Critique Technique, Part 11: Lack of Character Development

One of the key things readers want to see in a story (fiction or non-fiction) is some sign of change in the characters over the course of the story—positive, we hope, but that isn’t required. 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, ought 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 for the change to be small. Even so, it needs to be significant in some way. If the character doesn’t change, and in a way that’s clear to the reader, that’s a problem. If there’s no change, usually there’s no story.

Similarly, a scene in a novel, even a whole chapter, may not provide enough time and space for major change, but any 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.

Getting Worse, Getting Better

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, gets in trouble, 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.” We want to know, How the heck is she going to get out of that mess? 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 product of all the plusses and minuses of her journey through the story.

By the way, if she does not learn the first time, that’s fine. That’ll get her into more trouble. But eventually she needs to learn… or end up dead or a complete failure, if that’s what the author intended.

But again, if there’s no change, many readers will wonder why they wasted their time on this book.

“Literary” fiction is more tolerant of this. 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.

With other genres, though, this lack of change can lead to poor reviews and even poorer sales. We critiquers can help authors avoid this fate by showing them how they might change their characters.

Your Job

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 occurred at all, but if that change mattered.

Here’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.

Questions For You

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?
    • If not, were opportunities for change missed? If so, where?
  • Can I see how those changes mattered to the character and to those around her?
  • Can I believe the way he’s changed, given the experiences he’s had?
    • If not, why not? What does the author need to do to make the changes more believable?
  • If the character did not change, is that appropriate to, or even necessary for, the story?
    • How did that failure to change affect the characters around her?

What do you look for in character development when you’re reviewing a work? Please add your suggestions in the comments box below.

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