There's a novel I read this year called “The Knife.” You can read the full review here, but long story short: it's awesome. Not in a cool, fun, “yeah, totally awesome, bro!” sort of way. In a haunting, poignant, depressing sort of way. Why am I starting this article talking about the only book review I've posted to date?
Because sometimes, after I read or watch something great, I like to read 1-star reviews. I get a weird cathartic boost from it, and seeing ill-conceived criticisms of a brilliant book/show/movie makes me double down on my rabid fandom. For example, I’ve been told there are people who dislike the TV masterpiece “Breaking Bad.” I've never met one of these mythical beings, but I feel comfortable saying that they're all wrong. I feel the same way about “The Knife,” and apparently so does the Chicago Tribune, who hailed it as “a literary masterpiece.” After reading it, I was genuinely surprised to find that it had only 4/5 stars on most common review sites. I quickly figured out why it wasn’t averaging at least 4.5, and my blood started to boil. The common denominator on nearly every poor review was a lack of character development. “None of the five main characters changed!” “No character arcs!”
I get it. And in a way, they're right. The characters don't end up drastically different from when they started the novel. The quiet family man doesn't leave his wife and kids because of the horrors of war. The loudmouth pervert is still a loudmouth pervert. The stoic badass remains such throughout. But these people are missing the point, and it’s such a glaring oversight that I can’t tell whether I feel contempt or pity for them. It’s like going to a fine-dining Italian restaurant and giving them one star because they don’t serve sushi.
The Knife isn't about how these people change. The Knife is about who they already are. And the subtle shades of these characters are revealed bit-by-bit through hilarious and touching dialogue, thoughtful introspection, and the way they react in the most dangerous of situations. Layer by layer, the personalities of these characters are peeled back to reveal what lies at their core.
That's the type of character development nobody talks about. Not changing a character's personality, but revealing it.
Have you ever had someone pegged down pretty quickly after meeting them? Maybe you got to know them better, only to find that you knew nothing about them, and the person they truly are is far richer and more complex than you had initially thought.
Maybe they're the complete opposite of the person you thought they were. I have a close friend who is perhaps the kindest and most genuine person I know. The day we met, I was a newbie taking some pitifully inept swings at the heavy bag strung up in the corner of the local gym. He offered to “give me some pointers,” and proceeded to kick the shit out of me. Did I mention he also had about fifty pounds on me? Needless to say, I was not a fan, although he later proved many of my initial presumptions about him so very, very wrong. He didn't change much in the year that we became friends. I just learned who he truly was.
You can do the same with your characters. You can show the reader who they are through small glimpses into their past, their relationships, reactions to adversity or success, their habits, fears, the way they speak, how they approach conflict, and a hundred other small things they do on the page. There's no need to telegraph everything about a character in the first few minutes of meeting them. Let their personality be slowly revealed through their actions.
This, of course, can be interpreted as “show, don't tell,” but I would phrase it like this: Show more than you tell, but do both gradually.
When the character’s personality is unfurled, one endearing quirk or aggravating flaw at a time, it builds intimacy with the reader. They feel like they're getting to know the character just as they would a real person. Not every character will have an arc as drastic as Walter White's descent into Heisenberg. (Yeah, two references in one article. I'll aim for three on the next.) That's ok. Your character is fine. You're fine. Just show us who they are, one layer at a time, scene by scene. Let us discover what drives them, what they value, what they fear, hate, and love, what in their past made them this way and what they hope for the future.
I do this using three main methods:
Hang on, put down the pitchforks. Yes, they can be poorly used to retcon lazy writing. Yes, when overused, they can be aggravating. I get it. But I still can't think of a better tool to delve into a character’s past and let the reader experience it in the same way the character experienced it. Narration? Sure, a two-sentence explanation of a past event works well. But if it's an impactful moment that shapes who your character is, good luck fitting all that context and nuance and emotion into a few lines of narrative text. Dialogue? You're veering dangerously close to “As you know, Bob,” territory. Flashbacks give an immediacy to the distant past, and that is a valuable and powerful tool at your fingertips. Just plan them well in advance, (both content and where they fit in the narrative structure), and know when not to use them. Also, try limiting flashbacks to one character if you're doing a recurring style (useful for breaking up large chunks of backstory). More than one character with multiple flashbacks gets messy, and you’re more likely to confuse and/or piss off the reader than enlighten them.
People think about shit all the time. Their job, their significant other, what they want for lunch, their next doctor appointment, that cool new TV show. And sometimes, they think about themselves. Your characters can do this, too. After all, they have a place in the world, their community, their social circle, and their household. Sometimes, they're going to think about it. Or about what brought them there, things they like and dislike about themselves and others and their situation, what they want to change, what they fear or hope for. Everyone undergoes some level of self-scrutiny unless they have their head a mile up their own ass. (Actually, that could be a fun character to write.) So let the reader be privy to your character’s deepest reflections. Perhaps the reader will find they have more in common with the fearless warrior you wrote than they had initially thought, because deep down, he does fear for his own safety just like everyone else. Character introspection is a great way to let the reader get directly inside the character’s head and see their raw, unfiltered take on themselves and the world around them.
Ok, so if your gentle, pacifist main character suddenly goes on a bloody rampage, you probably need to rethink things a bit. What I mean is that people aren't one-dimensional, and rarely is someone's personality uniform in every circumstance. I'm a personal trainer, so at work I have to be loud, energetic, positive, and friendly. For thirteen hours. Want to guess what I'm like at home? I make unconscious people look lively. There are a million examples of this. Many comedians, hilarious people whose careers revolve around laughter, suffer from depression. Dexter Holland, frontman for legendary punk band The Offspring, is a molecular biologist. He also makes a mean hot sauce. Think about the people you know. Maybe your friend that comes across as a selfish jerk on his first impression is actually a wonderful father. Maybe that five-foot-tall girl at your office with the bubbly personality knows Muay Thai. Personalities are incredibly complex, and all the facets that make up who someone is will rarely align with complete cohesion. You can use this to set up a reader's expectations about a character, and then surprise them with new information that rounds out and enriches the character. This will leave the reader feeling like they're still getting to know the character, which keeps them invested in their story.
I want to point out that character arcs are still very important. Not every character will change drastically, but a few of your characters should learn something, have their worldview challenged and changed, triumph, suffer, make mistakes and learn some more. But characters don't need a sweeping, four-piece arc to be interesting, likable, or relatable. They just need to have their personalities revealed throughout the story in an authentic and compelling way.
That is the other side of character development, and one that we should regard in equal standing with character transformation. Some of my favorite characters don't change much throughout the story, but as it progresses, I grow in my understanding and appreciation of them. When the final page turns, a reader won't care if your character’s personality flips 180 degrees or stays exactly the same, as long as they empathize with the character’s struggles and core drivers.
So make them empathize.
One page at a time.