Thursday, 1 November 2012

DEVELOPING CHARACTERS: Harder Than it Looks

Hello, Dear Readers! It's time for another one of my opinionated posts about writing. But half of the credit for this one goes to the inimitable and lovely Holly of the Furtive Scribblers Club (my writing group) with whom I was recently grousing on this topic. Hi Holls!

What were we grousing about? The fact that both of us (reading on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean, no less) had lately picked up so many books which had fantastic central premises, which were well paced, pretty well written, full of exciting incidents and maybe even had some initially interesting characters but which - despite all this! - somehow in the end left us feeling empty.

Unsatisfied. Cheated. Frustrated. Unmoved. Convinced, somehow, that the whole exercise of turning pages - despite the exciting incidents and great premises and decent writing - had just been a waste of time.

After we'd been talking in detail for a while about the various books which had disappointed us this way and trying to figure out just what was WRONG with them, one of us (who knows which one - it was a loooong moaning session) suddenly put our finger on it. The problem was character development. Or, rather, the lack of it.

Now, you might think this would have been an obvious problem for two writers to notice and figure out. But actually the lack of character development in these books was being masked by the fact that the main character's life was often being totally transformed by the end of the story. All kinds of seismic shifts in their abilities, their home environments, their romantic lives and their family situations were going on. It seemed crazy to say that these characters weren't developing. But they weren't.
 
We realised that in all these books, although the heroine - it was normally a heroine - might have experienced massive changes in her situation by the end of the story, she very rarely experienced any change in her character. She was always essentially the same person by the finale of the story, no matter what she had been through. And the finale normally consisted of her getting what she had wanted all along - without her ever having reassessed those desires, or questioning why she desired what she did in the first place.

In fact, it was like the authors had gotten confused on the difference between plot and character.

In my head, I could just imagine these writers proudly saying: 'Look at my character's amazing arc! She goes from a lonely teenager with no idea of her true heritage to a superpowered elf with a hot elvish boyfriend and lots of elvish friends!' Or maybe: 'My character develops from a cold and solitary existence as a lab rat in a secret government facility to a free person and a member of a warm, happy family!' After a bit of checking, I found many reviews which talked about the plot and the character development in this way, as if they were interchangeable. It seems this is a common misconception. Common enough even to fool the editors who should have caught this and helped their authors to overcome it.

Because, you see, those descriptions above do not touch on any character's arc at all. Nor do they count as character development. They describe plots. And when a plot is serving double duty - trying to be a character arc too - the events (no matter how well paced, well written and exciting) of a story will feel essentially empty. It doesn't matter if the stakes are as small as a girl longing for a date to the prom, or as epic as The End of the World. If the change in the character's situation isn't significant enough to change *them*, then why on earth would reading the book make the reader feel changed?

These books would turn the heroine's whole world upside down. They might kill off her best friend right before her eyes, remove her from the only family she knew, or tell her that she had a secret heritage she never knew about. They would pit her against life-threatening danger, maybe force her to develop frightening new abilities, make her fall passionately in love. Surely I should have been gasping, crying, thrilling?

Yet none of those events, no matter how outwardly shocking or traumatic or wonderful, ever really moved me. The way they were depicted simply skimmed over the surface of the profound emotional effect on the character that should have been the whole point of those events in the first place. It was as if the writers thought that these Big Important Events by themselves were enough to involve my heart. But the End of the World (the world the writer has created) and everyone in it means absolutely nothing to me if the writer cannot show me what this means to the POV character.

In the best books, characterisation and plot are so entwined, so integral to each other and to the events of the book, that they do almost feel like the same thing. But they have fundamentally different functions within a narrative, and trying to create a decent story without one or the other is like trying to have spectacles without frames, frames without the lenses.

Even if you do turn your plain, lonely teen into a superpowered elf and give her a hot boyfriend and an elvish family, you still need to make sure that her established traits, beliefs, insecurities and priorities are challenged, strengthened, destroyed or resolved by the end of the book. We need to see that everything she has been through has affected her meaningfully. If the heroine starts the book longing for someone to love her and ends up with a family and boyfriend, that is all well and good - but it's still plot and not characterisation.

Remember that you're a writer, not the wish-granting fairy from Cinderella. Don't just look at your plot as a series of events that get your hero or heroine to a desired outcome. Not even a series of awesomecoolsauce events. Look at them as ways to push and challenge your character, to display her traits and develop her personality. Readers long to see the main character become the person they should be, not just get the stuff they want.

Your main character doesn't need to evolve into into an entirely new being by the end of the story. In fact, it's better if she doesn't. Changes that happen to the character throughout need to grow naturally from who they are at the start - their core qualities - and the particular pressures that the story and the plot events put on them. The last thing you want is to have the character do a complete u-turn and become someone unrecognisable. That's not satisfying either.

So maybe your elvish heroine started the story as a selfish and insecure girl who was callous to others because she was afraid people would see how vulnerable she was - and in order to get the family and the love she always wanted, she first had to realise that she must treat others well, and be willing to risk giving love, with no guarantee it would be returned?

Maybe she was frightened and timid, a girl who refused to take risks - and she had to find the seeds of courage inside herself, even risk losing the ones she hoped would love her, before she was worthy of them?

Or maybe she was filled with self-loathing, yearning for affection but still convinced she didn't deserve it - and had to learn to value and care for herself first, before she could finally find a place among people who would value and care for her the same way?

Those are CHARACTER arcs. See how they differ from the plot ones? They're about learning, changing, growing, not about getting stuff.

You need to ensure you're putting time and thought into your character's development even if you're writing the first volume of a trilogy or series. In fact, it's even more vital, because if I think you're holding stuff back from me in book one I'm probably not going to bother to go and buy book two. I need to feel that you've got a character arc in your mind as well as a plot one.

An easy way to figure out if you've achieved worthwhile character development is to give your main character or characters a choice. A pivot-point, somewhere near the end of the story. Arrange events so that things could go either way - disaster or triumph - and make the whole thing hinge on a moment of choice for the character. If they act the way they would have at the beginning of the story? Disaster. Maybe even if they act the way that they would have midway through the story. So they need to have grown and developed enough that you feel they could reasonably go in the other direction. Then you and the reader will be able to see that they have become who they were meant to be, and that they deserve their happy ending (if you've been nice enough to give them one!).

A great example of this is Katniss' decision at the end of The Hunger Games. At the beginning of the book Katniss' one priority is to win, to survive the Games by any means necessary, because she believes that Prim needs her - and because she doesn't believe in anything other than that. By the end of the book, she is willing to swallow poisonous berries along with with Peeta rather than sacrifice her soul by trying to kill him, and let the Capitol win. She has changed significantly because of the events of the story - but we still see the qualities of bravery, strength and self-sacrifice that Katniss had at the beginning of the book, too. Those traits have just been strengthened and honed by her ordeal.

In Closing: plot is about going places, doing things and getting stuff - changes in situation. Characterisation is about changing, growing and learning stuff - changes in the character's core. Make sure you have both these things running side by side, and you will make Zolah a very happy reader.

I hope this makes sense to you, my lovelies. Any questions? Pop them in the comments. See you on Tuesday :)


12 comments:

amycelestia said...

Great post! :) I am actually in the process of planning a post about character and plot myself, since we've been looking at it in one of my classes and I find it quite fascinating. I agree with you in that they are two individual narrative devices which need to go side by side, I don't think they're interchangeable. Ok, so the plot may drive the character's journey, but that doesn't mean they inevitably have a character arc. (The book we're reading for my course says this, I stuck an angry post it note on that page!)

Zoë Marriott said...

Amy: Right? I mean, when you think about your favourite parts of a book you're not thinking about events, however cool they are - you're thinking about the character's RESPONSE to those events. It doesn't matter how dramatic or well-written your car chase, apocalypse or character death is - the POV character might as well spend 300 pages staring the blank white walls of an empty room if they're not moved, changed, transformed by these things. That is the POINT of a book. The point of a narrative. Gah.

amycelestia said...

So true! If you can't identify with the characters then you don't care what happens to them so the story feels empty and meaningless, no matter how exciting the plot is!

Jim Dean said...

Fab post, as always, Zoe! Given me lots to think about to check my own character development is up to scratch.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jim: Thanks! And glad to have been of service :)

Laura Mary said...

I'm glad you mentioned trilogies - how do you think the development differs in that case? I feel like the seeds should be sown in the first installment (maybe there's more room for making bad choices) but the big defining moments would come in the grand finale!
Does that make sense? Just thinking out loud here!

Zoë Marriott said...

Laura: Well, I do think that each individual book needs to have a character arc as well as a plot arc. Maybe (say, in a trilogy) each of the individual plot arcs should be building up to create one larger one, but if I get to the end of the first book of a trilogy and I feel like the characters haven't developed or learned at all? Then what was the point of that book? Set-up isn't very satisfying. You don't buy any novel, even the first novel in a series, for the seeds of a story. You want something that feels worthwhile. I hope that's coherent?

Lesley said...

Awesome post, Zoe! Maybe you should put it under the "all about writing" tab, so I can find it later.

Laura Mary said...

Yep - I have ditched a few series one book in because I didn't care enough about the character to pick up the next one!
I think I am thinking in multiple arcs, so along with whatever has changed them in book one, there is also a sense of what will come further down the line.

Ha! For some reason I am struggling to write coherent sentences today! I blame the germs!

Very helpful post though Zoe :-)

Very helpful

Zoë Marriott said...

Lesley: I need to do that with all the writing posts I've written for the past six months! I'll get around to it one day soon, hopefully.

Laura: Heh, I struggle with that almost every day :)

pam said...

Fabulous post and enlightening comments too - a feast!

Nothing to add to the convo.
Right now.

Just wanted to say - Brava! - and thanks for the post. It's a great reminder for me.

go easy -p

Rebecca Lindsay said...

Great post :)

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