Thoughts on Character Growth

I’m copyediting a book I’m utterly delighted by right now, which is wonderful since I’ve been so extremely busy; it reminds me of why I always thought copyediting fiction was a dream job. :-)

At the back of my mind, though, I’ve been thinking about something on character development that perhaps some of the writers/readers/editors on the list will have some insight on. It’s been tugging at me, oddly enough, ever since I took my kids to Cars last week, but I focus so tightly on individual projects with copyediting that I haven’t been able to work through it the way I’d like.

(Bear with me through the Cars explanation–I promise it doesn’t have to do just with that. ;-))

With a kids’ show, of course, everything is exaggerated, and the protagonist’s growth in Cars is no exception. Lightning starts out as a selfish and arrogant jerk and grows into a thoughtful and caring individual. In adult fiction, the growth is usually more subtle. :-)

Nonetheless, that direction for growth isn’t uncommon in the fiction I see, while others are. Arrogance and selfishness seem more acceptable as character faults to be outgrown than, for instance, neediness or insecurity, and I wonder if we expect a certain pattern.

Are there initial character faults in a protagonist that turn you off of a book? What are some of your favorite examples of character growth–from what to what? Which authors manage it best?

22 thoughts on “Thoughts on Character Growth”

  1. Awhile ago, I was reading a book where the protag was a total jerk in every way. His redeeming features were things he was good at, not ways in which he was a good person. When he started a marital rape, I was done. I don’t care if he turned into Gandhi by the end of the book, it wouldn’t have been worth the read for me.

    I really like the growth over the entire Miles Vorkosigan series and the entire Vlad Taltos series. Also I love the somewhat more subtle growth of Kate Wilhelm’s mystery protagonist Barbara Holloway.

  2. Yeah, I read a book a while back where I hated the protagonist. I kept hoping she’d grow, but she unfortunately never changed a bit.

    I really like the growth over the entire Miles Vorkosigan series and the entire Vlad Taltos series. Also I love the somewhat more subtle growth of Kate Wilhelm’s mystery protagonist Barbara Holloway.

    What in particular about the growth in those series appeals to you?

  3. Hmm. Barbara Holloway in particular is growing as an adult, and I like that — especially because her relationship with her father is one of the central relationships of the series. It’s an adult child/parent relationship in which the adult child and the parent are both still competent and are in similar professions. Barbara still has growing to do as a person and in her profession, but she isn’t a whiny petulant teenager at the start. (Since I wasn’t particularly petulant even as a teenager, I hate that stereotype.) She’s a reasonable and competent adult who still finds room to get better as a person and better at what she does. And she and her dad are negotiating the complex dance of who helps/protects whom, and I wish I saw more of that.

    I think I like it when characters’ competencies occasionally lead them astray, because it’s a situation with which I can wholly identify.

  4. Contemplating possible reasons for why Thomas Covenant is hated for committing rape and Gully Foyle (_The Stars My Destination_) isn’t, I’m inclined to think that it’s partly a lack of careful reading–Covenant tortures himself over the rape, while Foyle hardly notices it and neither to most readers, but it’s also that characters with gusto are much more likely to be liked.

  5. I was in my teens when I read — for lack of anything better around — Captive of Gor. I kept expecting that it might get better. I read fast, so it was only a few hours (when, as noted, nothing better to do)… but no, the first-person-viewpoint was… basically a pathetic excuse for a person, with no backbone. The only time when she was actually “okay” as a character was the last 42-46 pages. (I counted, but it’s been many years since then.)

    For your sanity, don’t read the later Slave Girl of Gor. For various reasons, I did, and my GODS the editing was awful. Every five pages, it seemed, there was a summary of the last fifteen pages.

    (I’m another person who loves the Vorkosigan and Taltos books. Can’t pin my finger on character development this soon after waking up, though.)

    I suspect that neediness and whining are… Hm. Hard to stomach because there’s a cultural preference for the Bad Boy/Girl, and a needy character gives rise to Mary Sue thoughts of “oh, some prince is going to come along.” So there has to be a really good hook to let the readers know that there’s going to be some backbone, if it’s a primary character.

    Or, hm, Active Self-Contained character flaws are less annoying than Passive, Demanding Others To Fill Them character flaws?

  6. I think I like it when characters’ competencies occasionally lead them astray, because it’s a situation with which I can wholly identify.

    Ah, yeah. I think this is what I’m getting at. Maybe we find characters more tolerable when their faults are related to something we perceive as a strength.

  7. Or, hm, Active Self-Contained character flaws are less annoying than Passive, Demanding Others To Fill Them character flaws?

    “Self-contained” is an interesting way of looking at it; maybe that keeps the focus more on the protagonist.

  8. This is an angle I hadn’t viewed before, so thanks for mentioning it. I would say that in order to do justice to something like insecurity, the writer would need to know what that is and then be willing to expose that truth to their audience. Woody Allen is the only writer who consistently seems to do that, and he’s been doing that for fifty years. The problem is that his most psychologically based films were also his least attended ones.

    Stephen King did, to a slight degree, cover some of this ground in Misery, though his Paul Sheldon isn’t particularly him and I’m not certain King was concerned about a fan taking him hostage, so he didn’t really expose anything notable about his psychology.

    I think the other element here is that “arrogance” and “selfishness” are easily and perhaps universally defined as “bad,” where as “insecurity” and “neediness” are not, and may be considered merely a peccadillo or defining character trait. What are you saying about the audience if a protagonist shares a particular flaw with the readers, and it is defined within the context of the work specifically as something that this protagonist needs to change in order to succeed? It’s a challenging idea for a writer and maybe moreso for a publisher!

    I think we avoid such “bull’s eye” writing, because it’s just too close to where we are. Novels are an escape. If we are forced into looking at our lives the way they are, it’s a tougher sell.

    I think the closest writer to what you’re talking about, off the top of my head, is Judy Blume. Really, the young adult market is probably the place where you’ll find more of a look at this kind of material, since tweens and teens are the ones that are concerned about image, personalities, and self-definition. By the time we hit the 20s and 30s, we still may not know who we are, but we have become it, whether we know it or not!

  9. Great question! Initial character faults in protagonists: Unrelenting pretention and being pompous. I read one author’s first novel and found the narrator insufferable. She thought everything she did as noble and nearly mystic in its healing, and it just IRRITATED me to no end.

    However, I read another novel (The Third Witch) that was approaching the same thing–the narrator was acting like a 6-year-old who had been denied something she wanted… but then I realized it made SENSE in the course of the novel–a traumatic event had happened to the character at that age, and she simply could not move beyond it, so she was stuck there. Although it was still irritating, it made more sense to me and I could tolerate it.

    Favorite character growth for me would be someone finding the strength inside themselves to DO something. Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is a great example (LOVED it!).

  10. Maybe too many readers feel emotionally drained by needy people, too (for whatever reasons), so there’s too much initial investment in a needy character. Reading as escapist, etc. A self-contained character is less energy investment.

    I now have the urge to try to write a needy, insecure protagonist who doesn’t cause people to drop the book after the first paragraph, though.

  11. I haven’t read The Stars My Destination. I read some of the Thomas Covenant books in high school and was appalled by the rape; I’ve never reread them as an adult.

    Gusto…Yeah, that could be an element: that it’s more enjoyable to empathize with a character who’s enjoying life, regardless of what faults the character has.

  12. Well, I think that’s more realistic — very few people would say, if they were honest with themselves, “Oh, I’m really attentive to detail when it’s a virtue, but when it comes around to being a fault, I am entirely free of that trait.” Not every flaw comes with a compensating virtue — blind people don’t acquire superhuman hearing, for example, or Helen Keller would never have existed. But most of our character traits have good and bad consequences, and learning to manage the bad while keeping the good is a major part of growing up.

    Or look at a static character: Monk on the TV series of the same name. He’s the standard nearly-superhuman detective: he notices everything about a crime scene. Except for him, the ability never turns off — he notices everything about a magazine rack, or a shop window, or a line at the post office. So he’s more interesting than the standard nearly-superhuman detective, because the trait has drawbacks.

  13. Are there initial character faults in a protagonist that turn you off of a book?

    –>Neediness and passivity, yes, they turn me off a character much as they turn me off a live human being. Either trait by itself is tolerable if there are compensating positives (a passive loner who is slowly forced to take an active role in something because of his competencies is a traditional hero of westerns and sometimes shows up in noir detective stories).

    What are some of your favorite examples of character growth–from what to what? Which authors manage it best?

    –>Ditto everyone on Miles Vorkosigan. Bujold does character growth on most of her characters, even secondary ones (Bel Thorne, Ivan, even Sergeant Bothari). Miles’s main character growth is in learning to control and direct his own brilliance, as well as learning to recognize the brilliance of others. Bujold’s secondary characters tend to move from limited-world-view to broader-world-view (Bel Thorne, Ivan), or from broken to less-broken or at least managed-broken (Bothari). Her protagonist in Curse of Chalion is a passive, broken loner who is forced into action, and in the process becomes whole and not a loner anymore.

    I love the moves Dorothy Dunnett makes with Francis Crawford, which are very similar to Miles Vorkosigan (which is probably why everyone asks Bujold if she read those books. She hadn’t when I spoke to her a couple of years ago and asked her that same question). Anyway, Francis Crawford starts out as a total son of a bitch. I still liked him because clever sons of bitches are fun and interesting to me, and the craziness he perpetrated seemed to have a purpose beyond merely being a dick.

    Dunnett eventually showed I was right. :-) Francis is like Miles, in that he is brilliant and omnicompetent, and this causes him great frustration with everyone around him. As the books go on, you come to see that Francis (a) is trying like mad to help everyone around him maximize their skills and intellect (read: he’s desperately seeking someone at his level, even if he has to create them himself), and (b) feels the weight of enormous responsibility, in that he sees what needs to be done, and since no one else is doing it, he feels he has to. You at first think he’s motivated by show-offiness, and then eventually realize that while that certainly is part of it, his primary motivation is that he’s the only guy who can do the job, and he wishes he weren’t.

  14. An arrogant character would probably be better in the sack than an insecure one.


    I think the “student-masters-the-lesson” -type stories allow a writer to start off with a weak, insecure character.

    In general I think readers feel that needy characters should have already fixed their inner problem, but they enjoy seeing arrogant bastards being knocked down to size. In other words, it’s more fun seeing the great toppled than it is to see the small grow to normalcy.

  15. Hates: Uptter jerks, and Mouthpieces for Message.

    Loves–a complex character who rings true–and can change.

  16. I adored Mattie Gokey in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light. She wasn’t unlikeable at all, but I got so attached to her. She had to deal with real problems — romance, career, dependency, family, racism against her friend. She had to make hard decisions. It was the early 1900s so in a way, everything she did mattered more. She learned from the women around her how to be strong. There was a great tragedy at work, a scandal involving her trusted teacher and she watched her best girlfriend struggle as a young wife.

    Amazing story. Won a lot of significant awards. Got an email from Miss Donnelly yesterday and she’s still touring for the book, which has been out a few years now.

    Phenomenal book, that one.

  17. This is a very interesting discussion for me, because my writing is very character-driven and focused on how people change over time and through experiences. I would use the word “tempered” rather than “outgrown”, though; I think any trait can be a virtue in moderation or a vice in excess. (I’ve also been known to say that my romantic type is “tall, dark, and arrogant”, so you won’t hear me complaining about main characters who fit that description.) If a character has an excess of some trait that seems unlikely to be tempered–whether it’s frailty or strength, whininess or stoicism–it annoys me, sometimes enough to where I won’t be interested in reading the book.

    My immediate response to neediness and insecurity not being “outgrown” is that they’re usually seen as desirable end states for female characters if there’s any sort of romantic element, and they’re almost never presented as beginning states for male characters. Arrogance is seen as a flaw to be tempered in both men and women.

  18. So there has to be a really good hook to let the readers know that there’s going to be some backbone, if it’s a primary character.

    Lack of backbone, lack of some kind of inner strength, is an irredeemable flaw in a character. Likewise needy, passive characters. Why? I believe it is because those are the flaws we are most likely to see in ourselves, and we don’t want to see them in people (fiction or real-life) we want to care about.

  19. Interesting, because Manon (in the novel I’m writing, Mysterious Paris starts out needy and insecure, and overcomes those traits. But the story does start with her actively going out and doing something (embarking on her trip to Paris), so I hope that makes up for the initial annoyance factor. I also balanced her with an active self-centered friend.

  20. I just read “Resenting the Hero” by Moira Moore, and couldn’t finish the book. It was very well written in first person, and had a compelling world and secondary characters.
    I could NOT, however, get past the main character’s self-absorbed high and mighty “I won’t look past what I’ve heard” attitude towards her partner. It drove me nuts that she could not progress past hearsay and gossip regarding her partner. Argh!

    Favorite examples of character growth:
    Kyra in Barbara Hambly’s Stranger at the Wedding–she goes from arrogant and agonizingly self-sufficient to a little more open-minded, supportive, and willing to admit yes, she can fall for someone.

    Farris Nallaneen in College of Magics (Caroline Stevermer)–Farris is conceited and absolutely certain she knows what’s best–over the course of the novel, she learns other viewpoints deserve merit besides her own, and that what she wants isn’t necessarily what she is going to get.

  21. I dislike it when characters change too much. Robin Hobb’s Assasin series was a good example of it – every fifty pages the main character turns around and says ‘of course, when I made _those_ decisions, I was quite stupid’ – and I felt in invalidated all the emotional investment I had made in him.

    I’m also finding it hard to believe that a total jerk needs anything less than several decades of lifechanging experiences to become a thoroughly good guy. Flaws I can live with – and totally perfect people are made of cardboard – but when a character turns me off – by being violent, by wilfully hurting everybody around him, by comitting major thoughtlessnesses (such as badgering his wife to do more housework when her dad’s just been diagnosed with cancer) then, no matter how much he’s shown to change during a book, I’ll probably not believe in it, because I wouldn’t believe a real person’s assurances that they’ve changed under the same circumstances either.

  22. I really liked how a number of characters changed (not necessarily grew) in the original Black Company trilogy by Glen Cook. You bascially have a bunch of self-centered “drink, gamble, and survive at any cost” mercenaries getting sucked into a rebellion against the unbeatable bad guys, and, through being forced to fight for reasons other than money, end up becoming better people (or, in the case of Raven, a worse one).

    It makes me think of the anthropology book Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, which puts forth the idea that behaving in a way counter to your belief system can cause your belief system to change to suit the behavior. Okay, I’ll shut up now before I really start rambling…

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