Characters and the Necessity of Growth

One of the things that I struggle with as a writer is creating interesting characters that have all the hallmarks of a real person, but also can grow and change to create a satisfying character arc that feels natural to the story I’m telling. I imagine I’m not alone when I say that.

Some people like to be reductive about this and simply say “just write real people”, but the answer is never that simple. Real people don’t work in most fiction because fiction isn’t about real people. Fiction is artifice of reality. It has structure where reality doesn’t. It has archetypes and tropes and plot elements and a hundred other things that help define a fictional story.

Some are meant to entertain. Some are meant to educate. Some are meant to tug at the heartstrings. Some are meant to make money. Some are meant to explore the depths of human society, to enable readers to contextualize the sloppiness of the real world through a safe–if complicated but organized–falsehood. Fiction reveals truth through an impartial lens of lies.

Fiction has its place, but finding the right characters to inhabit your fiction is a different story.

To revisit the point about real people, a well-crafted character in a story will appear to be similar to people you actually know, without ever actually BEING similar to people you know. They are idealized versions of people and you, as the reader, are only shown the bits that are relevant to the story that is being told. Most of the time. If things are going the way they should. I digress.

Most of the time, in a fictional story, a character will have some kind of flaw that helps drive the narrative. It creates a stumbling block or IS the stumbling block when the conflict arises in the story to prevent the character from having or doing what they want. Part of the story then is that character’s struggle to overcome their flaw and finally achieve whatever it is that the flaw was preventing.

There are many types of character growth, and most of you are probably familiar with some of the more common ones, such as, oh, I don’t know, overcoming the belief that the character is not good enough, and that with enough training or practice, they can become the best. You know, every sports movie, martial arts movie, spelling bee movie, etc. in existence. The character decides that he can overcome his personal failings and train harder than ever, and through that training he can beat his rival.

It’s a simple stage of character growth with a clear trajectory to completion. Character exists with flaw; conflict arises that pulls character out of their usual life; character struggles and ultimately fails because of their flaw, and usually it causes something bad to happen, like the death of a mentor or loved one; character resolves to get better; character gets better; character defeats whatever caused the disruption to their life using their newfound character growth, giving context to the loss or sacrifice that was made on their part and ultimately making that character a better person, a more complete person.

That’s every basic character arc, and mostly every movie, you will encounter. There are endless variations to this, but the core of most successful stories is the same. Stagnation, conflict, failure, new hope, overcoming conflict, resolution and continuing life having learned something along the way.

All of that is to say that there is usually an argument to be made that a character needs to grow and change throughout a story; otherwise what’s the point of telling the story?

Well, what is the point? If you’re only out to entertain, guess what? There’s an entire library of escapist fiction that is designed only to entertain. It’s like watching kids in a sandbox. Indiana Jones and basically the entire action/adventure catalog are exactly this. Characters do not change from beginning to end; they are fun, dynamic, and usually idyllic in some way. They are the people we wish we could be, living the lives we wish we could live. Their flaws are underplayed or do not exist.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! If the story you wish to tell is an Action/Adventure one, you’re not out to change the world with your fiction, you’re just out to entertain. The world needs entertainers and there’s everything to gain from being one. But it’s important to know what kind of story you’re telling and whether it’ll be okay to have a character that doesn’t grow or change.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment: The Lord of the Rings, including The Hobbit. Which characters grow and change, and which stay steadfastly the same throughout their journey? Certainly Frodo and Samwise change. No? They don’t? Really think about it. They may do dangerous and heroic things, but their core characters never really alter. Frodo changes by virtue of being hollowed out by the ring, but he essentially stays himself throughout and Samwise certainly never changes.

How about Bilbo Baggins? Who Bilbo is at the start is not vastly different than who he is at the end, except that his view of the world is vastly changed. He goes back to being much the same as he was before, but he’s different. He has a wanderlust. He has a dark secret. He is changed by the experiences he has had.

Well, what about Gandalf? Surely a powerful wizard who dies and comes back to life must have changed? Not him either?

Gimli and Legolas? Their major character shifts are that they stop being racist towards each other, hardly a huge growth factor.

Now we get to the interesting folks. Boromir struggles and ultimately fails to overcome his flaw until he drives away the entire reason they’re on this journey. It’s only after he’s failed and destroyed the Fellowship that he recognizes how wrong he was and dies trying to save Merry and Pippin, but it’s too late for that, too.

Aragorn is an interesting one. If you read the book, he is a pretty flat character. He’s in hiding until the time is right to reveal himself and claim his Kingship. But in the movie he’s a reluctant hero and it takes much convincing to force him to accept his role and drive the story forward. He is given a flaw in the movie that he can overcome in order to give him a satisfying character arc.

And finally we come to Merry and Pippin. In the books we get to see them up to all sorts of stuff and their growth is muted. You don’t really recognize that they’ve changed until you see the decisions they make that take them away from each other, and it’s only after returning to the Shire that you get to see them as the noble lords that they’ve become. In the movies, however, their character growth is much more pronounced. You get to SEE them essentially becoming adults and taking on the responsibilities that everyone else around them are already taking on. The arguably two least important Fellowship characters in the story are the ones with the best character growth!

So that’s all a lot to consider. The point of all of this is to say that if you’re writing anything other than a straight Action/Adventure, your main characters need to be growing and changing. They need to be imperfect artifice of real people or you risk a number of problems:

  1. Having a character who is boring like real-life people tend to be boring.
  2. Having a character who is so far from real-life people that the reader will be unable to suspend their disbelief for this character.
  3. Having characters who are all a little indistinguishable from each other because there’s nothing unique about each one.
  4. A tendency to bore the reader with a bunch of unimportant and uninspired dialogue and action relating to the character.
  5. A character whose interactions are too easy to predict because they’re a stereotype, or a character whose interactions are impossible to predict because there’s no character cohesion. Real-life people can be both of these things, but it’s less satisfying when you emulate them for characters in fiction because it looks lazy and generic instead of feeling authentic.

If you want to write interesting, dynamic characters, you’ve got to stop thinking about them like they’re real people and start thinking about them like the clever, better versions of real people whom you only get to see a tiny picture of their true selves.

So get out there and create the best damn characters you can, and always remember to write the hell on.

One thought on “Characters and the Necessity of Growth

  1. Well I know and have known some pretty darn interesting real people. Some of them who shall remain nameless are/were never boring. But, I get what you’re saying.
    There’s a story out there in everyone. Some are just more interesting with some embellishment and artistic license.
    Write those characters and write the hell on!

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