Written by JJ Barnes
Interesting characters will grow and change with your story. It makes them interesting and real, so your audience will care more. I’ll be explaining why it matters, and how to do it.
The Exception To The Rule
Before I start, it’s worth noting there are exceptions to this advice. Some stories with characters that never grow and change are very popular.
The core appeal of unchanging characters tends to be the male audience with a bit of a Peter Pan approach to entertainment. James Bond and Batman both start and end each story as the same person without any personal growth. Their audience is primarily adolescent males, and men who’ve grown up loving the characters and carried that love into adulthood.
There’s nothing wrong with writing those characters if they particularly appeal, and there’s nothing unsuccessful about them. However, there’s a lack of depth and complexity to them that keeps them emotionally stunted. Those characters are unappealing to a lot of people because of this flatness.
If you are looking to write characters with more depth and humanity, then the Bond and Batman characters shouldn’t be what you aspire to.
Flawed Characters Learning
When your Protagonist starts their story, they’re at neutral. Your audience doesn’t know them, and their story hasn’t begun, so they’re neither good nor bad. They’re Schrödinger’s character. As your characters grow and change with your story, you learn their truth.
It’s important that your characters are flawed. A perfect character is unrelatable because nobody is perfect, and we all like to see ourselves represented in fiction. Watching somebody make mistakes humanises them. It also gives opportunity for learning.
When your characters make mistakes, either because they do something wrong that hurts another character or because they follow a mistaken lead on their quest to getting what they want, they can learn from that mistake. That bump, that interaction, will have an effect on who they are and change them. They will adjust their behaviour to the circumstances they’re now in.
Watching somebody learn, adjust, and move forward again offers both the entertainment of the initial conflict when the mistake is made, and demonstrates the humanity of that character. Humanity is what will draw your audience into rooting for them and investing in their story.
Characters Grow and Change To Become Better People
Each time your character bumps into a mistake, imagine that the bump leaves a metaphorical bruise. Something that serves as a constant reminder of that mistake being made, and a bruise they want to avoid poking.
That bruise helps them develop as people. In an effort to not bump the same spot, they’ll try not to make the same mistake again. Your characters grow and change to avoid bumping that bruise.
The process of trying not to make the same mistake twice is how they grow. They are on their path to becoming better people. At the start of the story, when they’re neutral, they’re unblemished by story bumps. By the end, you’ve bumped them so many times that they’ve learned enough to be the best version of themselves they can be at this time in their life.
In future stories, if you want to tell a series with the same character, they’ll have their bumps from the previous story. Don’t reset them to neutral, but send them on a course of entirely new bumps and learning. One story of bumps won’t bruise them into perfection. They’re still flawed and human, they just make all new mistakes.
Characters Grow And Change To Become Worse People
Whilst your morally good character, probably the Protagonist, is busy becoming a better person in their effort to avoid bumping the same spots, your morally bad character, probably the Antagonist, is also on a journey.
If you treat your Antagonist as the Protagonist in their own story, then it suits that they too must make mistakes and cause bruises on their journey. It’s how they deal with them that makes them different. Morally good characters grow and learn for the better, whereas a morally bad characters grow and change for the worse.
When a morally bad character gets bruised by mistakes, they don’t treat it as a learning opportunity. They will blame those around them, possibly punish them or threaten them. They make sure that the bruise isn’t poked again by the changing the action of others rather than by their own behaviour.
The character growth of a morally bad character sends them into darker spaces. That keeps them in constant opposition to the character who is using their version of the same bruises to become better.
Other People’s Errors
Just as your Antagonist is the Protagonist in their own story, so is every other character that is around them. Because they are also flawed humans trying to learn from their mistakes, they will also be growing and changing. But that means they will be bumping into one another. As well as your Protagonist and Antagonist, and they’ll all be bumping and bruising each other.
This process of bumping everybody into everybody else creates conflict, and conflict through your story is what keeps it entertaining. As your characters try to learn from their own mistakes, and avoid poking their own bruises, other people can poke those bruises on their own journey of mistakes and development.
To use this in your story, remember what each character has experienced. Remember where they’re damaged and the emotional journey they’re on to develop and change, and make them respond accordingly. Just as they don’t reset to neutral on their own experiences, in interactions with others they aren’t reset to neutral either.
If a bruise is accidentally poked by another character, they can react in a way that would seem irrational. Other characters won’t know they were bruised by mistakes and experiences. Other characters haven’t been on that journey, but your audience will. If you reset to neutral and don’t have them react, that will break the character.
Characters Grow And Change
Letting your characters grow and change, learn through the course of the story, and become a different version of themselves by the end keeps them interesting. The deeper, more complex, and more interesting your character is, the better your story will be. The more changes they go through, the more opportunity you have for conflict and entertainment with them.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose