The Myth of Character Development pt. II

In last week’s post, we discussed what has led to the myth of character development. We discussed why it has come about, and why it has stuck around. So now we need to discuss the truths of what real character development is.



The problem I find with most author’s advice on character development is that of time. They say we need to fully develop a characters by the end of the story. We have to spend all of our time giving the characters depth and filling out every end of their psyche before the pages run out.

Here’s the problem: that’s simply not true, and it takes away from the greater story. Or it adds thousands of unneeded words.

When Tolkien set out and wrote his Lord of the Rings trilogy, I’m pretty sure he would have laughed off the idea of fully developing a character in one book. Think about this: if characters are supposed to be fully developed in one story, then real life must be full of gods. All of us should have fully developed our personalities by the time we were 12 years old because we would have been in enough situations to write a novel and therefore we will be well rounded and no secrets of ourselves will be hidden or undiscovered.

This is quite obviously a bunch of hokum. No one is fully developed as a person EVER. What makes us as authors think we can fully explore a character in 50, 80, 100k words?

It’s the myth of sitcoms right? Problem, action, solution, everybody is holding hands and singing kumbayah in 30 (maybe 60) minutes. Even something like a crime drama gives you a full profile of a criminal in an hour. Maybe two if he’s really bad and has to take up two episodes.

If we said that every show is a short story and an hour show takes roughly 60 pages, that means the average novel would take a 3 1/2 hour movie. At bare minimum. Think about how much story and character development they cut out of the three LOTR movies. Nobody would sit through it at real full length. And most average readers I know never finished those books. Why? They have unrealistic expectations about the time it takes to truly develop a character.

Bad Marketing

Whether we artists want to admit it or not, we have to make money. We have chosen to do this by creating art. Therefore, we must continue to create art. I don’t know about you, but if I have a great idea that can be serialized, I want to hang on that as long as I can. Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Pitt, Nancy Drew. All of them serialized and none of them complete. Why? Because people don’t fully develop over the course of one book, and several books make more money than one book. Usually.

True Development

A Character is not fully developed unless they have reached their end point. So here’s the crux of the matter: how much character development should I write? Am I going to write another book? Is this the only one? How many years are spanned in my story? How much time period? These are the questions that should be answered first.

Obviously there are exceptions to the rule: If your male white supremecist antagonist is saved by your young African American woman protagonist, that might cause a drastic shift. Or if a young boys parents are murdered in front of him and he decides to live his life for justice. Perhaps one day your character learns they can fly. But ideally, you want to stretch out the character as long as you can. Simply for this reason:

You are still developing as the protagonist of your own story.

Don’t sell it short. Take your time. Don’t give in to the teenage illusions of soul mates and perfection.

Be an author.

4 thoughts on “The Myth of Character Development pt. II

  1. Hmmm,

    So, there are two ways to define character development, I think. Here, it seems, you are talking about the maturation and growth of a character. But, writers also talk of character development in terms of defining who the character is, at whatever state of maturity, to the reader. The former is about the progression of the character as an individual, the later is about getting the reader inside the character’s head.

    I agree that a requirement that a character grow to maturity within a single story is silly. It will force unnecessary and contrived endings that don’t connect with the readers real life experiences. However, I think that it is really quite important for the reader to have a well ‘developed’ idea of who the character is and what motivates that at any given stage.

  2. Pingback: The Myth of Character Development pt. III | Silly Robots

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