I’d always understood the phrase ‘character development’ a certain way, but a while ago I read a review of a certain book I had also read (which review and book is not, I think, necessary to this post), which complained of poor character development in the novel. Specifically, what was considered to be poor character development, was that the character in question did not develop, change, or grow throughout the story. She was very much the same at the end of the book as at the beginning, and persisted in behavior and attitude patterns long past when they were shown to be ineffective or even counterproductive.
I had thought the book had good character development. The characters were perhaps not the most ‘leap-off-the-page’ that I have ever read, but they felt real, like real people. Precisely what this reviewer considered to be poor character development was what I thought to be good character development. Throughout the book, I got to understand the character better. I learned what made her who she is, how she thinks, how she responds to things, how she thinks, what she feels. And, it fundamentally made sense with who she was, how she refused change. Her resistance to change was one of the ways I got to know her. I got to feel her resistance, her insistence on staying the way she is. I got to experience a little bit of who she was.
That, to me, is the core of what I have called ‘character development’. It’s not that the character develops; it’s that the story develops my understanding of the character. Sometimes the character develops; sometimes she doesn’t. That’s like people: sometimes we change quickly, sometimes we change slowly, sometimes we resist change and then change suddenly. Sometimes we seem to change, and then revert. And I like to see that: seeing a character resist change, or not even notice that a situation might call for development, over and over again, can deepen my understanding of who she is, just as much as seeing her change, when appropriate, can.
I guess I’m saying I don’t mind it when a character essentially does not change throughout the course of a book or a story. Both change and the lack thereof can be part of what I want. As long as the character feels vibrant, real, as humanly simple or complex – yes, I know not all characters are human – as appropriate, as long as the character feels like a person, and I feel like I’m getting to know this person through reading the story, that’s what I want in that department.
So, what do you think? Should I continue to call that ‘character development’ or should we invent a new term to distinguish between a character developing over the course of a story, versus the story developing our understanding of the character – two things which often go together, but definitely don’t have to?
What does the phrase ‘character development’ mean to you?