What is this heresy, you might be asking? Everyone always says character development is so important in stories!
Well, it’s not quite so simple as that.
I’ve thought a bit about this for a while now, but after seeing 1917 this week and watching a few reviews of it, I decided to actually write this. See, one of the few criticisms of that movie I’ve seen is “there wasn’t much character development.” I’ve seen some similar things said about Girls Und Panzer, and some other quality shows/movies, and wanted to set the record straight.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea. Character development is obviously something good to have in your stories; seeing characters grow and change (especially for the better) is one of the things people love the most in fictional works. However, the idea of “character development” has been elevated to some weird place where it’s often used incorrectly, particularly by people with a wrong idea of what character development actually entails.
The truth is, not every story *needs* character development, in the same way that not every story needs some deep, complex plot. With simple stories, you can have simpler characters, and moreover, in certain stories, certain genres, the reader or viewer’s satisfaction comes from seeing the hero succeed against the odds; whether they “change” or “develop” over the course of the adventure isn’t needed. Examples of this can include pulp stories, action movies, or thrillers. (Though of course I’m not saying the entirety of those genres are like this.) The fun comes by seeing how the awesome hero manages to save the day/survive/escape, or whatever. And to be honest, even in many such stories, those characters do change a bit, even in a subtle manner.
To use 1917 as an example, as it’s fresh in my mind (spoiler warning here):
William Schofield, the main character, might not appear to some to have changed much over the course of the film, and we never get some super detailed backstory about him, because it wasn’t needed for the story being told. However, a careful observer would see a subtle shift from a war-weary soldier, somewhat unenthusiastic about his dangerous mission, to someone willing to risk everything to accomplish it, and coming out with a somewhat different perspective of things–the key moment there is when his friend Thomas Blake, the more enthusiastic soldier of the pair of main characters, tragically dies. That’s it, that’s all we needed.
Without getting into spoilers for anyone following along my Girls Und Panzer rewatch, our main characters really don’t change a great deal either. There is a bit here and there, especially for our 5 primary leads, and a little bit for other characters too, if you pay attention, but again, it’s not needed in that show. It’s a simple story about sportsmanship and friendship. We don’t need a sweeping character arc; on the contrary, some huge, forced arc, would have significantly altered the show we got, and not in a way that was needed.
In writing my Galaxy Ascendant series, the idea of character development is something I’ve though about a lot. All of my main characters (11 major viewpoint characters over the course of the series) get at least one clear character arc. However, I realized that after the first book or two, that some of said characters had already more or less reached the end of their “development,” as it were, and if I wanted to give them another “arc,” it’d require them to regress or otherwise feel forced. Just think about it. If you’ve got characters you follow through a seven book series, if you try to give them a full arc in each book, you get a mess. So, in my case, I decided not to sweat it. I let character arcs run their course, however long it took, but there is still reader incentive of seeing these characters succeed, even if they aren’t significantly changing over the course of the entire series. (I did have the advantage of having so many characters, so as some finished their arcs, there were always others in the middle or just getting started. It was through this that I learned not to obsess over character development and just do what the story needs.
That’s what it comes down to, really. Different stories have different requirements. Many stories call for main characters to undergo significant change, while others, on the more simple end, do not require this. That’s why there’s no one way to judge a movie, tv show, book, or comic. Each should be judged based on what it is trying to accomplish. If it achieves that, whether it’s simple or complex, then it is a success. Of course, nothing appeals to everyone, but you still have to have a different set of standards, or metrics, for any piece of media you review.
To sum up, I just want all writers, especially those just starting out, to bear that in mind. Don’t obsess over some arbitrary ideal of “character development” when writing. If you have your story, and characters, planned well, you’ll know what you want to do with both of them, and then you can determine what it requires to achieve your goals. A simple story of a soldier trying to survive behind enemy lines doesn’t necessitate a lot of character development, while the story of a farm boy rising to be the great hero and save the world does require more. Remember, “development” is not the same thing as challenges to overcome. They often go hand in hand, but that’s not required in every instance.
Character development, character arcs, are great storytelling tools, but only if used in the right way and at the right time.
There is no one-size fits all list of requirements for a good story, and anyone who tries to tell you there is is lying. Write what you’re passionate about, put the work in, and understand what you want to accomplish with your story. That is how you’ll bring out the best in your work, and your readers will agree with you.
My Galaxy Ascendant series is full of great, fully realized characters, all of whom have as much development as they and the story required. Readers love them, and the series, and you will too. Book 1, A Greater Duty, is available for only $0.99 on Amazon, so it’s very easy to jump in to–although you will likely soon find yourself coming back for more as the series hurtles toward its epic conclusion.
I also have new Patreon and Subscriberstar pages live, for anyone who wishes to support my writing in ways apart from buying the books, and they net you cool rewards, including behind the scenes looks at in-progress projects. Look forward to seeing you there!