This is somewhat related to my seven part series on critiquing. A while after I wrote that, I got all this stuff about character development and realized I never really went very in depth with that. So I’m here to remedy that today. Please note this is not a post about how to do character development so much as it is how the character development process works (at least for me) and what a lot of readers/critiquers seem to miss about it.
I’m going to start this by saying I think character development is one of my stronger areas of writing. A lot of my characters seem to appear fully developed, or at least mostly developed. They usually have personalities and quirks but I have to discover their back stories and things like that. Now, obviously that isn’t the case for every single character I write. Curiously enough, most of my main characters (especially if they’re female) seem to take a while to get just right.
Now, going back to the critiquing side of things, I’ve gotten comments that say things such as “your characters seem flat,” or “I really don’t connect to them at all,” or things like that. Which, okay, that’s fair. You’re reading the first chapter of chapter one, right? But that’s the thing. It’s a first chapter. It’s a first draft of a first chapter. That’s obviously going to happen.
People need to realize, though, that character development (especially in a first draft) doesn’t happen immediately. Yes, maybe you think because the characters aren’t 100% perfect from the first chapter you read, that means the author needs to work on them. But it’s natural (at least for me) that characters will develop as the story progresses. So I think it’s rather unfair for critiquers, if you’re handing them a full first draft, to just cry out that the characters are terribly underdeveloped as a whole when they’ve only read the first chapter. (I see people say this all the time, despite the fact that if you read all the way through, it’s clear that isn’t the case).
My problem with it is mainly that it’s unnecessary and somewhat irksome to the writer. It’s like saying, “Hey, your characters are terrible, you need to flesh them out more!” when the writer has already finished the story and the characters are extremely fleshed out throughout the coarse of the story. It’s almost akin to meeting someone for five minutes and then deciding they’re boring and have no personality whatsoever.
Now, this isn’t always the case. Obviously there are some characters in first drafts that are legitimately terrible/flat/whatever. If the main character(s) are boring and uninteresting from the start and you feel no connection to them and no interest to keep reading, then that is a definite problem. But I mostly see people getting upset over the fact that a few characters (not even necessarily the main characters) aren’t 100% fleshed out. Not even that they’re boring, just that they think they could “stand out a little more” and that they know nothing about them. Which for a chapter one is just becoming nitpicky.
Another thing I see critiquers nitpick too much within character development is the question of “why did they do that”? Now, generally speaking this can be a legitimate question for some situations. If the character seems to be acting a way that doesn’t work with his character as you’ve seen it so far, then by all means ask this. But there are instances where they just ask this whether or not they know the character yet just because they think this is not a thing people should be doing in general. “Why did Harry sneak out to go to Hogsmede when he wasn’t allowed to? He’s supposed to be the good guy, this isn’t sending a good message to children.”
Again, unless this seems to be breaking their character, it isn’t really necessary to be questioning the morality (or anything similar to that ) of ones’ character unless it seems legitimately off for the story as a whole. You may not agree with it, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad character development. Likewise, certain characters may annoy you, but that doesn’t make them bad characters. Sometimes characters being annoying is the intent, but then other times I see people saying that certain characters annoy them seemingly for no reason (maybe just because one character withheld information from another, and that automatically makes you hate them for some reason, even if it doesn’t make them a bad character).
I think the last thing I want to touch on is how characters interact with other characters. I’ve seen a lot of comments (both on my own work and on other peoples’ work) where people will say things like “people don’t act that way around each other” even if they do. Now, if something seems overly dramatic and it seems to be playing up to be serious, that’s one thing. But really when it comes to things like this, you have to look at the overall tone of the story to figure out whether interactions work well. Sure, maybe these friends or lovers are acting way too dramatic, but maybe there’s a lighthearted tone to go with it so you can tell they’re doing it in jest. Unfortunately it’s difficult to convey feelings, emotions, and tones of voices within the confines of text alone.
Or saying things like when a person’s family is annoying to them and still treats them like a child when they’re an adult is unrealistic… clearly you’ve never met my family. Let’s put it this way: Just because you haven’t had experiences like this before doesn’t mean they aren’t realistic. And that’s where the difficulty in critiquing character development comes in.
If you have a good eye, it’s easier to spot poor character development that isn’t necessarily going to go anywhere for the entirety of the story, vs character development that just starts out shaky but ends up working out in the end. Figuring out whether something is realistic or not when you’ve never run into that sort of behavior before in real life, even if it does exist. The hard thing about character development is that people are complex beings and getting into the head of an imaginary person is even harder. How can you, as a reader, be able to understand everything about these people? The writer knows their characters best, but even the writer won’t know everything.
So just be careful what you say when you’re critiquing someone’s characters. Think it through. Maybe just because the author doesn’t state a reason for why a character does or feels a certain way doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Within character development, there’s a lot of subtlety, or at least there should be to make something good and “realistic”.