Mindy Starns Clark
2nd Timothy 1:7, "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline."

 Room To Grow: by Mindy Starns Clark

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!

Reinforce the Changes—But Don’t Overdo It

Finally, once you have brought your character from beginning to end, be sure that you strike the correct balance between telling enough and not telling too much. In this day and age, no story needs that old cliché, “And, so he learned…” The reader knows what he learned, as long as you show it effectively through mood, dialogue, or action.

One effective technique for showing change is to put a scene near the beginning of the story that can be sort of repeated again near the end. For example, in the movie ROMANCING THE STONE the heroine begins the tale by being so meek and timid that when she walks past street vendors, they nearly bowl her over; she mumbles and stumbles and practically runs away as they try to sell her their wares. Conversely, at the end of the movie, having found her inner bravery and confidence, she strolls down the same street past the same vendors—but this time she stands tall, walks proudly, and laughs and jokes with them as she goes. You already know the ways in which she has changed, but the scene is a wonderful reinforcement.

Stretching it Through a Series

So how does a writer plan ahead for continuing character development in an entire series? Establish smaller goals along the way. For example, in my second book, DON’T TAKE ANY WOODEN NICKELS, my character realizes that she is far too isolated, and she takes steps to connect with other people. In the third book, A DIME A DOZEN, she interacts with her late husband’s family and, in effect, gets their “permission” to move on with her life.

Each book takes baby steps toward the ultimate goal. If you are showing growth and change throughout an entire series, then start by giving them plenty of room to go and end by showing them completely free of all (or most) of what hindered them in the beginning. (or vice versa) In between, the changes can happen in degrees.

Subtle Change

As a final note, let me say that there are many excellent books where the main character does not seem to show significant change or growth. But if you look closely, you’ll see that every good book features character development and change, no matter how subtle. As a writer, your job is to bring the reader along for the ride, telling your tale in such a way that your character’s transformation is completely believable—and utterly gripping.

© 2005 Mindy Starns Clark

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