Thinking Out Loud: Dimensions of Character Development

Character Development: More than musculature.
Image adapted from Flickr user popculturegeek. https://www.flickr.com/photos/popculturegeek/6873356564/

One of the aspects I really enjoy about blogging is the opportunity to think out loud about ideas in a way that’s both more deliberate than chatting with friends and yet less formal than, say, academic writing. As I grapple with my own understanding of various parts of storytelling, I’m planning to use this space to share my thinking (which will hopefully lead to clarifying and improving it over time). If this just ends up being a conversation between me and myself, that’s fine, but I’d love to hear other thoughts, too!

Today, I’m thinking about character development. It’s one of those ideas that I know is important, and I also know I can find plenty of established definitions of it. Those aren’t enough for me to fully wrap my mind around the core questions of what makes for a well-developed character and how to achieve that in my own writing. This will be a first stab at addressing those questions, especially the first one. Right now, I’m thinking of two primary dimensions of character development, each containing many other factors and concepts. One of these dimensions is optional, the other one not so much.

The first major dimension of character development I’m thinking about is definition, meaning the degree to which we get a clear, distinctive understanding of a character. Relatively soon after their introduction, I think, the audience should be able to predict how a well-defined character will behave based on what’s been shown to them so far. If they can’t predict the character’s next move, the audience should at least be able to understand it later with more information (e.g. if the character knew something the audience didn’t, in which case their unexpected actions will be interesting and provoke curiosity exactly because of the author’s previous work defining the character).

To get a sense different points on the spectrum, consider two portrayals of Bane in different iterations of the Batman mythos. Weigh all of Bane’s screentime in Batman and Robin against the first Bane scene in The Dark Knight Rises. The Bane of Batman and Robin is a thug who gets injected with Venom and turned into what is basically a muscle-robot. He takes orders and is strong; that’s about it. He’s not so much a character as a movable piece of set dressing.

In contrast, the Bane of The Dark Knight Rises demonstrates in his first few minutes on screen that he is not only strong, but also cunning, cold-blooded, and capable of inspiring fierce devotion from his followers. From that point on, we are not surprised when he deploys several complex plans over the course of the movie. There are still plenty of narrative issues with these plans, and the movie deliberately keeps several specific pieces of his biography vague until the end of the movie, but that first scene does much of the leg work in defining the character. Everything else is adding detail. That early definition from TDKR is not only more interesting than that of Batman and Robin, but also what distinguishes Bane-as-character from Bane-as-prop.

Are there better-defined characters than TDKR’s Bane? Absolutely. This contrast isn’t meant to peg the minimum and maximum levels of character definition. It’s simply a starting point for explaining the concept.

And of course, some characters primarily exist to be props. We expect the nameless goons Batman beats up to be about as well-defined as the walls and debris he smacks them into. That’s fine. It’s also where stereotyping comes in handy – with a few quick strokes, an author can conjure up a familiar stereotype that the audience can understand. That can still be dangerous, and should be handled with care. Hopefully most of us are well aware of the damage lazy stereotypes by race and gender can cause. It’s bad enough when those are applied to extras and minor characters; it gets deeply problematic in a hurry for significant supporting characters, protagonists, and primary antagonists.

The other major dimension I can see to character development is change. To pick a different pop culture example, Willow’s long arc over the course of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is full of change. She grows from a shy mouse of a geekling into a far more confident and self-directing woman over the course of several seasons. Differing on multiple fronts is Javert from the musical version of Les Miserables. He spends most of the story staunch and unyielding in his adherence to and self-conception of law and order. When the events of the story, especially his encounters with Jean Valjean, call his brittle worldview into question, he crumbles in the space of a song. The once-proud, self-assured man is reduced to a broken heap of conflicted feelings.

These two examples different directions for character change (growth versus collapse) and two different arcs (gradual change versus personal crisis), but both illustrate marked degrees of change. These can be contrasted with characters who do not change much. As a quick example, consider Gandalf’s arc during The Lord of the Rings. Yes, he picks up a new title and color scheme, but his primary character qualities remain more or less unchanged.

This gets to a key difference between definition and change. Change is optional for a well-developed character, but definition isn’t. The two can reinforce each other, with a character’s changes adding detail to their definition and their defined attributes driving their change over the course of the plot, but change is meaningless without definition. No one cares if Susie Q. Stereotype goes from suburban housewife to U.S. Senator overnight if we don’t have any idea of who she is. (Granted, the policy implications could be distressing…then again, maybe not! We don’t know her well enough to guess, do we?)

If, however, we spend half a scene seeing Suzannah Clear watch the election returns, one hand squeezing her wife’s knee as she reminisces about the first time she ran for school board ten years ago to resist the creationist insurgency that had attacked the science curriculum, we can get a much better idea for who she is, where she’s come from, and what she might be in for next. (Bonus points for additional definition through a comfortable, teasing rapport with her wife that still hints at Indira Clear’s mixed feelings of love for Suzannah and concern for what’s coming.)

For me, this kind of grappling is important as I try to improve my own efforts at character development. I think I do all right at efficiently defining characters, but managing their changes is a lot harder. Part of this, I suspect, is still the newbie writer’s reluctance to put beloved characters through personally difficult obstacles (instead of physically difficult obstacles – I can hurl those at characters all day long). This makes it much tougher to explain change and growth in characters, even if they start of well-defined. So I guess I need to start practicing making my characters face their own demons more. I don’t need all of them to experience major change over the course of a book, but I do need to up my averages.

That wraps up this early installment of thinking out loud about story stuff. One possible future topic already brewing in my head is the limitations of “cool” as a character trait for the purposes of development, and I’m sure others will pop in there, too. I’m hoping to check back in on this idea as the NaNoWriMo planning commences, as well as after the writing starts.

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3 thoughts on “Thinking Out Loud: Dimensions of Character Development

  1. Novel idea: Clear Cut
    O Suzannah don’t you cry for… tea? As Tea Party backed creationists lobby ever more strongly for “both sides of the evolution debate” and “stronger criticism of evolution evidence” Mrs. Clear knows one thing for sure… the time has come for the U.S. Senate get… CRYSTAL CLEAR ON THE ISSUES. It’s clear as day in D.C. that it’s time to clear out the wackos and clear the air around the heated topic before students across the country suffer from the politicized education system! The lobbyists better steer clear of Suzannah because she’s made it loud and clear. “Not in my schools!”
    Coming this summer…….

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  2. Yeah, I gotta improve my averages too. Conflict is just so… hard, you know? Why can’t everything wrap up nicely with a bow after half an hour? But conflict is the source of narrative I suppose. Great topic, M.J. Can’t wait for the next one 🙂

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