Being a Better Writer: Gradual Character Development

Hello readers! I’m back!

I know it was only a week, but honestly, it felt much longer. Funny how time works like that. It feels like forever since I’ve worked on a Being a Better Writer post, but at the same time, it feels like just yesterday I finished editing Colony

Time does weird things. And moves in odd ways. Speaking of which, that’s probably a good topic for another BaBW post: Time. That one’s on the list now.

Anyway, let’s dive right into today’s topic: Gradual Character Development.

Character development is usually one of those tricky things for a new writer to nail. Usually. Some get it right off of the bat, others take a bit of time to get it right. But it’s something that any story needs.

Yes, I’m going to call a hard specific on this and say that character development is a need, not an optional bit of window dressing. Why?

Because stories are about a progression, a moving from Point A to Point B. Any story—any good one, mind—is made up of moving parts, each grinding, ticking, or in some cases waiting to snap, forward. And, just as a watch would look odd if all of the gears but one were moving, each part of the story should be moving in its own little way. In what direction the reader may not know, but everything should be part of the cohesive whole.

Note—and this is a small tangent for a moment—that I didn’t say everything had to move quickly. Going back to the clock example, there are gears in clocks that won’t move for quite some time, and then shift all at once when everything else has reached a specific point. And that’s still progression. This can work quite well if done intentionally—especially if you’ve drawn the reader’s eye to the fact that this one little piece of the story hasn’t moved yet. When one piece stays static while everything else moves, what is the reader going to watch? The unmoving piece, waiting for a quiver of motion and expecting more.

Of course, if it never actually moves … Well, now we’re getting back around to having a form of character development. Because yes, I have read books where the primary characters stay static all the way through. And you know what? It sticks out like a sore thumb, or better yet that gear that never moves. You can’t help but focus on it, because it’s the one piece of the story going nowhere.

Okay, fully reigning it in now. Your story needs character development. If you have a character, you have development. No one likes a static character.

However, and I feel I should stress this, do not make the beginning writer mistake of thinking that character development needs to be some world-shaking thing. Sometimes I read books where the main character has a ridiculous epiphany or monumental defining moment that’s just a little over the top given everything that’s going on. Personally, I think the root cause of this may be that the writer in question recognizes that they need a character arc, but either forgot about it until the last minute, or assumed that it did need to be this big, grand moment, and just sort of threw it together.

Neither of these approaches work great. I’m not saying that they don’t work … after all, character development is character development. But they can feel out of place. Odd. Rough. And we can do better. Rather than letting loose all of our character development in one giant explosion, we can let it slowly build through the whole story. We can make it gradual.

Phew! After all that lead-in, we’re finally back to the topic at hand. So then, with all this text above us … how can we go about working gradual character development into our stories?

Well, I want to start by hopping back to something I touched on briefly earlier: Not all character development has to be staggering or Earth-shattering. I think a lot of writers, when they sit down to create a story and focus on bringing in character development, overdo this facet of the design. In wanting to make sure they add character development, they want to make sure that it’s important to the story, and so they pick something big, with obvious ramifications for the story.

You don’t need to do this. I’m not saying that character development arcs of large, life-changing topics can’t be a thing—certainly they can. But you don’t need one. Not every time.

The reasoning for this is fairly straightforward: First, it can pull attention away from other, more subtle sections of the story. Second, done poorly, it can turn into melodrama if the writer tries to force it too hard, and we definitely don’t want that. Lastly, giving our characters massive, Earth-shattering revelations and character arcs every story quickly writes us into a corner. After all, if each time we see a character, they have some massive, crazy revelation, how long does it take the writer to realize that there’s not much left to be ‘ground shaking’ in this character’s world? Ever read a sequel where it seems like some of the characters have forgotten the very lessons they learned a few books previous? That’s a direct result of this kind of writing. The author has run out of big revelations, and is forcing their characters to “forget” an earlier development so that they can reuse it.

Again, I’m not saying that large, life-defining character developments can’t be a thing—they most certainly are. However, what I am saying is that you don’t always need one. Our characters can have subtle, refined growth experiences from time to time.

Let me give you an example of a smaller development arc taken from Colony (no worries, this won’t be too spoileriffic). One of the central character arcs to the story is the gradual, development of the relationship between two of the main characters, Anna and Jake. When the story starts, the two are total strangers to one another, and over the course of the story they establish a rapport between each other, moving from initial distrust and coolness to respecting and trusting one another.

That’s not a world shattering revelation of character development, but at the same time, it is character development. Two people learning to trust one another is a step forward. And so over the course of the story, there’s a growing sense of understanding between the two characters. This understanding and trust is reflected in both their dialogue to one another and how they act around each other.

See? Not anything big or gigantic. Just simple growth. Which is a perfectly acceptable character arc. It’s still satisfying to read and experience. Earlier, when I mentioned the moving gears? Even a small gear, or a slow-moving one, can be an important part of making the cohesive whole.

So, not everything needs to be big. You can let your character learn little lessons. Now, at last, what about this “gradual” thing I brought up in the title?

Well, how to put this? People are not machines.

Okay, technically one could argue that we are. Vastly complex ones, but therein lies the trick. Complexity.

Remember earlier when I spoke about authors forcing character development? Well, when an author ends up forcing it into place, one thing that sort of tends to happen is that it gets written in as a sort of “I have A, now I need B” scenario. You’ll pick up a book, and somewhere in the opening chapters, the author will introduce “Character Development Need A” (there may also be a B or C in there, too). Then the book will continue as normal. There may be references to said CDN-A, but usually in the context of “I should do something about that.”

Then ZOUNDS! Near the end of the story, an event arrives that requires the character to overcome CDN-A, and fast! And so, at a critical moment, they do. There is celebration, as CDN-A has been overcome … and the matter is promptly dropped. CDN-A has been fulfilled at the proper moment, end of development.

Now, some of you might be thinking back on stories you’ve read and wondering “Hey, isn’t that …?” to which I would say maybe. Hold on before you get too fixated on it, because there are some subtle differences that you might be missing.

See, the issue is that CDN-A is basically a switch, not a natural progresson. The issue is introduced … and then not touched on for chapter after chapter. Like I said, they might mention it once or twice here and there … but as a mention,  rather than doing anything with it. More of a reminder to a reader of “Hey, this is CDN-A” than anything else. Then at the end, the entire issue, lock, stock, and barrel, will be wrapped up in one succinct event. Boom. Done.

Notice what’s missing from that? Steps like “lingering effect?” Or maybe the arc impacting the story outside of its appearance and resolution?

See, that’s forced character development. And it comes off as mechanical. Machine-like. Not organic.

Thankfully, this can actually be fixed without a full rewrite. Obviously, it’d be better if you didn’t need to go back and do some substantial retooling in Alpha, but sometimes that’s what you need to do.

What we want is a gradual progression. One that’s real. Now, this doesn’t mean that the endpoints need to move—not much, anyway. They might need to shift a little, but overall they can stay somewhat similar.

But what they need to do is look less like mile markers and more like … oh, stretches of street, to continue the analogy. Don’t drop CDN-A in the readers lap like a live grenade, but reveal it through action, dialogue, and setting that makes the character (or the reader’s) realization of the needed development smooth and gradual. You can say it (by, for example, having a character realize that they need to work on something), but only after you’ve laid some groundwork for that realization.

Again, don’t force it. Let it grow.

Likewise for the moments in the story that call back to it. As we described them in the “mechanical” approach, they need to go. Because you don’t want references, what you want is growth.

For instance, say we have a character that’s struggling to quit smoking. The mechanical, CDN-A approach would be to have the character declare at the start of the book “I need to quit smoking.” Then, over the course of the book, they would remind themselves (and the reader) “I need to quit smoking.” And that would be all the “development” we would get before the ending “I’ve quit smoking.”

So, we want growth instead. Gradual growth. So we change up all those instances of the character thinking “I need to quit smoking” and we make them instances where they’re struggling to quit smoking.

It doesn’t need to be big. For example, we can have him tap out a cigarette, look at it for a moment, think to himself “You’re trying to cut back, remember?” and tap the cancer stick back into the package. A while later in the chapter, maybe we can show him feeling a bit more irritable than normal because he hasn’t had his cigarette.

And this can be very subtle. A line or two here, a line or two there. Small changes to the character’s actions and mood.

Then we run with that. As the story goes on, we cut them back more and more until at the end, we have some setting or element that sums up their progress, like say, going to the store and considering buying a pack of smokes … but then deciding not to and walking out with a satisfied smile.

That’s how you do gradual character development. You take all the steps between the starting point and the finish line, and you weave them into your story. Let them take baby steps. A character working to control her anger might spend the first few chapters with much more dialogue ending in exclamation marks than later, having them be much more confrontational, quick to light a fuse, etc. Then as the chapters progress and they get a handle on things, you can slowly replace that with calmer, less rage-filled behavior. You can still have moments where they snap back to their prior, opening issues, but you can balance them with moments of “I shouldn’t have done that” afterwards (or not, it’s up to you).

The goal, in the end, is to make even the small developments, the small gears, tick along smoothly rather than spinning out all their energy at once. Does this take practice? Sure it does. But it pays off by helping make our characters seem real. It makes them human. And approachable. So build it into your story, weave it into the layers. Little steps at a time.

So, let’s recap: Stories are about progressions, from moving to point A to point B. Good stories will juggle many progressions, some big and some small, all interlocking like gears in a clock to move work together as a whole. Character arcs are part of this machine, and you want them in you story.

However, for that to happen, the piece needs to move. Don’t make the mistake of making it an unmoving piece that only spins right at the very end. And don’t think that it needs to be a titanic piece, either. Character developments and growth can be small, subtle things like trusting someone, or trying to stop smoking.

Then, don’t think of that growth in terms of only the start and endpoints. Think about a natural progression from one to the other and then weave it into your chapters.

You, your characters, and your readers, will be a lot happier with the results.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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