To write interesting characters is one of the most important parts of story craft, and one of the ways to do this is to make sure they grow and change through the course of your story. I’ll be explaining why it matters, and how to do it.
The Exception To The Rule
Whilst the general rule should be learn, there are cases where characters that never grow and change can be very popular and successful.
The core appeal of unchanging characters tends to be the male audience with a bit of a Peter Pan approach to entertainment. Think James Bond or Batman. They both start and end each story as the same person without any personal growth, and their audience is primarily adolescent males and men who’ve grown up loving the characters and carried that love into adulthood.
There’s nothing wrong with writing those characters if they particularly appeal, there’s nothing unsuccessful about them, but there’s a lack of depth and complexity to them that keeps them emotionally stunted and unappealing to a lot of people because of it.
If you are looking to write characters with more depth and humanity, then the Bond and Batman characters shouldn’t be what you aspire to.
Flawed Characters Learning
When your Protagonist starts their story, they’re at neutral. Your audience doesn’t know them, and their story hasn’t begun, so they’re neither good nor bad. They’re Schrödinger’s character.
It’s important that your characters are flawed, a perfect character is unrelatable because nobody is perfect, and we all like to see ourselves represented in fiction. Watching somebody make mistakes humanises them. It also gives opportunity for learning.
When your characters make mistakes, either because they do something wrong that hurts another character or because they follow a mistaken lead on their quest to getting what they want, they can learn from that mistake. That bump, that interaction, will have an effect on who they are and change them, make them adjust to the circumstances they’re now in.
Watching somebody learn, adjust, and move forward again offers both the entertainment of the initial conflict when the mistake is made, and demonstrates the humanity of that character. Humanity is what will draw your audience into rooting for them and investing in their story.
Becoming Better People
Each time your character bumps into a mistake, imagine that the bump leaves a metaphorical bruise. Something that serves as a constant reminder of that mistake being made, and a bruise they want to avoid poking. That bruise helps them develop because, in an effort to not bump the same spot, they’ll try not to make the same mistake again.
The process of trying not to make the same mistake twice is how they grow and learn on their path to becoming better people. At the start of the story, when they’re neutral, they’re unblemished by story bumps. By the end, you’ve bumped them so many times that they’ve learned enough to be the best version of themselves they can be at this time in their life.
In future stories, if you want to tell a series with the same character, they’ll have their bumps from the previous story so don’t reset them to neutral, but send them on a course of entirely new bumps and learning. Because one story of bumps won’t bruise them into perfection, they’re still flawed and human, they just make all new mistakes.
Becoming Worse People
Whilst your morally good character, probably the Protagonist, is busy becoming a better person in their effort to avoid bumping the same spots, your morally bad character, probably the Antagonist, is also on a journey.
If you treat your Antagonist as the Protagonist in their own story, then it suits that they too must make mistakes and cause bruises on their journey, but it’s how they deal with them that makes them different. A morally good character will grow and learn for the better, whereas a morally bad character will grow and learn for the worse.
When a morally bad character gets bruised, they don’t treat it as a learning opportunity based on avoiding their error being repeated. They will blame those around them, possibly punish them or threaten them, make sure that the bruise isn’t poked again by the action of others rather than by their own behaviour.
The character growth of a morally bad character sends them into darker spaces, and that keeps them in constant opposition to the character who is using their version of the same bruises to become better.
Other People’s Errors
Just as your Antagonist is the Protagonist in their own story, so is every other character that is around both of them. Because they are also flawed humans trying to learn from their mistakes, they will also be growing and changing. But that means they will be bumping into one another, as well as your Protagonist and Antagonist, and they’ll all be bumping and bruising each other.
This process of bumping everybody into everybody else creates conflict, and conflict through your story is what keeps it entertaining. As your characters try to learn from their own mistakes, and avoid poking their own bruises, other people can poke those bruises on their own journey of mistakes and development.
To use this in your story, remember what each character has experienced, remember where they’re damaged and the emotional journey they’re on to develop and change, and make them respond accordingly. Just as they don’t reset to neutral on their own experiences, in interactions with others they aren’t reset to neutral either.
If a bruise is accidentally poked by another character, they can react in a way that would seem irrational if you didn’t know they weren’t bruised there and it was being poked. Your other character might not understand, because they haven’t been on your Protagonist’s journey, but the audience will and it will make sense. However, if you reset to neutral and don’t have them react, that will break the character.
Grow And Change
Letting your characters grow and change, learn through the course of the story, and become a different version of themselves by the end keeps them interesting. The deeper, more complex, and more interesting your character is, the better your story will be and the more opportunity you have for conflict and entertainment with them.
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