Character Development: The Point of Your Story

Last time I looked at how to introduce characters into your story.  This time it’s character development, perhaps the most important topic to storytelling because without it, there is no story.

Here’s a continuation of last time’s story:

My team had a plan but did not share it with me.  They knew about my bereavement and so things flowed a little easier.  What they didn’t tell me was they sheltered me from bad news.  So, my decisions were still way off because I did not have the full picture.

They fielded my instructions and responded to situations as they understood them.  Mostly they were on the ball but didn’t follow instructions.  This led to more conflict.  When I started disciplinary procedures, I had to face a delegation from the staff.

I stopped them hiding bad news. Despite several mistakes, they’d taken initiative and overall done pretty well.  I had to change the way I worked; allocate more responsibility and trust my team.  With permission to speak to me, if I was too directive, I made a real effort to listen.

My team responded and gradually we hammered out how to work productively.  

The Hero’s Journey

This outline story shows how someone changed their management style.  Note the scope for character development, not just the protagonist’s but also for one or more members of his team. 

The hero, sometimes called protagonist, is the main character.  He or she is the person we root for.  They are always inadequate to the task.  They want to achieve something but are not equipped to do it.

Their story shows how they acquire what they need for success.  Their needs may be external, eg wealth or weapons, or internal, character development.  Often external needs are met through character development.  Indeed, grabbing external advantage before they are internally prepared is disastrous.  Tragedy is about a hero who oversteps the mark and pays for it later.

Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots have, with the possible exception of Comedy, a similar five-fold structure:

  1. An initial challenge taken up by the hero.
  2. Early good progress.
  3. Barriers, obstructions, temptations encountered.
  4. A final confrontation, where the hero almost loses.
  5. Final victory (or defeat) and the aftermath. 

It is possible to tell a story with little or no character development, eg James Bond is reset at the beginning of each film.  But mostly we are interested in how the hero finds the resources they need to meet their goal.

You Are the Protagonist

What happens when you are the protagonist?  It’s possible you can’t see how your character developed.  This is one reason personal stories seem less compelling than fiction. 

Some people go through significant trauma and emerge with a clear image of how they were before and how they are now.  Leaving aside how accurate their picture is, they at least have a compelling story.  If you listen to their story over time, they revise their story as their understanding deepens.

What about the rest of us? 

Here are a few thoughts.

  • Talk to others involved in your story.  Ask them to tell it from their perspective.  Find out what changes they saw in you.  You don’t need to include everyone present at the time.  In the story at the head of this post, it is not even clear how many were in the team.  You could name and develop one or more team members, leaving the rest anonymous.
  • Rehearse your story, telling it from the perspective of other characters.  Do this with or without interviewing them.  Imagine the changes they perceived.  You could be biased but in private there’s no need to be.
  • Rehearse with others present and invite feedback.  Does this ring true?  If they are part of the story, they can perhaps be more helpful but even people who were not present may raise helpful insights.
  • Introduce more characters into the story.  Villains are particularly good at uncovering the hero’s weaknesses.  Anyone can challenge the hero, though and a guide or support character can be just as helpful.
  • Or introduce more threats into the hero’s journey.  Give them more to overcome.  This shows up weaknesses and hidden strengths.

Telling a story from real life, you inevitably summarise what might have been a long complex story.  You should include incidents that serve character development for the hero and possibly other characters.

More Than One Character

Time is a big constraint for most business storytellers, with a few minutes to tell their story.  Whilst character development is possible, what happens when there is more than one character?

You don’t have to be the hero of your own story!  A parent, spouse or business partner might take on that role.  Try out your story with various heroes and see what happens!

However, you don’t have the space to tell a complex story, like the novelist or writer of TV series, anime and the like.  When you have more time, you can develop several characters.  

What can you do in a few minutes?

Some characters are ciphers.  If there is a doctor in your story, you don’t have to say much about them.   We all know what doctors do and mostly make do with that general idea.  Your doctor needs no name, sex or age, unless such information is important to the story.

The next step up is characters you describe but don’t develop.  Your team has four members called A B C and D.  Name them and explain what they bring to the team in support of your goal.  They interact with you and each other but you don’t need to focus on their development.

Slowly reveal their powers.  Don’t include everything about them in your first description.  Seed hidden powers early in the story, so when they’re revealed it is not as a sudden escape hatch.  This helps the audience feel they are getting to know the character without spending a lot of time on development.  These characters are predictable but that’s OK so long as they have a role in the story.

If a secondary character develops alongside the hero, we expect it to be someone who matters to the hero.  A villain who interacts with the hero, for example.  If the story is about a relationship, perhaps leading to marriage, then expect some character development in the partner. 

Bear in mind the voice the story is in.  If it is told from the point of view of the protagonist, they do not have access to the innermost thoughts of other characters.  In a love story, for example, they don’t know what the other is thinking.  You can have a lot of fun with that but when the other’s thoughts are revealed it is still a reveal and not necessarily character development.

And this leads us to the topic of the next post: staying in the moment as understood by the protagonist.  This allows other characters to be surprising, even though as characters they might not develop.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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