What is character development?

This is a new kind of post for me! I might find myself doing more of these in the future.

I felt somewhat compelled to write a piece addressing exactly what ‘character development’ is, because I fear it’s often misunderstood – partially or entirely. In this post, I will explain what character development is, and aspects surrounding how one might discuss character development in terms of critical discourse. I will reference a handful of anime series, but I will not have any spoilers beyond what you can find in the synopsis.

What character development is, in simple terms

Development does not necessarily refer to the kind of development where something changes (though it might – you’ll see in a minute how this factors in). The development in ‘character development’ refers to the way a character is fundamentally built-up. Put more simply: if you write down everything you know about a character, the more you can say is the more that that character is developed.

Miku Maekawa is one of the idols originating from the game, iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls. These sorts of dime-a-dozen characters are typically developed very simply. In this instance, Miku has a ‘cat’ trait. She fits ‘nya’ (the cat noise) into many of her sentences and often wears cat ears. This is a simple, gimmicky trait, but is a way in which her character is developed.  This simple development is further developed when it is shown she has liked cats for many years, and stores photos of cats she has made since she was young. A reason behind a trait is depth – which is, inherently, a character development.

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I am not saying that Miku Maekawa is necessarily a well developed character, but that she has some very simple, easy-to-see developments. Any time novel information is given about a character is equivalent to character development. That information may be simple, or it may be a facet of their persona and deeper character (for example, who they choose to be nice or mean to, and further, how they can be nice or mean).

The ways in which a character is built up and defined from other characters is development. When discussing this, it could be good, bad or neutral for the story as a whole, so it’s important to look deeper into how this happens, and what effects it might have.

The way a character is developed

Character development often happens naturally – you see them act in the story, and you can infer their state of mind, personality or traits from the way they conduct themselves (such as in the earlier example, the way they might talk). Much like in terms of plot and world development, ‘exposition’, or outright explanations, are not often nuanced ways of developing characters, but it is often the most effective tool a story has at its disposal.

When a character bluntly tells you their backstory – an occurrence that happens a LOT in Angel Beats – one has to wonder how much these convoluted scenarios affected their character, and moreover, if these effects could be demonstrated in more eloquent ways than simply telling the audience in monologues. A mediocre example from the top of my head could be them seeing something that triggers a flashback, and thus results in gradual building up of their feelings on the event(s) in their backstory.

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The way a character changes is an eloquent way of developing a character. The ‘development’ is the concept of who they were before and after the change, thus requiring meaningful development to prove that they have encompassed two personas. The fact they changed is also a development.

To get back to my earlier example, if you were jotting down what you know about a character, you might say ‘once they were nice, but now they are cynical, and it is because the antagonists killed their dog’ or something to that effect. That sentence comprises three developments that the story has made clear in some regard – the character’s personality, twice (nice, and then cynical, but not simultaneously), and why there was a change between these two (antagonism).

A more nuanced example of this, and possibly one of my favourite quick snippets of character development, is whereby a flashback in Yagate Kimi ni Naru shows us the protagonist, Yuu, wearing a toothy grin and acting playfully. This is a far cry from the mopey, introspective person she represents at the beginning of the series, and quickly develops the change that has occurred between then and now, and how impactful the catalyst of that change was to her.

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Many characters develop alongside the prolonged story-telling. Simply spending time with characters tends to reveal more about them. For example, their relationships with other characters are painted unique from one another – and thus, developed. They may have a crush on one character or be jealous of other characters, becoming more developed as these relationships are distinct from their other relationships. There are probably many complex developments that occur over the story, that layer-upon-layer changes to build characters in unique ways, but my spoiler-free policy is preventing me from discussing too many of those!

Can development be undone?

It is very possible to un-develop a character. A way a character changes may take away what made them developed. I see this most often happen in terms of characters that have crushes, but it can happen in many other situations. However, it’s important to consider whether this is a change in their development (eg, from nice to cynical).

Sadly, I see this ‘un-development’ a lot in not-quite-queer media. Characters may have queer crushes, but then not only move on, but explain them away in ways such as ‘it was just a phase’, or moreover, explaining that their feelings were never romantic (despite the conflicting messages the series gives). Writing off their feelings so simply can subtract their sense of conviction – all that time spent pining and developing can feel thrown away if handled carelessly. A character, that doesn’t ruminate on why they thought these feelings, may come across as ‘undeveloped’ – in terms of jotting that development down, you might be more keen to simply cross out where they had a crush rather than say they thought they had one and then decided, through thought, that they are not queer or have feelings for this certain somebody.

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Another scenario this can occur in is when a character is resurrected. The pain that their close ones went through may be scrubbed out as they return to how they once were, but it may meaningfully carry into their new relationship with this resurrected person. Ultimately, one must ask ‘is this development important before or after it changes?’ to figure out if it is undone or changed.

A ‘More Developed Character’ is not necessarily a better character

It’s important, then, to understand that not every development a character has is meaningful, or even good.

Kannazuki no Miko’s protagonist, Chikane Himemiya, is a surprisingly well developed character. Throughout the short series, the audience learn a lot about her mental state, her feelings with regards to the social hierarchy and her place within it, her internalised homophobia, and many other things. But not every development is important.

For example, it is character development to tell the audience that this character has parents (if you weren’t informed, they could be dead, or work long hours, or who knows what!), and further, that the relationship with her father is strained due to her responsibilities. But the question is… is this relevant? A couple times, maybe, but it is essentially irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

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What I’m getting at in this section is that not every development is important. A story may be at the behest of its characters, but it’s not necessarily important to pad out their backstory and personality if it’s not going to be relevant to the main story. Taking out time for these developments may leave the audience with a more fulfilling image of the series (which is great for fanfiction writers who have more to work with), but it could introduce pacing issues or distract the narrative and make the storytelling less engaging or entertaining.

Counter Intuitive Developments

In critical discourse, one should pick up on developments that go against the narrative that may not just be irrelevant, but are actively harmful to the storytelling.

This often happens in comedies, when a comic routine is counter-intuitive to a character’s role in a story or image in other character’s perspectives. ‘The Nice Guy’ may not be nice. He might say something cruel as part of a joke, but in doing that, he’s no longer nice! This means that the section later in the story where the line of girls fall in love with him for being ‘nice’ is something that becomes unbelievable or contrived. Of course, one must still consider relationship development (is this Nice Guy choosing his targets to be nice to?), but it’s often seen that a character goes against their core personality. When this happens, it can be difficult to tell who that character really is, and we can struggle to call them developed. To go back to the writing down example, you might have it written down ‘they are mean’ and ‘they are nice’, and these therefore cancel out to mean that we don’t know how they are.

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Something seen often is that a character may be ‘smart’, and we are informed of their strong test scores or IQ score, but that the story does not show us this aspect. They may even have moments contradicting that they are so ‘smart’, which does not mean they aren’t good at tests, but can feel like an unbelievable development. As an aside, many amateur researchers can fail to write smarter characters, particularly the super smart scientists that unravel the plot, because they do not know the subject themselves! These aspects can make a character’s role in a story feel contrived (one might say ‘plot armour’ or ‘convenient’), and moreover, it can mean that their developments aren’t clear.

Of course, there are characters that may just be hypocrites or inherently contradictory. A hypocritical character would say one thing and do another, and it could simply be that these kinds of opposing developments are trying to create a character like this. But, if unused by the grander narrative or made unclear in which scenarios that contradict themselves, it might come across as bad writing.

The Bottom Line

Character development is simply everything you know about a character, as informed by the way the story plays out. Characters and their developments are only one piece within the bigger puzzle of making an entertaining and fulfilling story, and having well developed characters may be tertiary to the story’s goals, but it may also be fundamental. How we critically interpret the story’s character’s level of development, the way those developments occurred, and their relevance, is ultimately up to us, as critics, to decide, and argue over!

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