September 27th, 2010


Character Development: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

As I make my way through another set of revisions, I find myself thinking about plots and character development more than . . . cake. I know. It’s hard to believe.  I know that plots are an out growth of characters’ decisions and actions.  And I know that a well developed story has rising action, with high stakes and setbacks and a grand climax that leaves the reader breathless. (That is our hope, anyway.)  But what does all that mean?


Let me clarify.  I know what it means.  Your character faces setbacks.  Those setbacks force your character to grow, redefine or clarify their wants or desires. But what does that look like?


Well, I think it looks like the same trajectory you and I walk or skip or crawl down when we are experiencing changes in our life.  Change is change… real or fiction. (I talk about how writers go through this process when writing a book for my Apex post that will be hit cyberspace on Saturday, October 2.)


In the beginning of every story there is a problem.  The protagonist, I’ll call her Kara Ter (I know, original) does not know it.  Correction. She knows there is a problem, but she keeps throwing her fuzzy self-defense blanket over it. She functions as if life is perfect. All of her actions and decisions create rainbows and sunshine.  Psychologists call this stage PRECONTEMPLATION.


But then a minor crisis occurs, yanking the self-defense blanket away. Kara can no longer continue with the status quo. Well she can, but now she KNOWS what’s at stake.  She knows her current course will bring loss and limited gains. What to do?  What to do?  This knowing the stakes but not sure what to do is called CONTEMPLATION.


Kara knows another crisis looms.  Passivity, although an option, means getting a major beating by the antagonist.  We’ll assume Kara is a well designed character, which means she has some fight in her.  She wants to face things, be prepared.  She begins to learn more about her nemesis. She learns more about her strengths and weaknesses.  She looks for ways to side step her weaknesses.  She begins to face her fears.  Not the nemesis.  Her real fears.  The fear of being alone or rejected or disappointing people.  Those fears. The ones we all have and pretend we don’t.  Kara is PREPARING herself. Here is the critical point in change.  She must commit to her new course. 


And during her preparations another crisis occurs.  Remember, Kara Ter is a well developed character, she survives (with some whining) crisis two.  As she recovers, she sees the need to take control (or fake control). She starts doing everything you want her to do and some things you don’t want her to do.  I mean, she is human (kinda sorta). Kara is in the ACTION stage.


Kara remains ACTIVE, continues to grow and develop.  She is in the MAINTENANCE stage.  Things look good.  She’s settling in to her new identity. 


But you and I know that every great story has a HUGE setback. The kind of setback that makes the reader and Kara ask, “How is Kara going to get out of this?”  Kara wraps fuzzy blanket around herself.  Her decisions seem … questionable. Thinks look grim.  Kara is in contemplation again.  She’s RELAPSED.  That’s okay.  Whiles she’s under the blanket, she can remind herself WHY she made the changes in the first place. She remembers what is at stake and what she really wants.  And before you know it, Kara Ter is fighting off the bad guy or gal, and eating lunch with her pals at the corner deli by noon the next day.


Some characters spiral through the stages several times before the changes stick.  It is all a natural part of the changing process.  We take two steps forward and one step back.  But in the end (no pun intended), your characters have moved through the process, and have showed the benefits of changing exceed the costs.