Photo by Leah Johnston
My heart is all atremble as I'm starting to write this blog post because until I was asked by my Twitter followers to write about character development, I didn't think about it in formal terms, not even when writing Siren Suicides. So let me gather my brain here and see if I can come up with general rules I adhere to and hope that maybe it will help you too.
Follow the arc. I think I picked this up from some book on how to write novels, back when I was reading books on how to write novels, because I don't read them anymore. I read actual novels to see how it's done, not books about books about books... Anyway, back to the point. Every character has to go through an arc of change. If you were to draw it on a piece of paper, it would look like a curve in those math lessons, with the low point being the beginning, the high point being the middle, and the other low point being the end. Every character wants something, even if it's as simple as a pink tutu. At the low point there is no pink tutu, at the middle point the pink tutu is in reach, and at the final point the pink tutu is either in the character's hand (I got it! I got it! I will live!) or flown out the window (I didn't get it! I didn't get it! I will die!). This is as simple as it gets, yet it's fascinating to see how many writers miss this and get lost in a mire of wishes. Pick one, and at the end of the book decide how your character completes the arc, because... *drumroll* ...to get this pink tutu your character will be forced to change. To change emotionally. Let's say, she starts out as angry and then changes to happy, or starts out happy and changes to angry, whatever it is, at the end we have to know one way or the other. If we don't, we get confused and hate the book (or, we never finish reading it).
Grow it like a flower. This is not from some book, but more from my own experience. Your character starts out small and insignificant, and your job is to pour the story on it so that at the end of the book it grows and even changes color. To get back to our metaphor, pink tutu changes into a purple one. Because, often in life, when we are on hunting for something, when we actually get that thing, we also get something else. So we think we will get a new friend, but we also get a new enemy. Or we think we will get disappointment, but instead we get a newfound joy, something unexpected. I hope I'm being clear here. What I mean is, once you have established your arc, as in, what does your character want (pink tutu), does she get it in the end (YES!), and how does she change while getting it, you can add layers. Because it's never just one thing, but unless you have a very clear arc first, you will lose your reader by adding too many layers too fast, do if this is your first time writing, keep it very simple. Grow it like a flower, by watering it along with action, with interaction wit other characters, etc. Which, again, brings me to the next point.
Conjure disasters galore. Once you got your arc going, and your extra layers, look at your character development from another point of view. From the very beginning of the story, keep torturing your character, literally. Imagine it like this. Your character wants a pink tutu, and she is climbing a tree to get it. Now make this tree poisonous. Now start a storm to blow her off the tree. Now send a squad of killer monkeys. She is still climbing? Wow. Turn the tree upside down, uproot it, send it into space, make bugs eat its very core. See what I'm doing? Create a disaster upon disaster upon disaster, keep making it worse to see what your character will do (of course, as a writer, you already know that she will get her pink tutu). As readers, we might be guessing that, of course, such a nice girl absolutely must get her tutu, but we're more interested in how she will go about obtaining it, especially amidst the madness you have created. In this sense, you character is forced to develop, to grow, or else. The else here being, your story will get boring and we will put it down. Because it's what we want, to grow, to change, and we live through fictional characters to obtain this goal.
Keep it real. And that's the truth. Meaning, no matter what you imagine, no matter how complex and fantastical your story is, it's real people who will read it, so you have to keep it real. Your character has to act human, act normal, cry when it's appropriate to cry, laugh when it's appropriate to laugh, say hi and bye and please and thank you. Simple stuff like that. Little details root us back to reality (and make sure you describe them, like she has torn her knees by climbing, or she broke her left pinky nail) and make us believe that your character, she, is real. Like us. Struggling, like us. Hoping, like us. The easiest way to go about it is trusting your gut. If it feels right, do it. If it doesn't, don't. When you write, instead of focusing on what the character does or says, focus on what she feels. From there her actions and words will flow naturally. If you try to figure it out the other way around, she will seem flat and robotic. As readers, we can forgive stupid decisions and not very good dialogue, but we can't forgive cheating. I felt cheated recently when reading how Hazel Grace in The Fault in Our Stars didn't want to change sheets for Augustus, her supposed love, when he, overtaken by cancer, peed himself. She called his parents, disgusted. I wanted to put the book down that very moment. To me, that was not true love. But then, again, this is only my personal opinion, and maybe John Green precisely wanted to portray Hazel as a selfish girl.
I think this sums it up. Any other thoughts or ideas on the topic? Let me know in the comments.