If I had to name my single greatest pleasure in the act of writing fiction, it would be the joy of creating character development. To me, the whole point of any story—no matter how plot-based—is to show the impact that all of the action has on the person involved. If there is no overall change in the protagonist, then what’s the point of telling that particular tale? Character development can be large or small, positive or negative, but it must take place in some form, or the story feels irrelevant. So how do you do it?
Define the Ultimate Goal
Creating character development usually begins by taking a good look at the ending you have in mind for your story. Before you write the first word, decide how you want this person to end up. Will he be braver than he ever expected? Wiser? Disillusioned? Happily married? Broken hearted? Whatever your ultimate goal, you must decide on the end point and think backwards from there to find your starting point. Even if you are the kind of writer who eschews outlines and prefers to take each day’s writing as it comes, you ought to know, in general, where you are headed with your protagonist emotionally. Minor plot points aside, you can’t really show a character’s growth or change if you don’t have any idea what that growth or change is going to be.
Create a Beginning
Once you know where you want to end up, then you should decide where to begin. Essentially, you should start with the character as far as believable in the opposite direction. At the end of the book, will they be older but wiser, their childlike innocence gone forever? Then at the beginning of the book, they should be completely innocent and trusting, probably to the point of extreme naivety. Is your character going to learn to be bold and stand up for themselves? Then in the beginning, they need to be getting sand kicked in their face, with everyone walking all over them at every turn.
In my first book, A PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS, the protagonist is newly widowed, very isolated, and so full of grief that sometimes she can barely breath. Going in, I knew she would be growing and changing through a 5-book series and that at the end she would be past the most intense part of her grief, in love again, happy, and no longer isolated. By making her so sad in the beginning, I had room to bring her to full happiness by the end.
Take it to the Extreme
Don’t be afraid to make the change quite drastic. Look at the beginning of the first LETHAL WEAPON movie: Mel Gibson isn't just sad, he's drunk, suicidal, isolated, ready to die. Look at the beginning of the book CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY: Charlie isn't just poor, he's so poor he shares a single bed with half his family. Look at HARRY POTTER: He isn't just an "outsider" in his own home, he's actually forced to live in a closet under the stairs and is verbally abused and is utterly alone. They all have a long way to go—and getting them there is one of your most important jobs in telling their story!