Character development: continuity and story arcs

We’ve been looking at the points in the Character element of the checklist. Here are a couple more:

Continuity is maintained in characters’ appearance, habits, and vocabulary.

This is where your style sheet will come in handy. Some call it a character bible, but copyeditors usually call it a style sheet or style guide. For more on this, see How to prevent continuity errors in your book.

In addition to keeping track of physical traits, note where your characters are from and incorporate regional or intellectual differences. Does your character call fizzy, sugary drinks soda or pop? Is she likely to use a word like ebullient, or would she say bubbly? The college president will know how to use whom correctly, but an incoming freshman may not. If he does, that says something about him.

Habits are another way of making characters distinctive. Is she the kind of person whose to-do list is color-coded, or does she take things as they come? Is he the kind of person who checks three times to make sure the door is locked, or does he often misplace his keys? Make sure that any mannerisms or habits you give your characters are consistent throughout the story. If you establish at the beginning that she’s a compulsive, color-coded list maker, you can’t plausibly have her —oops — just happen to forget to do something important this one time because you need to force a plot element into place.

© Mopic -
© Mopic –

The main characters have changed by the end of the story.

Whether your story follows The Hero’s Journey model or some other paradigm, ideally the protagonist goes through a character-changing arc. He grows in some way or finds healing for his fatal flaw. This is a main topic in the previously cited Plot Versus Character.

Exceptions are possible. A great example is in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Cameron is actually the one who goes through the biggest change in that story; Ferris is the catalyst.

Having the protagonist—or another key character—grow or heal in some way is one element of a Satisfying Ending, a subject we’ll talk more about when we get to Plot.

Those of you following along closely will notice I skipped an item on the checklist. We’ll talk next time—actually the next couple of times—about character history and backstory. It’s an important enough subject to warrant a lot more time.

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