Honestly, it’s okay to do whatever you want to do. If you’re wondering whether or not people will like chapters focused solely on character development, then I have good news for you. Because plot and character are designed to be linked together, I bet that your character-development chapters are doing more for your plot than you realize. Regardless, let’s break down different types of “character-development” scenes and see where you’re at.
Character Development vs. Characters Arcs
I think this is a good place to start with this post. Every novel should have a plot or subplot that explores the main character’s transformation. And yes, you better have a transformation of some kind. For a story to be effective, the plot should be big enough that it changes your characters in some way. Think about who they are at the beginning and imagine how their experiences throughout the novel change them. This is what creates your character arc.
Character development is such a big, bold term that many of us just throw around to describe anything character related. But let’s look a little deeper. Development is about shaping and molding your characters, as if you were sculpting them from a mound of clay. The more details you include, the more vivid the character. And when you do something unexpected with these details (avoiding cliched characters), you create pieces of art that intrigue readers and make them like the character even more. Development is your process of defining the character.
You know you’ve done your job well when you (the writer) can predict a character’s actions or reactions in any situation, regardless of whether or not that situation actually occurs in the novel. Challenge yourself with this. What would they do as a bystander in an armed robbery? How would they react to losing their job? What would they say if they discovered someone had lied to them?
This is what character development is. When it comes to character development within your novel, you’re attempting to translate what you already know about your character to your readers. The most effective way to do this is to show it. Put them in scenarios that reveal who they are.
If you’re spending entire chapters simply listing a character’s attributes and describing how they respond to vague situations and scenarios, then you’re telling. This is where I would caution a writer to avoid chapters entirely devoted to development. Readers don’t want character traits to be relayed to them; they want them to be demonstrated.
Character Development Scenes
Alrighty, moving ahead. So we’ve eliminated scenes where you’re simply writing a character description. What about scenes where you do show who the character is? What if you write that armed robbery scene to show how they respond in a tense situation, and it turns out that this armed robbery has no bearing on the rest of the plot? Is this okay?
It can be. Assuming the reaction to the armed robbery leads to change. Because in any challenging moment, a character will experience an immediate action and a followup action. The immediate action encompasses what they do in the moment. Did they try to disarm the person? Did they attempt to alert the police in secret? Did they try to run away? The followup action is how they approach new decisions given this new experience. The fear of death in that situation may lead them to take action against other (plot-related) events in their life. They may receive an injury that impedes their progress or forces them to adapt. All of this impacts how the character approaches the internal and external conflicts. In other words, the armed robbery served to move the plot forward, despite its initial disconnect from the main event.
Maybe the character-development scenes you’re thinking of are less intense. Maybe they’re introspective walks or light-hearted conversations.
For the latter, remember that dialogue should be purposeful. A humorous jab or quippy exchange is delightful and fun to read, but if you’re going to spend a lot of page real estate on nothing but playful banter between characters, you better be building to something. Good examples of this would be the relationship eventually falling apart or being challenged.
When it comes to introspection, you should be building to a decision. A character that thinks back through recent events should be doing so in an effort to devise a strategy. An introspective walk should be because “Hell, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. Maybe if I take a walk and clear my head, I’ll figure it out.” When they’re thinking, they’re preparing to act. And that is related to your plot in a BIG way.
Okay, I’ve been answering questions on Tumblr for over 4 years now, and this has come up many times. The flashback is the number one culprit for gratuitous character development. We writers take a considerable amount of time coming up with complex backstories for our characters and nothing kills us more than spending time on material that no one ever gets to see. So it’s only natural that we push to include flashbacks in our novels, so that we not only get to write these exciting histories, but readers get to enjoy them too.
Often, the problem is that whatever past is being shared in the flashback has no bearing on the current conflict. Whatever it is has long since been resolved. So writers start to get worried that the flashback fails to move the plot forward, which is something they’re told that every single scene should do.
Obviously novels where past events affect the present timeline should have flashbacks. These are novels where timelines are interspersed to tell a complete story. One of my favorite novels I read this past year was The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton, which features dual timelines. Eventually the past catches up to the present, and we move forward for the rest of the novel. This type of situation is definitely okay.
Flashbacks that do nothing but reveal something of the character’s past can work…as long as that flashback is contributing to the character arc. Remember, our character arc is showcasing our character’s transformation. If you can justify this flashback as being relevant to where the character started and how they will change, then it will probably work without being superfluous.
Plot Development Can Be Unpredictable
In spite of all this, don’t forget that your plot evolves as your character evolves. We often don’t really know our characters until we start writing them. This means that any plot decision we’ve already made can change in a heartbeat as our character’s development takes an unexpected turn. Be willing to adapt to these changes and let your character development impact what happens.
Characters should affect your plot. So when you look at that way, a scene that focuses on character development always has the potential to move your plot forward.