Before Gregory leaves for war, he’s a happy, upbeat boy. He loves singing and drawing and hanging out with his little sisters. He’s active and chipper and never misses an opportunity to make someone laugh.
Gregory leaves for war.
Gregory returns 5 years later.
Gregory hasn’t changed. He’s still a happy, upbeat boy. He loves singing and drawing and hanging out with his little sisters. He’s active and chipper and nev-
STOP THE TAPE!
Is it just me, or is there something completely and totally WRONG with what I just wrote?
Let’s try again, from after our hero, Gregory, returns:
Gregory is no longer a boy. He doesn’t talk much, he doesn’t sing, and when he tries to draw, all he can picture are images of his dead comrades; his dead friends. He still hangs out with his little sisters (who are much bigger now), and even though he tries to make them laugh, they notice that his smile doesn’t last as long as it used to.
I’m feeling much better now, are you?
Poor Gregory (what is up with me torturing Gregory in my blog posts?) has been through the ringer and we can clearly see that, because of his experiences, he has changed and developed as a character.
One way any book can make me a cranky-pants (who leaves lengthy, impassioned reviews on Amazon) is by not realistically portraying a character’s development or by not forcing characters to face consequences.
Here’s the dealio:
Characters need consequences.
Characters need development.
Also, shit happens.
Break a leg! A character’s leg!
Character arcs are important.
If 6 beloved characters roam into a war-zone, I honestly wouldn’t expect all 6 to come out unscathed or unaffected, or ALIVE even, in some cases.
Innocent Gregory isn’t going to waltz into battle and walk out the other end the same Gregory he was, you know, unless he’s insane, and then our wonderful Gregory has other problems to deal with.
How would you have felt if Frodo got home after his traumatizing hike across Middle Earth and just… went back to normal as if nothing had happened? Even if he had stayed in the Shire, the people who knew him would have been faced with a new Frodo. Yes, still the Frodo they knew before, but a Frodo with some weight on his shoulders.
PSA: I’m not against happy endings! I’m nit-picky about happy endings that portray the character as unaffected from all the crap a writer just put them through.
I’m gonna name-drop two series that I think do the whole consequences and character development thing really well:
Game of Thrones –
Seriously. If anyone is a master at letting his characters face consequences for their choices and actions, it’s George R.R. Martin. As much as I hate it sometimes (and cry over it and throw things), he really knows his stuff. Don’t read the next part in this section if you don’t want potential spoilers.
One specific character that comes to mind is Oberyn Martell. He duels a man he has a vendetta against, and when he thinks he’s won, he begins boasting. The big surprise for Oberyn? The “defeated” man darts up, grabs him, and basically pops Oberyn’s head between his gargantuan hands in a scene that will haunt my dreams for the rest of time.
Now that you have that image in your head, let’s move on to…
The Hunger Games
Okay, not my favorite series ever, but Suzanne Collins does a fantastic job of showing Katniss’ slow journey to her breaking point.
The point is this – at the end of your story, your character should not be the same as they were when you started out. You don’t have to break their leg. It could be a positive change. Maybe they learn to love. Maybe they learn how to sew (hey, I have no idea what you’re story is about). Maybe they learn to be a soldier.
If your character is stagnant, you lose the opportunity to connect with your readers. You lose the opportunity to make them go “OH MY GOD WHY IS GREGORY DOING THAT THING?”
A stagnant character does not an emotional connection make.
Break a leg, or, you know, teach your character how to swing dance or make a really tasty pot of tea.
Give them something they didn’t have before… or take something away.