This post was originally written and posted April 14th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.
So last week I did something drastic. I was working on the first draft of my new novel, Colony, which I was about 25,000 words into, and something about it just wasn’t sitting right with me. At first, I assumed I was just psyching myself out, after all, it wasn’t bad, and I pushed on, figuring I could always change it later. But later, when I was about 40,000 words in, I was talking with visiting family about some of the other stuff I’ve written (specifically, getting their reactions to the pre-edit draft of Dead Silver they’d just finished enjoying) and I realized what the problem with Colony was. The character growth was almost non-existent. What I had were two characters who had already done most of their growing before the story started, and the third character who would widen the dynamic wouldn’t show up for another 15-20,000 words or more.
In short, while it was a decent story, the characters were falling flat because there wasn’t much to them that wasn’t readily apparent, and what growth they had was strictly presented as having already occurred. I was counting on that to hold the readers interest for the first 40,000 words or so (in addition to the plot and whatnot). Arguably it wasn’t that bad overall, but I didn’t want to settle for merely okay.
So I erased all but the 5,000 word prologue, around 30,000 words (and a week or so) worth of work, and started over, this time jumping the characters back in time to before they met, removing all the growth and dynamic they had when the original story started so that they would have all that growth ahead of them. It was, in essence, a complete reboot. The original story wasn’t bad, but it lacked one side of the two-sided coin that makes up character growth and conflict.
Character growth and conflict is the topic of today’s post, which makes it all the more fortuitous that I just rebuilt the beginning of my novel for reasons related to this, because now I really get to think about where I went wrong and where I went right. One of the more obvious areas I went wrong is that I didn’t develop the characters enough in my own head or on paper first. But even if I had, there still would have been a missing angle.
Now, what you’re about to read is merely the way I look at character growth and conflict, and I can guarantee you that plenty of other authors see this in an entirely different way, or perhaps use entirely different phrases and terms entirely. This is because short of a few basics, there isn’t one “school” of character development that educates young writers on writing this, and as such we all kind of find our own way, building our own systems from the bones, zombified flesh of other writers suggestions, and our own trial-and-error. In other words, it’s pretty much like most other specific elements of writing: easy to conceptualize, hard to define and explain.
So, to begin with, I view character growth as having two distinct types. The first is the growth of the character to the reader, and the second is the growth of the character to themselves.