Character Development: Top 3 Ways to Grow Your Protagonist
October 7, 2019
It’s the inaugural post here at Indigo Typewriter! I thought I’d share something really close to my heart today: character development.
Guys. Character development is, like, the most fun part of writing! For me, characters drive the whole story. Yes, the plot tells you where it’s going, but the characters keep it going.
We’ll be talking about characters all week, so get your pens (or your typing fingers) ready so we can bring these guys to life!
So, what makes for a memorable character? Personality, motivations, and likeability all have a little to do with it, but what really keeps readers hooked is development.
Before we go on, let me clarify: character development has two definitions. It can refer to the process you use to create a well-rounded character (character creation), or to the changes that character undergoes during the story (character growth or, in some cases, character regression). I’m using the phrase with the second definition (growth) in mind.
Have you ever delved into the fandom side of the internet? It’s a wonderful place. Take the beloved Harry Potter Fandom, for example. Five minutes into browsing fandom sites or Pinterest, and you’re deep in debates over the merits of Severus Snape, Draco Malfoy, and the various people Hermione Granger should have ended up with. Why are we so obsessed with these characters? It’s simple. Throughout the course of the series, we saw each of them develop.
(Beware! This post contains spoilers for the Harry Potter books and movies.)
Let’s take a look at my favorite character from the franchise, Ron Weasley. Why do I love him? Because, in the books, Ron is the most loyal, level-headed character, but he’s not without his flaws. He hates Harry for a while in Goblet of Fire, but eventually sees the error of his ways. He leaves his best friend and the woman he loves in Deathly Hallows, but when he returns we see more of his struggles, insecurities, and deepest motivations than ever before. This glimpse into his soul deepens our understanding of his love for Hermione and his loyalty to Harry. In short, his character developed through the books, both in terms of his personal growth and of what the reader discovers about him.
But in the movies? Don’t get me started. I still love Ron because I always see him the way I first met him in the books. Still, in the movies, he has no character development. He stayed jealous, insecure, and even cruel. Every opportunity for him to grow and the audience to see more into his heart was passed over in favor of moving the plot along or developing other characters. How did that happen? It wasn’t Rupert Grint’s acting, which shines through in some really wonderful Ron moments––it was the writing.
See? The ability to write character development is an incredibly important part of crafting a story! You can take the same character and write him with and without development, producing completely opposite reactions in the same audience (book Ron is my favorite character, but movie Ron drives me up the wall).
Okay, so character development is important, but how do you actually do it? Here are my top three ways:
1. Take your character’s biggest fear and make them face it
This is a really effective way to force a character to change. By pitting them against their biggest fear, whether it’s an external foe or a deep-rooted insecurity (or both!), you force the character into fight or flight mode. You can add to the pressure by making them face their biggest fear in front of other people, especially ones whose opinions they value.
Let’s go back to book Ron for a moment. When Ron returns in Deathly Hallows, he gets the opportunity to destroy the only horcrux the Golden Trio has found so far. (For the non-Potterheads reading, a horcrux is a piece of Voldemort’s, the main antagonist’s, soul.) But the horcrux puts up a fight. It shows Ron his deepest fears manifested––Hermione is with Harry while Ron is stupid, cowardly, useless, unloved, and unwanted. The horcrux, an external foe, uses Ron’s deepest insecurities to make him fearful, forcing Ron into fight or flight mode.
In this example, flight would be giving in to his fears and attacking Harry, while fight would be destroying the horcrux. Ron chooses the latter. His character develops automatically. He has now faced his deepest insecurities and called them out as lies.
On top of this, Harry has witnessed Ron’s struggle. This ensures that Ron will stick to his growth and no longer believe the lies he used to. His best friend has seen his insecurities and strengthened his decision by confirming that they are false.
Have you ever heard this saying? Life’s struggles don’t change who you are, they reveal who you are. I agree with this, but I think it’s necessary to recognize that once you see who you really are now, you can make changes to be someone better in the future. This is essentially what happens to your character when they face their fears. They see who they really are and can choose to stay that way or change for the better.
Think about your character’s biggest fear. What’s a way you could force them to face it? If it’s an internal struggle, can you use an external antagonist to manifest it for them? When faced with the worst, will they run or do battle? Will the change be positive or negative? Will it stick, or will they eventually revert back to their old fear?
2. Take your character’s biggest flaw and make them confront it
This is a great way to develop a character. And you don’t have to stick with just your character’s biggest flaw––any flaw will work. If you’re going to be with this character for a long time (i.e., more than one book), flaws are things that can crop up multiple times to produce more growth.
For example, I’ve already mentioned Ron’s stint hating Harry in Goblet of Fire. The whole thing started with Ron’s jealousy, his biggest flaw. Harry’s being chosen as the fourth champion in the school tournament triggered Ron’s long struggle with always being second-best. He’d always been jealous over never getting the spotlight, being labeled the “sidekick,” and getting pushed aside by people who saw him only in the light of his older brothers’ achievements or his best friend’s fame. That envy came roaring to the surface. Ron avoided Harry, ignored him, refused to stand up for him.
In this example, Ron’s character development was, for a time, character regression. It wasn’t until after the first stage of the tournament that Ron came around. After witnessing the danger his best friend was in, he understood that he could actually lose Harry. Only then did he realize he’d been a jerk and apologize. That’s when the growth happened.
Sometimes, character regression is actually necessary for character growth. Ron’s apology would not have been as powerful, nor his growth as pronounced, if he had spent only a single night fuming at Harry and then stuck by him the rest of the time. Sometimes you have to let the character give into their darker nature for a while. When you do, the rewards are exponentially richer. Flaws are fantastic ways to produce change via regression –> growth.
What’s interesting about flaws is that they rarely go away all at once. Ron’s jealousy would crop up again later in the series, and it even played a part in the example discussed above in Deathly Hallows. Flaws have the ability to adapt, change, and produce growth on multiple levels and at multiple times. You can use one flaw over and over again, letting your character grow in stages.
Think about your character’s biggest flaw. What stressors serve to agitate it? What triggers that flaw to come to the surface? When your character gives into the darker side of their nature, what do they do? At whom and how do they lash out? What will finally make them realize that they need to step up? In what ways will they continue to struggle? What stages can you put them through to start recognizing and overcoming this flaw?
3. Take away your character’s support system
All three of these methods come down to taking your character out of their comfort zone, but that’s most obvious here. Everybody has a support system, something they rely on for guidance, encouragement, and comfort. This can be anything from a belief system to another character to an inanimate object with special significance.
Allow me to switch gears and talk about Harry. Harry’s support system was taken away many times throughout the series. In both of the examples above, Harry lost his best friend. He then had to depend more on Hermione to get through challenges. In this case, taking away part of his support system actually helped it expand.
Harry suffered more permanent losses throughout the series, too. The most brutal was the death of his godfather, but grappling with this tragedy allowed him to find strength within himself before the most disorienting loss came a year later: Dumbledore. At this point, Harry’s support system was nearly shot. Yet he had become so strong, so sure that he could fight on, that he was able and willing to keep going, even if it meant going on his own.
There are other ways to pull the rug out from under your character’s feet. For example, Harry lost the support system of his favorite subject, Defense Against the Dark Arts, with the arrival of the much-hated Dolores Umbridge in Order of the Phoenix. But through that loss, Harry found that he himself was advanced enough with the subject to teach his classmates. It gave him confidence in his own abilities, which became essential as he faced dark wizards later in the series.
Taking away your character’s support system is basically a way to teach them independence.
But be careful: if your character stands completely alone for an extended period of time, the strength can become unrealistic or can turn into jadedness. (If that’s what you’re going for, great!––otherwise, consider letting them fall on other aspects of their support system when you take one part away.)
If your character will have to stand truly alone, you need to build independence and strength over time. Typically, only a portion of Harry’s support system was taken away at once. He was also allowed to rebuild and add to his system as his story developed. Most importantly, Harry never stood fully alone for a long time. Even in the climax of each book, he often had help on the way to the final battle and spent only a short (if traumatic) period relying on only himself.
Think about your character’s support system, who and what they depend on when times get hard. What components are there? Loved ones? Friends? Pets? Sentimental objects or memories? How can you take those away? What strength will your character draw on? What people or things will they turn to when they lose portions of their support system? If they lose their support system entirely for a time, how do they tap into their inner strength?
Character development can be a really great plotting tool. If you’re already a plotting wizard, use your existing plot to develop your character. Think about the challenges you already know your character will face and see if any of them accomplish the above ideas. What fears, flaws, and support system losses is your character already facing? Use those to help your character grow.
If you struggle with plotting (like me!), go ahead and work through the ideas in this post and come back to Indigo Typewriter on Wednesday! We’re starting a new series called Planning for Pansters, and the first several posts discuss plotting your novel.
Take some time today and write about your character’s fears, flaws, and support system. Then go ahead and brainstorm three ways each one could help them grow.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Scholastic, 2007.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Scholastic, 2000.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Scholastic, 2003.