Critique Technique, part 11: Lack of Character Development

Where HAS the time gone? I need to get back to doing these posts weekly, so I’ve put Outlook’s task bar to work. If I don’t get one done every Sunday, the Big Bad Red Flag of Guilt is going to stare at me from the screen until I do. That’ll teach me!

Anyway, we’ve been talking about characterization. One of the key things readers want to see in a story (fiction or non-fiction) is some sign of change—positive, we hope, but that isn’t required—in the characters over the course of the story. The protagonist may not get what he wants by the end, or even what he deserves, but he should grow or change in some way. The same is true for the secondary characters.

Even the antagonist needs to change. She doesn’t have to see the light, realize the error of her ways, and become the good person we always knew she could be, and that she always wanted to be deep down inside. That’s awfully cliché, isn’t it? Nor does she have to end up dead, even though she might richly deserve it, but she, too, needs to change in some way.

A short story or an article doesn’t give the author much room to show that change, so it may be enough from the change to be small. Even so, it needs to be significant in some way.

Similarly, a scene in a novel, even a whole chapter, may not provide enough time and space for major change, but the change it reveals needs to be a part of that overall path, that “character arc,” that takes the character from what he was at the beginning to what he is at the end.

Particularly in longer works, negative change can be more interesting than positive. Do we readers want to read about Pollyannas, getting better and better every day in every way? No, we can be evil, mean, and nasty people. Sadists, every one of us. We like it when the protagonist screws up or reveals a flaw. The worse, the better, in fact. When Polly really steps in it, when she finds herself in deep doo-doo (think Princess Leia in the giant trash-masher in the first Star Wars movie), especially if it’s all her own doing (or is that doo-doo-ing?), c’mon, admit it, that’s more interesting, isn’t it?

Of course it is!

Technically, that’s called “creating tension.” How the heck is she going to get out of that mess? we want to know. And so we keep reading. Maybe we’re trying to assuage our guilt over our latent sadism by wanting to see the protagonist succeed, or at least overcome her latest difficulty—until the next one appears, anyway.

But wait, there’s more. While Polly’s wiping off the doo-doo, we want her to not just clean up her dress but clean up her act. We want her to learn from that mistake or problem or whatever—to change—and become a different person, even if just a little bit different, so that over the course of the entire piece she becomes someone else, the sum or more of all the pluses and minuses of her journey through the story.

As a critiquer, your job is to keep your eyes open for those changes or, and this is harder, the changes that didn’t happen but should have. Even in a short piece, you need to ask not only if any change occurs at all, but if that change matters. In a longer piece, there’s another wrinkle to consider: is the character’s revised personality consistent with the changes he’s been going through? Would it make sense, say, for a character to go through a life-threatening experience—an assassination attempt, a natural disaster, even a major traffic accident—and be the same happy-go-lucky guy he was before it happened? Probably not. If he doesn’t change, there’d better be a darn good—and clearly evident—reason why. (Consider Forrest Gump. He could be the exception that proves the rule: given everything that happens around him, we expect him to change but what makes him interesting is that, at his core, he doesn’t.)

Here are some questions to ask about character development as you review a story:

  • Have the major characters changed over the course of the piece?
  • Can I see how those changes matter to the character and to those around her?
  • Can I believe the way he’s changed given the experiences he’s had?
  • Is her changed behavior consistent with the experiences she’s had and the personalities she was before?

What do you look for in character development when you’re reviewing a work?


2 comments on “Critique Technique, part 11: Lack of Character Development

  1. mmcnellis says:

    Great post about critiquing character development. I would say when I read, I’m looking for the changes to be realistic (liked your pointing this out of course). I think many write a character knowing he or she has to change, and want that change to be so gripping and compelling that they write changes disproportionate to the events of the plot(s).

    Well-written post here. Thanks!


    • That’s an excellent observation, Margaret. Thanks. Slipping (or crashing) into melodrama, or making all your characters drama queens, is easily as bad as having them all be Vulcans. 🙂

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