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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

Character Development: Development and Evolution

Welcome one and all to today's topic of Character Development! I went back and forth on this, whether I wanted to make it a series or a one-off. Originally I thought series, then I went one-off, and then it got really long, so I decided to make it a series again.

If you followed the Villains series, you may recall that there was a theme interwoven with each installment, and I probably drove a lot of people nuts with my constant Dark Souls references. This series will also feature a thread, but I will be using Star Trek: The Next Generation as my examples.

But first we have to establish what we’re going to be talking about. What is Character Development? It sounds simple enough, and yet so many creators struggle to get it right for their characters.

In the past, I’ve pointed to dictionary definitions to help provide parameters for the discussion. In this case, however, I’ve decided to come up with my own definitions. And I’m going to infuriate some people as I move beyond just character development and into character evolution.

Character development. Noun. A character’s physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual state which informs his personality, as well as his perceptions, actions, reactions, and interactions with other characters, his environment, and elements of the plot.

Character evolution. Verb. All of the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual changes that happen to a character in a creative work between the first page and the last that alter his perceptions, actions, reactions, and interactions, with other characters, his environment, and elements of the plot.

To put it simply, character development is chapter one of your character, where he is at the start of your story, or at his introduction. It’s everything that makes him an interesting person to begin with, whether or not we like him. Character evolution is how he changes over the course of the story. Character evolution can be static or dynamic. Static, meaning the character doesn’t change, and his responses to elements of the story remain consistent throughout. Dynamic, meaning the character does change and his responses at the end of the story are different from those at the beginning.

Let me say it this way. Let’s say you’re starting a new job, and you go into your workplace Monday morning and meet all your new coworkers. Character development is those people on that Monday morning or the first week. They already have lives and experiences and memories and personalities, you just don’t know them yet. Maybe one’s a jerk, one’s a prankster, one’s a stiff, and one instantly becomes your new best friend. Character evolution would be how they change over ten years as you work with them and observe them and interact with them. Maybe one gets a divorce, another gets married, a third gets a promotion, and a fourth leaves the company. These things change people; their attitudes and personalities evolve as life goes on.

Since we’re talking Star Trek in this particular series, character development is episode one, well, technically TV movie one, Encounter at Far Point. It’s what captures our attention about the characters, sets them apart from each other, gives us one or more to identify with and grow with as the series goes on. Character evolution is every episode after that and how those characters change to become who they are at the end of the series, or the end of the movies.

So why don’t we talk about character starting points?

Captain Picard is a bit of a stiff, a little high strung on his command. As far as Encounter at Far Point goes, I think the writers just wanted to show off that the Enterprise can now separate the saucer section, but it does offer a bit to his character that he is an able leader and he cares about his ship to save the civilians onboard. As far as the surrender, well, plot gotta plot, but his interaction with Q shows that he doesn’t just roll over because someone tells him to. But his defiance may extend beyond just Q.

Commander Riker...is a bit unique because in interviews, Gene Roddenberry told Jonathan Frakes that Riker was Mr. Serious, the guy never smiles, he is absolutely, totally, and completely business. One hundred percent. And that’s how we find him. But it’s not how he goes. We’ll talk about that later.

Deanna Troi, personally, I hated her, and even Marina Sirtis said she hated her performance in Encounter and couldn’t believe they let her come back. I agree. She’s initially presented as a mysterious empath who knows Riker from a time before. But throughout the episode, she’s pretty much just dead weight except as a plot catalyst, “feeling” something but barely able to articulate it in any meaningful way, and the rest of the cast solves the mystery.

Tasha Yar is spunky, outspoken, a doer, a go-getter, and strict in her discipline and following protocol. She’s a bit of a hot-head and nearly gets herself killed for it in the first episode, but she has a great tactical mind.

Worf is almost nonexistent in Encounter except as the token, “Look at us, we’re inclusive!” BS. Sorry, but for the majority of the first season, he is tragically overshadowed by Tasha. When he is in the spotlight, he does little more than echo Tasha’s recommendations.

Geordi LaForge is presented as intelligent, outgoing, intuitive, and his visor is treated with far more respect than Troi’s telepathy. It does a lot more, both in the first episode and the series overall. Oddly enough, I think he was perhaps the most well-done as far as initial quality, but LeVar Burton was already an accomplished actor by this time so he had that to his credit. Unfortunately, his character never really went anywhere, but we’ll get into that later.

Data is perhaps the most well-developed and well-evolved character in the entire series. His debut finds him to be very robotic, a bit of a fish-out-of-water as he seeks to help and relate to humans. His social skills are severely lacking, but his business mode, shall we say, is well done as he accomplishes tasks with the speed and precision of a computer.

Beverley Crusher is the typical working mom, and right off the bat in Encounter, it is established that she and Picard know each other, though it is not said explicitly how, merely implied. She is also not one to take crap lying down, and she will defend her actions and her son.

Wesley Crusher...he was supposed to be the lens and the model for kids and teenagers. But I can tell you that even as a kid and teenager, I hated Wesley Crusher. Even in the first episode, he was annoying, a bit of a showoff, and he had the worst wardrobe. The absolute worst.

So again, when your audience first meets your characters, those characters have already lived their lives. They know what they’ve experienced, so lengthy exposition is not always necessary, nor wanted. How productive would it have been for Troi and Riker to needlessly expound on their relationship to each other while standing on the bridge? Or Crusher and Picard? If you’re writing a single installment, such a thing may come up, but chapter one is not the place to do it. If you’re writing a series, it’s okay to drop breadcrumbs about it here and there. But if you are never going to explain an inside joke, maybe take it out.

Also consider, in terms of your story, how big your cast of characters needs to be. Worf was, really, a secondary character for most of the first season. If you’re going to take the time to craft a character, don’t waste them. It’s better to have a smaller cast that is well-rounded than a large group of half-assed misfits who can’t remember if they graduated in ‘27 or ‘84.

Now, maybe in your story, you don’t know exactly who or what you need. A starship, sure, you need someone in charge, and then you need underlings. And it’s okay to be a little unsure. Unless you have a deadline of next week for a polished product, some things you’ll discover as you go in your first draft. In The Chivalrous Welshman, I only wanted one baker. Problem was, I couldn’t decide whether I liked the name “Micah” or “Micaiah” better. So I did both. I made them twins and they owned a bakery together. And you know what? It worked out so much better than having a single guy. Sometimes the best results come from the shortest decisions with the weirdest reasons.

Also consider the ranking of your characters within your story. Who are your primary, secondary, tertiary, and supporting characters? In the case of TNG, being a serialized TV show, they could afford to focus on different characters in different episodes, so that Picard might be the focus in one episode, Worf in another, Riker in another, and so on. Secondary characters would be those who are frequent returns, might have some kind of arc, but don’t show up in every episode. Miles O’Brien or Ensign Ro would be one of these. Tertiary would be recognizable repeats, but they don’t have any real bearing on the story, such as Nurse Ogawa. Supporting characters are the extras. Maybe they have a line, maybe they appear in two or three episodes, but they barely exist except as filler so the ship isn’t very empty.

In a book, you may not get this kind of luxury. Your book may be a first person narrative, in which case your narrator is probably (but not always) your main character. The people in his immediate circle with whom he interacts the most would be secondary characters. And on down the line until strangers on the street are simply support, extras, filler to make a city not feel so empty.

If your book is a third-person narrative, whether limited or unlimited, then your primary characters are going to be those who are primarily affected by the plot, or who the plot is about. For example, in Time to Kill, Tommen and Walter are the primary characters, with Tommen being the primary protagonist since a majority of the chapters are from his point of view. Walter is largely affected by the plot, too, and he has a few chapters. Micah and Micaiah are secondary characters because they have heavy involvement. Chief Steggmann is a tertiary character because he is a familiar repeat, and the police teams are simply supporting cast, filler.

Roles can also change. Walter becomes little more than a tertiary character in the very next book Tick Tock because he spends the whole time in the hospital doing nothing. In Stopwatch, Micah and Micaiah become very prominent characters.

Also think about the role of archetypes, tropes, and stereotypes. An archetype is an original model or pattern from which others derive, or simply a model of something. Popular archetypes in storytelling include the sacrifice or Jesus character, the trickster, the teacher, and so on. Other archetypes can be as simple as the father figure, or the mother figure.

Archetypes are slightly different from a trope, in that, an archetype is simply a model. It’s the lines in which a creator may color in or add to. A trope is taking a finished product and basically making a carbon copy. You might change the color from red to blue and write over the serial number, but it is easily identifiable as basically being this other thing. Hunger Games and Divergent for example.

Another name for this would be a cliché. The greatest offender in modern storytelling is the Mary Sue (or, more rarely, Gary Stu), which is the character who is awesome at everything right out of the gate, never needs to learn anything, might be worshipped by all, and barely breaks a sweat at either saving or breaking the universe. Everything this character does is perfect.

The stereotype is a kind of trope in which a single characteristic of one person, thing, or event is used to broadbrush or exaggerate the entire group of people, things, or events. Most often, these stereotypes are negative, although there are a few instances where the stereotype is more flattering than reality. I can’t come up with any right now, but even so, replacing one stereotype with another doesn’t solve the problem. Saying that such a group isn’t Stereotype A, but in fact this other thing, you’re just shifting the exaggeration.

I’m not going to tell you what your character has to do, what their role has to be. I’m not even going to say that using tropes and stereotypes is the root of all literary evil. I suppose there could be a series on tropes and stereotypes, because I’m not going to cover it in depth here. There’s too much to go through. And, quite frankly, there are so many tropes, clichés, stereotypes, and so on, it is impossible to avoid them all, so don’t think that just because you found yourself using a minor cliché for a minor scene that you’re the worst storyteller in the world. If it has a natural seat in the story, it’s fine.

So I think that’s a good introduction into character development and evolution. I think there are a few points that you can take away and look into more for your own story. I can’t say at this point just how long this series is going to last, or the specific topics I’m going to cover. I can say that the next installment is going to deal with character origins, beginnings, arc, and endings.

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