The problem with character development episodes

February 14, 2016

“All right,” says the writer. “It’s time to give this character some development. Now, what should I have happen…?”

No. Stop. You’re doing it all wrong, imaginary writer.

I’m going to be speaking in the terminology of TV episodes, but this all holds true for any fiction. As much as I appreciate writers trying to develop their characters instead of leaving them static, character development episodes are the wrong way to go about it.

If you’ve watched a fair amount of TV, you may recognize the formula: The story has four or five main characters. The first two episodes set up the plot, then episode three develops character X, episode four develops character Y, and episode five develops character Z. We get their backstories each time, it ties into the current plot in some flimsy way, and we hopefully understand them better by the end. Then we move onto the main character and get back to the main plot in earnest.

The problem is that these kinds of setups are so damn predictable. When a story falls into the trap of developing one character at a time, it yanks us out of the action—it’s more lecture than story. It also fails to mimic how life works. Life is messy! There aren’t clean, separate instances that cause us to grow as people. It happens while we’re doing other stuff.

And that’s the biggest problem with these kinds of plots: character development episodes take us out of the main story, when what the writer should be doing is developing their characters within that story. The challenges of the present should reveal and develop characters by the pressure the plot puts them under. Flashbacks are a useful tool, but they should be used sparingly, since they pull the viewer out of the story you’re trying to tell. Most flashbacks are, in effect, exposition, and recall how much most people like exposition.

Yeah, that’s right. Not a whole lot.

Though like any guidelines I espouse, this one can (and should) be discarded when the situation calls for it. I saw the Deadpool movie yesterday, where a full third of the run-time was flashbacks, and the movie wouldn’t have worked without them. It was necessary for pacing, tone, and giving the audience time to breathe and recover. But that’s also because Deadpool wasn’t a “character development” episode. The character development was integral to the origin story they were telling. Which is how it should be.

Develop your characters while the story is happening, gratuitous explosions and obnoxiously witty quips optional.

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.