Have you ever written a story, just to have someone tell you that the characters are too shallow? Or that there is little or no character development. I’m sure any real writer has been hit with that accusation a time or two, and that’s okay. Writing shallow characters can fall into three camps that I’d like to discuss. There may be other categories, but these are the three I’d like to touch on: the poorly written character, the transitional character, and the intentional character.
The poorly written character is where the problems reside. It means that either the writer does not care that they are shallow and boring, or the writer does not realize it. The former is the mark of a poor writer while the latter is the mark of a poor self-editor. After you’ve written the character, you really need to go back and re-read everything with that character in it. See if there is change in them between the beginning of the book and the end. Follow the change to see if it is a gradual change that you’ve been tending to all along versus a last minute change just so they seem different. See if you feel the character has grown (in either a positive or negative way. They can become more mature or less mature as the story goes on – either is development). But if you can’t tell if your characters have developed, then make sure to have other people, especially those with editing skills, go through it for you. Now that leaves us with an author who knows their characters suck but just doesn’t care. I’m sorry, but that is no author. Maybe a pastime to get some words onto a page, but there is no author’s heart there. If you’re going to write, give us your best!
The second category I’d like to touch on is the transitional one. This is where you analyze your character’s development and when you find it is bland and stale you decide to change that. You throw a few new events into the story and watch them react differently. Now that they are at this new phase in their life, you might need to re-examine how they react to this next situation. Would they react in the same way as they originally did? Or now that something has changed them will they react differently? Different action may lead to you needing to change the outcome, thus altering the story. They may have been undeveloped to begin with, but that was just a transitional phase to get them written into the story. Now that they are in the story, it’s time for modifications. Transition!
The third category is one that breaks the rules – the intentional lack of development. It’s been said that rules were made to be broken. That’s a fairly common phrase, but I also recall one of my music teachers telling me that he was teaching us the rules of music theory so we would know how to effectively step outside them. In literature, you’ve got to have the characters develop! It’s part of the greatness of the writer. If your characters are dry and unchanging, then who really cares what they do? You’ve written in a character rather than creating, crafting, designing a character.
But sometimes you may find yourself with the need to give the reader a character that just doesn’t change. I’m not talking about the teller who is present in just one paragraph and has no need to change. I’m talking about a major character who needs to remain ever the same. A paladin who fights for justice can still learn that love may cover a multitude of sins, and change her view accordingly. Or, they can struggle with it throughout the book, with your reader hoping that in the end they find the courage to make that change…but at the last moment they resist it, continue in their “justice-first” ways, and plunge the anticipated outcome into oblivion forever. This can be effective when leading into a sequel. The sequel happens BECAUSE the paladin did not change, and even as she lays bleeding to death on the floor of the antagonist’s home, she is unrepentant of the choice she made. It’s lights out for her, and she never did develop. But thanks to her remaining as-is, the story can continue in the next book.
But as I categorized it as “intentional” – it has to be just that! Done on purpose, and for a purpose. This is not to be confused with the writer who just doesn’t care that a character does not develop. That’s laziness. Sometimes crafting an unchanging character can be more challenging than watching your characters naturally change as you write.
In conclusion, character development (or lack thereof) is a vital part of writing a novel. And it is a difficult skill to master. It will take frustration, dedication, mindfulness, and agony to become good at it. The story that you wanted to write will change and the cool characters that you had in mind will become different characters than you had intended. Perhaps the point that you are starting them with is where you want them to be by the end of the story. If that is the case, create them differently and let the events of the book shape them into the characters you originally wanted them to be. It’s part of the fun of writing, and it’s one of the most difficult and rewarding pieces of the puzzle that is: Novel.