I love character driven fiction, and good character development is, therefore, a must. However, there are a lot of books on the market that have poor, or no character development. For instance, The Dresden Files provides less character development over the course of five novels as I can find in one novel by Lars Walker (The Year of the Warrior) or Glen Cook (Shadows Linger). One of the greatest costs of the current focus on serial novels is the strong development of character. When a single character has to last a writer for ten or twelve novels, then he just can’t develop much in any particular novel. On the other hand, when a character is only needed for a few novels (one to three perhaps), then much more focused character development is possible. The same is true when a writer has a large number of character. Stephen Erikson is a good example of this. His Malazan Book of the Fallen series has thousands of characters, and hundreds of major characters. Now some of these characters are obviously not the focus of a great deal of character growth and development. However, when there are hundreds of major characters over the course of ten novels, the author is not relying so much on one character to carry the series. He can develop each of these characters well consistently, and show their growth, knowing that he doesn’t need them later on. Some of my favorite characters in the series only appear in one or two books, are strongly developed, and then die or move on.*
The most basic aspect of developing your character is to have a goal. We’ve given you a number of good posts on how to create a character, but you should also have a goal in mind for every major character you create. You can start with something as simple as a theme for the character:
At the beginning of the story John is childish and naive, but by the end of the story he is capable of making his way in the world (Coming of Age story)
At the beginning of the story Sathra is a selfish, evil person, but by the end of the story he is a noble character (Redemption story)
At the beginning of the story Melchior is single and hopeless, but by the end of the story he has found his true love (Romance story)
There are any number of themes that you can choose for your character, but the key is to know where you want the character to start, and where you want the character to end. Ideally, you will develop a character profile for what your character is like at the beginning of your book (who he is) and what you want the character to look like at the end of your book (where he is going), but you can probably get away with general themes.
Overall, the first goal of character development has to be know where each character is going, and who each character is going to be by the end of the novel. For instance, over the last couple of weeks I posted a two part introduction to a new book I’m working on (here and here). Right now I know who Alanoc is, and I have a fairly good idea of who Drevor is. I also know who Alanoc is going to be by the end of the novel, but I’m not completely sure who Drevor is going to be (I have an idea, but it’s something I’m still working on). Knowing who Alanoc is and where he is going as a character is important (he is the main character), but if I don’t figure out where Drevor is going, then I could easily leave him as a flat character who doesn’t develop over the course of the book. Obviously, this would be bad. We’ve all ready flat characters, and they aren’t fun. The best authors are those who provide depth and development even in their minor characters. J.K. Rowling is a good example of this. While I don’t like how some of her characters develop in the Harry Potter series, she provides strong character development in each of her characters, even the relatively unimportant ones.
So, here is your task: choose one of your stories and make a list of the major characters in that story. Then write out basic tropes for who the character is now, and who you want the character to be by the end of the story. This could be as simple as ‘An SOB’ to ‘The White Knight’. If you want to go the extra mile then take two or three of your main characters and write out full character profiles for who they are at the beginning of the story, and who you want them to be by the end of the story.
*Erikson writes Russian novels, and so it is not uncommon for major characters to die and be replaced by other characters.