Creation and Evolution: The Two Stages of Character Development

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Based on that heading, you might have thought this was going to be about an entirely different topic but fear not! Religion and politics are the two discussion subjects to avoid for an easier life and since I’ve already ventured into politics (in a very small way), I won’t push my luck with religion.

Of course, the creation and evolution I’m talking about here relate to character development: who your characters are at the beginning of your story and who they become as the story unfolds and concludes. The two stages have a lot in common but there are important differences in getting each of them right.

Stereotypes
Stereotypes are commonly pointed to as something to be avoided in character development but here’s something to consider: it’s okay for characters to be created as stereotypes so long as their evolution is about how they become uniquely themselves (although it’s probably best to avoid truly offensive typecasting). The reason stereotypes become so ingrained is not because they don’t exist but because they do, in spades. I’m a great example – single, approaching forty, owner of multiple cats. Yes, I’m a crazy cat lady (although I prefer cat woman). But I’m single (happily), age is just a number because I don’t intend to have children (I prefer to be the world’s greatest aunt instead), the cats chose me rather than the other way around (they kept turning up at my house and wouldn’t stop until I moved) and I’m in great mental health (the occasional bout of social awkwardness aside).

If your characters remain stereotypes, yes, it’s a big problem. But watching the process of how they break themselves out of the mould or reveal that they were never really stereotypes to begin with (despite outward appearances) can be terribly fun for both writers and readers.

Conception
Do a quick Google search for character development and you could spend days going through checklists of how to create a character. And I do literally mean checklists:

*Eyes: blue – check
*Hair: blonde – check
*Accent: none – check
*Political preference: centrist – check
*Preferred work day lunch eatery: yes, this was actually on a character development checklist I found – check

One checklist requested hundreds of minute pieces of information that could take weeks to complete for each character. I don’t know about you but I’ve got better things to do with my writing time. Don’t feel like you have to know everything about your characters before you start writing them. Creation, just like evolution, can take place over an extended period of time and in bits and pieces. And in many (if not most) cases, their preferred work day lunch eatery won’t have any relevance whatsoever.

I’m a fan of giving the creation of a character an amount of time that directly corresponds with the amount of time they appear in the novel. If there are four main characters in a book, then I spend roughly the same amount of time on developing who each of them is. If there is a secondary character who appears in only three chapters, then they’re going to get a lot less of my attention. Not because they aren’t as important but because if I devote huge amounts of time going into exquisite detail, most of it is going to end up on the writing equivalent of the cutting room floor. Again, I’ve got better things to do.

Transition
Character creation doesn’t necessarily need to make sense as long as your character is somewhat realistic. After all, the reader doesn’t see the process of creation, just the result. After creation, however, the reader sees almost everything and thus a character’s route to their eventual evolution must be logical. We must be able to trace the path they take and see how each incident has contributed to who they end up being at the end of the story.

But you don’t need to know how they get there when you create them. You don’t even need to know where they’re going. Writing is as much of a journey for a writer as it is for a reader. Sometimes it’s more fun to just head out on the open road without an itinerary. Sign posts will pop up along the way and you can decide as you approach them whether you’re going to slow down and detour or if you’re going to continue on until a more interesting one appears. (Oh, I love a good metaphor.)

You might even find that the character evolves in a way you hadn’t anticipated. But if you write towards a pre-determined evolution, you could be trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Outcomes
It’s also important to remember that just because your story – and therefore your characters’ story – is ending, that doesn’t mean your characters’ lives are. “They lived happily ever after” generally doesn’t cut it in modern writing. If you’ve done a good enough job of it, they will be complex enough to live on in the memories of readers. Their lives could be extended through wonderings, imaginings, maybe some fan fiction. There might even be sequels. (Fairy tales used to be one offs but in these Disney days there are always sequels, even if they are straight to DVD.)

So while Thelma & Louise can get away with (spoiler alert!) driving their car off a cliff to end their story, most other characters can’t. But that doesn’t mean all the ends have to be tied up neatly. Life is so rarely neat. Not even poetic justice is neat. And the ends are almost never ends (until the ultimate end – death, that is). It’s better if the ends are tied up plausibly instead – because while it might not be an entirely satisfying conclusion to your characters’ story in a romantic sense, both your characters (and your readers) will get the ending they deserve.

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