Making Promises: The Realities of Good Character Development
I’ve been having some thoughts and feelings about what makes character development fun, but also satisfying. I thought here may be a good place to share them with you, so buckle up from some rambling, and lots of questions, because we’re getting straight into it.
Let’s start with HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. I use this, not only because it’s a great example, but because I want to try and use stories (not just books) that as many of us are familiar with as possible. Hiccup is our main character (MC) because he is the person whose shoulder we ride on for most of the story as the viewer. He is also the protagonist (driving the plot forward), and the hero (saving the day). When we meet Hiccup, we quickly learn he is somewhat of an oddball. In a world of burly warriors, he is an awkward clumsy kid, who does everything a little different, out of both choice and necessity. Hiccup’s conflict is that struggles with the ways of the village, but also seems to crave the respect and acceptance of his bullying peers, and toxic masculinity oozing father. Throughout the story, Hiccup gets stronger. Due to his unusual ways, Hiccup forms a friendship with Toothless. As a united pair, Hiccup and Toothless provide an x-factor that makes the clan stronger, smarter, and ultimately their best selves. This provides us with conflict, motives, themes, adversity, and a satisfying conclusion. Where we can find a problem is in the theme of why Hiccup risked life and lost a limb to gain the friendship of his bullies or the respect of his father. If the story hadn’t involved Hiccup finding Toothless at all, perhaps the village would have come to appreciate him for his apparent strategy skills, or innovative contraptions. Maybe without his relationship with Toothless, Hiccup would have decided he didn’t need the approval of his peers at all and would never have demonstrated his strength through physically fighting. Did Hiccup compromise his values to please those around him, all in the name of acceptance? The reason we don’t usually worry about things like this is because whether in an animated film, or a twelve installation epic fantasy series, as long as it’s fun and we have a good time—we can brush some things under the rug. Promises were made, and a context provided, to deliver a satisfying conclusion, even if the ultimate moral resolution for Hiccup seems questionable.
This may be a problem we see arise in any kind of science fiction or fantasy. Even in stories that mix the mystical and the mundane, how much focus is allowed on the characters human development over their more fantastical abilities. How do the two play into each other? When faced with a seemingly endless barrage of magical threats, it’s likely impossible for a character to not grow stronger in some way to counter those threats—even if through resilience alone. The obtaining of magic, or powers, almost always ties intrinsically to the identity of a character; be it the underdog farm-boy, unlikely apprentice, or wizened sage. For powers to work in a story, however, there is usually a cost associated with both gaining and using them. Without this, we’re left in a rather dull area of everyone just solving all of their problems with magic. If this is the case, what inspires characters to sacrifice their body or mind in the name of the greater good (or evil), and how does this evolve throughout the story? Emotional growth is arguably one of the single most important factors of good character development across all genres. By providing characters that people can relate to, see our struggles within, or empathise with, it starts to become possible to find a rich and immersive experience, rather than just a sequence of events where ‘cool shit happens’. Maybe this is why so much of enjoying a book can be subjective. Is there a chance that people with higher emotional intelligence are more likely to connect with vulnerable and nuanced characters? Of course. Even if people have not experienced the same trauma, there seems to be something in emotional scars that resonates between people as that fragile scar tissue is a similar thing. Conversely, someone may not be ready for a story or character. Someone may see something in a character that they hate about themselves, something they deny. Readers may reject a character or story, just as they reject the truth about themselves. This is the kind of struggle we can see in the real world too. Ever had difficulty connecting with someone then had a third party tell you that ‘you’re just too similar’?
So, what about when the MC isn’t the hero? This is something that happens more often than we think. To again, use a commonly known story, let’s talk about Bella Swan from the somewhat problematic Twilight series. Bella didn’t save the day, at least not early on in the stories. Bella was not competent, clumsy and always getting into trouble, or even particularly likeable. The reason that Bella did work wasn’t because of the ‘hero’s journey’ trope, rather the ‘fish out of water’. Bella served as the perfect foil to introduce us to the sexy, sparkly, super strong, and ageless vampires. Throughout the stories, Bella’s somewhat concerning character development meant that though she never really did seem to get much agency she did become stronger. By the end of the stories, *SPOILER* Bella saved the day. Yes someone else finally tipped the scales, but Bella was the key component that allowed that to happen. They’d all have been dead without her shield. Thus, Bella became competent, if never really likeable. Was this as successful a character arc as Hiccup? No. Because it was never really clear what Bella wanted. In one film, How to Train Your Dragon provided more character development that several books through simple messaging. Who knows, maybe all Bella ever really wanted was a weirdly CGI faced baby and lots of sparkly vampire sex for eternity (in which case win, I guess?), but all I remember is that she was a pale clumsy girl who hated the town she lived in. Ultimately, it seems Bella sacrificed her life and humanity to become ‘better’ for a boy, and I’m not sure how I feel about that but it’s not good.
Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. MC’s for sure. Protagonists, yes. Heroes? Not really, at least not for the vast amount of the books (or films). If the hobbits had been competent swordsmen trained in smashing up goblins by Buckleberry Ferry, we just wouldn’t have been as interested. Their lack of competence in itself was compelling. We followed them through huge stories as they became their best selves, with the only real promise we were given in advance that they were going on an adventure. It’s the emotional growth of these characters though that ultimately stays with us. When people talk about the true hero in Lord of the Rings, one name comes up again and again. Sam. Sam whose journey is steadfast devotion and loyalty to his friend, against all odds.
There are lots of great examples, many of which can be found in animation. Prince Zuko will always get a mention, the greatest redemption story I’ve ever seen. A character whose entire drive and conflict was his honour, discovering what honour truly meant and changing completely as he did. Steven Universe handles this kind of core messaging beautifully, as did She-Ra (Catra) and hopefully it seems like My Hero Academia may too. This kind of journey can be one of the most compelling, and these characters almost always end up as fan favourites.
Let’s touch briefly on the dreaded ‘HP’. If you are familiar with those stories, you know that the MC is also the hero and the protagonist. Now, what were his conflicts at the beginning of book one? How did the character change throughout the stories to demonstrate their development and growth? Did this allow the character to become the best version of themselves? How do the initial themes ultimately contribute to the story? My thoughts? Zero. This is an excellent example of profoundly poor character development. The only character who seemed to have any real emotional arc likely made more impact because it stood out so starkly, but is one side character getting an emotional pay off good enough? Absolutely not. Telling the story of an abused child moving to a fantastical place and making friends is a sublime opportunity to base growth on found family and self-actualisation, but we got little to none of this. This leaves these stories in the dust pile of ‘just some cool stuff that happened and seemed good at the time’.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that balancing character growth in a way that is satisfying to everyone is impossible. It’s possible, like Frodo and Bilbo, for MC’s to start as just that, and grow to become better protagonists, and eventually heroes in their own right. But did they need to be a conventional hero? Was that their initial conflict and does it give a satisfying conclusion to their arc? Does your main character need to learn how to grow wings and bitch slap demons through walls, or is it more satisfying for them to surprise themselves by developing courage, or agency? In an ideal world, we get both so that we can have fun and be satisfied, but what if the former conflicts with the latter? At what point does the change that the character undergoes start to compromise their core values? This leads us to something that for a long time I have called ‘full circle or death’. Once the journey of a character has completed, are they even recognisable as the character they were when we started the journey? Inevitably it will end in either embarking on a new journey with echoes of the first, or their time is up.
So next time you are reading, listening, watching, or playing (yes, video games are valid storytelling too), ask yourself why you have enjoyed a specific character's journey, and what made it work. Is it because they became a master swordsman, or because they finally gained the courage to confront their abusive father? I know which gives me goosebumps. It is possible to have both, even both at the same time (hey, maybe their dad likes swords), but that doesn’t mean you have to have them both. To me, if the character can achieve their goals in a way that surprises me, I am sold. Bonus points if you had it sneak up on me, and it takes me flipping back to page one after reading page 300 to see how much they grew throughout the story.