Last week, I presented a webinar for an online science fiction and fantasy writers conference. My topic was character development, and I had fun exploring the various aspects of crafting a character’s backstory, defining and developing the hero, the anti-hero, and the villain, and considering the places where plot and character development intersect. Really, this last part is where the interesting stuff happens!
Developing your character’s backstory helps bring authenticity and depth to them. It helps explain why they are the way they are, and how they got to this point. Here’s a great article on developing backstory: 4 Tips to Develop Character Backstory. But, your character doesn’t remain stagnant throughout their adventure. All the heartbreak, strife, love affairs, battles, and mistakes have an impact. They emerge on the other side of this grand tale as a changed person.
An Abridged Hero’s Journey
Think of it this way – a character’s essential character, and their backstory, informs the plot. Then, as the story moves forward, the plot pushes the character’s development. We can use a Cliff’s Notes version of The Hero’s Journey as an example. We meet the hero of the story just as they are ready to leave home on some sort of quest or adventure or even war. Their life experience and personality up to this point helps determine how they respond to this call to action. Are they reluctant, over-eager, clueless, or jaded? Why?
Once the adventure begins, the character will meet challenges and have experiences that will further shape them. Their responses are initially influenced by their past, but during the course of their journey, growth happens and change occurs. When the character returns ‘home,’ they have been altered by revelations, relationships, loss, and any other meaningful experiences we choose to throw into their path.
Agency in Character Development
At the intersection of plot and character development, we can explore agency. Agency, in this context, is defined as the capacity of the character to act independently and make their own free choices. Rather than reacting, our character is acting.
Let’s use Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games as an example. When we meet Katniss, she volunteers to take her sister’s place as Tribute for the games. While this could be considered ‘acting’ in a way, I’d argue that based on her relationship with her sister, her personality, and all her life experiences to this point, Katniss really couldn’t have responded any other way.
However, by the end of the first book, after all the drama and trauma she’s faced, Katniss stands up to the game-makers and refuses to play. When she and Peeta decide they would rather both die than kill each other, there is real agency in the moment, and it’s a very powerful moment because of this.
The Cost is Real
Science fiction and fantasy writers tend to deal with grand adventures, epic battles, and not-so-subtle heroes and villains. We write big! Sometimes, this can be at the expense of character development. In order to bring more depth to this part of our narrative, an area we can focus on is showing the fallout of trauma on our characters.
If we’ve subjected them to loss, torture, or war, there should be an appropriate physical and/or emotional impact. We may want our characters to be larger than life, but if we don’t at least acknowledge their pain and suffering, we’ve missed an opportunity to give them depth. If we rush them through a recovery after a devastating injury, or don’t give them any baggage after years of war, we are presenting a one-dimensional view of them. The hero, only ever displaying heroic qualities, is boring. It’s the struggle that our readers are after.
Plot and character development are inextricably linked in our storytelling. We can create well-formed characters, with compelling backstories and personalities, and use plot action to push their continued growth and evolution.