Friday, April 12, 2013

Is It Always About Character Development?

I hear it fairly often: unless there is character development in a story or book then the writer hasn't done his or her job. I don't believe this is true. I like character development. I would say that it happens in most of my books. Under the Ember Star is an example, I think. Some of my favorite books and series certainly show character development. The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.  To Tame a Land by Louis L'Amour. The Conan series by Robert E. Howard.

However, I also enjoy books in which the character, at the beginning of the work, already has an interesting and well developed personality. Doc Savage, The Spider, Sherlock Holmes. In stories and books told about these characters, there is not much character development. Instead, there is character "reveal."  We ferret out elements of the character's personality during the course of the book but we don't actually see any development of that personality. At most, we might, through flashbacks, get some hint as to past events that led to the character's current state. However, many of these kinds of characters are series characters and it's usually not until later in the series that we see this kind of thing.

The mistaken idea--in my opinion--that we must always have character "development" is partially responsible for how almost every superhero movie in the last twenty years has had to tell an "origin" story for the character. I think there are characters who don't need an "origin" story on our first exposure to them. Instead, I'd prefer some character "reveal," and then, if the series is a hit or takes off, go back and later tell some kind of origin story.

Anyway, there's my two cents. I could say plenty more on this subject but I've got essays being turned in today and better get to grading those. Let me know what you think, though.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good point. Sometimes, as with Sherlock Holmes, it's fun just to watch them go, with flashes of insight.

sage said...

Good insights... Just pondering here, can the landscape be "character" that can be developed?

ivan said...

After fifty years of writing, this is still a conundrum to me.

The only answer seems in a best seller style, that is, every word has to count, all the pieces must fit.

What would faux Sean Connery say on an old Tonight show rerun?

"Aw, forget it. Your mother is a whore."

Paul R. McNamee said...

Good thoughts and nice delineation. We can discover a character as they discover themselves, OR we can just discover them as they are revealed to us.

I, too, am tired of constantly having origins spelled out. You might well have hit the nail on the head as to why it seems so "required" nowadays.

Chris said...

I've always thought of character "development" as just having an attention to characters period, as in not just having them as wooden props that the action happens to. But the point you're making, yeah, I agree with. In the excellent The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie that I just read, the action all happens over a mere three days, and while one or two of the many characters dealt with have something of an "arc" to them, the rest are just great personalities in the midst of all that is happening, and I loved it.

Sage, I'd say landscape very well CAN be a character that can be developed. In fact some of my very favorite books and stories manage to pull that off. I like to think of it as a relationship; a main character struggling in his relationship with a wilderness is no different from one struggling against a foe, or a partner, etc.

BernardL said...

I agree completely. That is exactly how I feel about character growth. If it happens as part of the story, great. If it's not needed to support the story, that's okay with me too.

Cloudia said...

Thinkers noticed things like ChDev in the great stories of instinctive story tellers. Thing Plato Beg-middle-end. Now technician writers try to put 'details' on such conceptual frameworks and bring forth dreck. Follow your instincts, story teller!


Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, absolutely. Or iconic heroes oftentimes.

Sage, I believe landscapes can take on character elements and I love when that happens. I've tried to do it myself and i think it can be very fine in horror stories.

Ivan, Sean knew his way around an argument!

Paul, to make the origin story interesting they have to take a long time in the movie, but then the movie is over without any real threat or the real threat is minimized. It doesn't work very often.

Chris, Alot of Gemmell's work is like that too, interesting characters revealed! I think the landscape thing works particular well in horror.

Bernard, indeed so.

Cloudia, it's always interesting to consider all these kinds of disparate elements.

SzélsőFa said...

i remember how 'freezing' this requirement was when i first confronted it.
to deliberately work on it, to put efforts to develop the character, where s/he doesn't need to develop (as s/he is a fully matured one)... just takes the fun away.

but there are good writings, lots of them, where character development is essential.
uhm, what did i just say? i think i just acknowledged the right to have, at times, static characters as well :)

Ty said...

Yeah, I've had to give this one a lot of thought over the last few years since my Kron Darkbow character does indeed have a character arch, though it's not one that's necessarily visible in any one particular novel or story. Kron has been in five novels so far, half a dozen or so short stories, with plenty more to come. He has developed some since his first appearance (back in Chapter 1 of my "City of Rogues" novel), but he's still got a long road ahead of him.

The way I've worked it out in my head is sort of through the super hero angle you mentioned, Charles. Batman and Spider-Man don't necessarily change much from issue to issue, though there have been points in their fictional lives that have brought about some inner change ... sort of ... because superheroes have a tendency to simply become more of what they already were. Which is not the case with my Kron character. He'll follow that path for a while, but eventually I'm planning on him becoming a very different character, at least emotionally, though to outward appearances he might seem much the same.

Golden Eagle said...

The nice thing about character reveals as opposed to character development is it takes less time--things can move a lot quicker and plot can advance more if there isn't a need to go through the character's growth.

Riot Kitty said...

I agree. There's more than one way to do things. I hate over-explanation that masquerades as "development."

Ron Scheer said...

Couldn't tell you for sure what people mean by "character development." To me, it means making the character 3-dimensional and seemingly able to walk off the page. As opposed to a cookie-cutter stock character with no depth at all. You don't need a lot of back-story for that. Just interesting and individual detail, dialogue, and mental reflection.

David Cranmer said...

Agreed, Charles. I enjoy character reveals like Holmes and the Hawthorne series by Heath Lowrance. It's all in how good the storyteller has done their job. Heck, I'm not sure how much we ever really learned about Lew Archer.

laughingwolf said...

for sure...

blame the media morons, the 'experts' in everything

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don' t think there has to be development but I do think a story has to arise from character. In other words, what happens should come from the way people behave in relation to external events. If there are external events pushing the plot, it has to concern their reaction to them. I am talking in circles here but it is only 7 AM.

Greg said...

great point, i agree wholeheartedly. character development is great in some stories, but its not an essential element of all stories.

Charles Gramlich said...

SzélsőFa, It all depends on the story you are telling and the “starting” point for your character. Harry Potter started off as a kid. Doc Savage didn’t.

Ty Johnston, It’s somewhat the same with Ruenn MacLang from the Talera series. He has changed but the changes within individual books hasn’t been very dramatic, except maybe in Witch of Talera, the last of the original trilogy. He’s becoming a leader more and more as he moves through the tales and that creates a change. But I also like to read about a mysterious character at the beginning of a story who then gets revealed gradually, even though they may be fully developed.

The Golden Eagle, absolutely, which is where so many superhero movies fall down, I think, when they have to give the ‘origin’ story.
Riot Kitty, it can really bring the plot to a standstill.
Ron Scheer, I always took it to be that the character ends in quite a different place from where they started, like a naïve character becomes experienced and wise, or a cold character learns how to exhibit warmth. But I think the phrase does cover a host of things for different people.
David Cranmer, I like that too. Love to eagerly look for new little elements that reveal the “human behind the mask” kind of thing.

laughingwolf, too much of the media is written by young folks who haven’t had the experience, I suspect.

pattinase (abbott), I agree. And often times a powerful and mysterious character is better able to drive a story than a naïve and inexperienced one who then has to ‘develop’ into someone capable of handling whatever events are going on. In that way, the character reveal is far better for the story in my mind.

Greg, yep, depends on where you’re starting in the story, coming in early, middle, or late.

laughingwolf said...

in many cases, yes... but i see grizzle-bearded 'editors' who are worse than the scribes who, supposedly, are 'edited' by them :(

G. B. Miller said...

I don't think that I've consciously tried to do a "info dump" on my characters right of the bat. Instead, I do make a conscious effort in allowing them to unfold and grow as the story progresses, and make them as natural as possible.

I rather enjoy reading characters that gradually unfold as the story progresses, although it seems that this applies more to novels than to short stories.

Travis Erwin said...

I've never really ponder this side of things but you are of course right. However in my genre its all about character growth so it plays a huge part in my personal writings.

Travis Cody said...

I do think that character development is important. However, I don't always need it in the story.

I develop a lot of character origins so I know who I'm dealing with and how my characters are going to move through my story. But whether it's necessary to include those origins in the story depends on the status of the character and the kind of story I'm telling.

Unknown said...

Charles you are right. The idea of character development graduated out of the same coffee house as the agents who use it as a smokescreen when they refuse to admit they really do not understand a novel. There is the amorphous entity called the literary novel that is truly terrifying because it cannot be quantified. Is Joseph K developed in The Trial or is he established early on and ruined by a political program?

Riot Kitty said...

Oh hey, I just read Micro Weird and really loved it! Just posted a five-star Amazon review. Cheers.

Gina Gao said...

This is a good point! I enjoyed reading this post very much.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, as a reader I never give much thought to character development. In fact, that element of a story doesn't even occur to me! I don't mind a sparsely created character so long as he or she justifies the story which is more important for me. I dislike films that detail (and often twist) the origins of superheroes but then I am a comic-book buff and I know their origins. Again, let's get on with the story.

Vesper said...

Charles, I agree.
I think it’s what should come naturally in the process of telling a good story. I have to emphasize ‘good’ because in a good story characters are real so they do what real people do. If the story asks for big changes, they will happen naturally. Forcing them, just for the sake of the industry, will just make them look… forced. For me, anyway. I don’t think that people change that easily in real life. I wonder if, at their core, they ever change, unless maybe when marked by very traumatic events.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, indeed, I know exactly what you are talking about.

G.B., if I really get hooked on a character I definitely want to know more about them, and there is a nice feeling to see them growing and changing across a tale. Definitely happens more in novels.

Travis Erwin, definitely different kinds of issues for different genres. The ones I like to read most are probably less involved with character development per se.

Travis Cody, characters tend to occur to me pretty fully developed and then I have to go back and lay out the background that led them to where they are. Maybe that's why the concept of character "reveal" resonates with me so much.

Richard Godwin, I suppose the critics needs something to talk about too, but it doesn't help much when they wield a bad influence on those in the trenches doing the work.

Riot Kitty, cool! Thanks very much. Glad you enjoyed. It's a bit of a strange collection.

Gina, thank you.

Prashant, I will sometimes read for something other than "story," but not very often, and I so love it when the story takes over and takes me away.

Vesper, I think that many do not change at all, and those that do usually change very slowly over long periods of time. That is the way of humanity, it seems.

Erik Donald France said...

Agreed 100%. Whatever works. It's good to have mystery. It's good to make people imagine and have to grasp onto a few sketchy details from time to time.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, let the mystery be parceled out slowly. :)