Sometimes writers or editors will talk about character arcs, and plot arcs, and all kinds of other arcs until you think if you hear the word ‘arc’ again you’re going to arc all over someone’s carpet. They say this with the idea that basically, a story is meant to go somewhere and have some kind of change, hence the word ‘development.’
Character development is an internal change, like becoming mature in a coming-of-age story, or an addict making the decision to become clean in a story about addiction. In the Alpha setting it would probably be an addiction to magic or whatnot.
I have many self-inflicted rules about character development, but I will only share the very basic ones, because hey, I don’t know everything. So, for the next five to ten minutes, nod gravely, stroke your beard thoughtfully, and pretend with me that I know what I’m talking about.
- First Rule of Character Development: that it happens.
Your character can go from bad to good, or good to bad. A lot of stories clean up some kind of emotional mess. How much character development you do depends on whether you do internal character based stories or more external plot based stories, but it should always be there.
- Second Rule of Character Development: be constant.
Don’t surprise us on page 523 in a 524 page book. The abusive father should show up in the first ten pages. Similarly, readers are forgetful. There should be references throughout the book to remind us ‘oh, yeah, there’s family issues.’ If you mention the abusive father only twice, on page 1 and page 524, chances are that a) story isn’t really about him, so you should look at other ways the character is developing and focus on them and b) you will severely confuse at least one person like me who will have to go back to page 1 to figure out where the random father came from.
- Third Rule of Character Development: don’t go overboard with the Second Rule.
I once read a book where a woman’s dog died protecting her. She cried for days, then moved away to a new city, where she continued to agonize over it. Every other page was an ode to the dog’s virtues. She compared the dog to her new boyfriend, and when I flipped to the back in hope that there was some other substance to the book, I found that the last word was the dog’s name. It was the most boring book I have ever tried to read, and I wrestled with War and Peace. Losing a pet is very sad, especially in a situation like the one the author set up. However, the book was set up as a paranormal mystery type of thing, and the mystery was not ‘what kind of monster could hurt my sweet little doggie?’
This is your cue to stop stroking your beard. You may now laugh. You may look at this and say, ‘well, duh’. You may look at this and say ‘oops’. I hope you did not say the latter.
But if the character is well-written, if the character is memorable, if you wish on your lucky star every night… you are still going to need this. Because the well-written, memorable characters do develop, they do change. Because the well-written, memorable characters are reflections of people, and people are always changing.