (Now that I've seen it approximately 100 times, I just get goosebumps.)

That scene is so powerful because it's the fruit of the journey that Lightning McQueen has been on. When we met him, all he cared about was winning the Piston cup and landing Dinoco as his sponsor. He never would have sacrificed those two things. But by the end of the movie, we see him do something both sacrificial and heroic.

Once you've figured out what your character can do at the end that they couldn't do in the beginning, you need to make sure the scenes are in place that will make that moment plausible. First Lightning learned how to accept racing wisdom from somebody else. Then other characters speak truth into his life - like Sally saying that she used to be rich and live a faster pace life but that she was never really happy. And then Doc asking Lightning when the last time was that he did something for somebody else. Both those statements strike a chord with Lightning and set change in motion. We also have the scene at the end of the second act where Lightning buys something from every store in town before he leaves. That gives the viewer a glimpse of how much change has taken place, and it sets us up for his heroic finish.

Does your character have a lie they believe at the beginning, and how have they been set free?

A great example of this is Pride and Prejudice. Lizzy believes Mr. Darcy is nothing more than a proud, rich dude and that he would prefer to not spend time with her. There's a reason she believes these things and at times there are shades of truth to them. (Which is a great quality in a story lie.)

By the end of the book, Lizzy has not only learned the truth about Mr. Darcy and his feelings for her, she has seen her own errors. Like how she was too quick to believe Mr. Wickham and the lies he spread about the Darcy family.

Your character's lie needs to be chipped away. Yes, it's great to have that big scene where the lie is obliterated, but you should have several scenes that have prepared your main character and your reader.

In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy is offered several reasons to doubt what she believes about Mr. Darcy. For one thing, he proposed to her. She now can no longer fully believe that the only thing Darcy cares about is his social status, because he never would have proposed to her otherwise. When she sees him so attentive with his sister, she can no longer think him cold and unfeeling. The lie is chipped away until it's obliterated by the measures Darcy goes to when he redeems the reputation of the Bennet family.

Is your character's dream tested multiple times?

In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy intends to marry only for love, which in the time the book was set, was a very courageous goal. She is proposed to by Mr. Collins, whom she doesn't even like, but who is to inherit the house they live in when her father dies. Marrying him would ensure security not just for herself but for her mother and four sisters as well. Saying no to him takes a lot of bravery.

Again, Lizzy is proposed to. This time by Mr. Darcy, who is considered the most eligible bachelor of all. This is another opportunity to save her family, but Lizzy detests the man, and turns him down. 

Whatever your character's dream is, make sure you've found several places in the story to test their resolve. This deepens their internal growth and may teach them something about what motivates them. Marrying for love is a noble goal, but Lightning McQueen dreams of being the first rookie to win the Piston Cup due to his desire for fame. During his journey, he's forced to acknowledge that his fame isn't as important as having friends.

What happened in your character's past that they need to get over?

Many main characters have a dark wound - something that happened in their past that damaged them. Figuring out your character's journey for breaking free of a dark wound can do amazing things for their development.

Jill Williamson does a wonderful job of this with Captives. There's a collective dark wound for the
brothers - a friend who died in an accidental shooting - plus each brother enters the story with his own dark wound. Omar and Mason have been run down by their father for years because they're not hunters. And Levi has been haunted by a mistake he made with a girl from another tribe.

Recovering from the dark wound is a process, and often the dark wound is wrapped in a lie, so your character first has to dig through the lie to find the dark wound before they can start their recovery.

These are not mandatory elements of a story, just a few tools you can use to help determine the growth of your characters over the course of the story.

Without giving away endings, what are some of your favorite character arcs?


  1. Yay! First to comment...again.
    Great post Stephanie! I'm still in the early stages of my novel but I will keep this handy.


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    1. I don't think this movie did well in the box office, but Here Comes the Boom was a really great movie with an incredible character arc. Also, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, (old classic movie) had a good character arc.

      204 entries? Wow.

      Thanks for the post!

  3. I loved the Tutor's Daughter. Emma grows so many in different ways throughout the book.

    I'll have to keep this post handy!

  4. Cars is a great example of character development! I think the first Cars is definitely a better story than the second one. The characters were much more complex in the first.

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    1. Thank you so much for this post! I'm in the process of writing my first draft, but this is definitely something I will pay close attention to as I continue writing.
      One of the best character arcs I've ever encountered is Landon from A Walk to Remember (the book even more so than the movie).

  6. Ha! I've never heard that quote and I love it. It's funny to think of someone as revered as Jane Austen to say something like that--something that one of us at Go Teen Writers would no doubt say. :) Thanks for this post; it's really helpful.

  7. Ohh, love the post. Made me realize that my MC doesn't even have a dream. And so far the only real difficulty is moving. Sounds pretty dull huh? It is definitely a work that will hopefully be in progress again soon.


  8. This was a super post, Stephanie :) I'll be using it in the future!

  9. Lightning McQueen is, ironically, who I think of when I'm reading/hearing about character development. I LOVE his character arc more than any other animated movie I've ever seen, probably. But Po and Tigress from Kung Fu Panda...well, I love their character development, too (especially in the second movie, although I think the first was better overall).

    Thanks for a really good, thought-provoking post! And whoop whoop about the contest!

  10. 204 entries!? Whoa! Good luck everyone! ;)

    Great post, I'll have to keep this in mind, thanks Stephanie!! :) I love Olivia from The Silent Governess and Emma from The Tutor's Daughter, both are great examples--I think--of character arcs! :)

  11. I love McQueen's character arc in Cars! I think my two recent favorites are Bret's arc (and his dad's arc!) in "Nailed," by Patrick Jones... and Ari's arc in "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of The Universe," by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. They both kind of broke my heart and made me really happy at the same time...

    Speaking of that, how do you feel about more tragic arcs, where a character maybe gains a lot but is also more broken inside? My MMC in my WIP gets stronger in some ways but also weaker and more broken. Think that would fly in YA lit?

    Anyway, thanks for the post! (And whoo, love those contests!)

    1. That sounds interesting. I guess it would just depend on the book. I would definitely try reading something like that.

    2. Hey, good to know! :) I'm sure attracted to tragedies. And the reader wouldn't necessarily know until sometime in the 3rd act so HAHH they'd hardly have a choice at that point.

  12. Thank you for adressing this on the blog Stephanie! It's something I feel I've been struggeling with for a while, and I can see how some of these things are lacking in my story!

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  14. Editing character development is one of my greatest struggles. Every time I read through the manuscript, I get so caught up in other factors of the book that I am too overwhelmed to pinpoint a character's arc. I mean, I know my main character has three main stages of her development, but it is difficult for me to decide whether it is done believably or not. I guess I am too close to know whether or not she is realistically changing. I loved the tips in this post, and I can't wait to put them to good use. Thanks!

  15. A wonderful post and good examples. Character developement is something I either nail on the head or crash land into the middle of the field. My main problem comes from not really understanding people and emotions in general. All of your posts about characters have helped me with my current MC. I just never really thought about all these different factors that create who the character is. Now that you've sparked my interest, I keep thinking about my MC and she keeps getting better. Thank you so much!

  16. I guess in my story the character has no wounds. That is why the rest of the story affects her so, because she never expected it and has to learn how to accept the bad with the good and forgive

    1. That's interesting! My character carries a major wound for the first sixteen years of his life. The main part of the story follows his journey to healing and happiness. :)