(Originally posted November 2012, now retrieved from the archive, gently dusted off, and re-posted for your reading pleasure)
Hello, Dear Readers! It's time for another one of my opinionated
posts about writing. Half of the credit for this one goes to the
inimitable and lovely Holly of my online writer's group, with whom I was recently grousing on this topic. Hi Holls!
were we grousing about? The fact that both of us (reading on opposite
sides of the Atlantic ocean, no less) had lately picked up stacks of 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... unsatisfied. Cheated. Unmoved. Convinced, somehow, that the whole
exercise of turning pages - despite the exciting incidents and great
premises and decent writing - had been a waste of time.
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 suddenly put our finger on it. The problem was
character development. Or, rather, a strong lack of it.
you might think this would be an obvious problem for two writers
to notice and figure out. But what we realised was that the lack of character
development in these books was masked by the fact that the main
character's life was often left totally transformed by the end of the
story. All kinds of seismic shifts in their abilities, their home
environments, their romantic lives and their understanding of the world. It seemed crazy to say that these characters weren't changing. But they weren't.
all these books, the hero or heroine saw massive changes in their situation by the end of the story, but they very rarely experienced any shift or development in their character. They were always essentially the same person by the finale of the story,
no matter what they had been through. And the finale normally consisted
of this person getting what they had wanted all along - without ever having reassessed those desires, made a significant sacrifice to fulfil them, or even question why they desired what they did in the first place.
In fact, it was like the authors had gotten confused on the difference between plot and character.
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!' I found many reviews which
talked about the plot and the character development in this way, as if
they were interchangeable.
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* in any way, then how could the book feel satisfying, let alone leave the reader feeling changed?
These books would
turn the POV character's whole world upside down. They might kill off a dear
friend or family member right before their eyes, remove them from the only family or environment they'd ever known,
or reveal that they had a secret heritage they never knew about. They
would pit the main character or characters against life-threatening danger, maybe force them to
develop frightening new abilities, offer them the chance to fall passionately in love. I should have been gasping, crying, thrilling.
none of those events, no matter how outwardly shocking or traumatic or
wonderful, ever really moved me. They were just that. Events happening to a person.
The narrative skimmed over the surface, failing to explore or even acknowledge the profound emotional effects that should have been the point of those story 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 (story) World and everyone in it
means absolutely nothing to me if the writer cannot show me what this
means to the POV character/s.
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
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.
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 their desired outcome. Not even a series of awesomecoolsauce events. Look at
them as ways to push and challenge your character, to expose her deepest traits
and develop her personality. Readers long to see the main character
become the person they could or 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.
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
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?
CHARACTER arcs. See how they differ from the plot ones? They're about
learning, changing, growing, not about getting stuff.
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. Even if they act the way that
they would have midway through the story. 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
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.