May 26, 2016

Character Development Is a Two-Edged Sword

Pen on a contract with text: The Promise of Character Development

Within the writing community, there are just as many articles (if not more) about developing great characters as there are about creating interesting plots. We see blog posts debating how likable a character needs to be to interest a reader, other posts sharing techniques for evoking reader empathy, and still other posts instructing us on methods for showing a character’s emotional arc, etc., etc.

We know as readers that even the best-plotted book will suffer if the protagonist isn’t at least compelling. So as writers, we do everything we can to make readers invested in our characters in some way.

An invested reader is a happy reader, right?

Well, maybe not. Let’s take a look at the other side of character development.

The Danger of Out-of-Character Behavior

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how our genre promises certain elements to readers. And if our genre alone creates expectations in readers, it’s a safe bet that our characters do as well.

As we develop our characters, we establish expectations in the minds of our readers for how that character will act and react in the future. Readers sense their intelligence, what they value or fear, their moral code, etc.

Those expectations are important to understand because insults like “Too Stupid To Live” are more likely when our characterization is broken. We don’t usually see that insult flung at characters who do stupid things in character.

Instead, protests are more likely when a character acts in a stupid way that’s out of character. Readers know they’re acting that way simply because the author needed them to, and a puppet isn’t a full-fledged character worthy of respect.

As readers, we hate to be disappointed by characters, to have our faith in them destroyed. When we think they can and should do better, we can feel betrayed.

That’s not to say characters can’t act in ways that might seem out of character. However, just as in real life, we’re more likely to understand—and maybe even forgive—if we know the reasons for the out-of-character behavior.

Even if we disagree with a character’s choices, we can accept their decisions if we understand their motivations. But if motivation is lacking, the entire plot point feels forced, and readers will rightly blame the writer.

Example: The Comic Version of Captain America

Yesterday, Twitter flew with countless tweets lambasting Nick Spencer, the Marvel writer of the Captain America comics, for the latest reboot of the series. In what seems to be the ultimate click-bait quest for money, he decided that Captain America was really a Hydra agent and had been so all along.

For those who aren’t familiar with the character or the Marvel world in comics or the movies (which thankfully, are not related worlds), the Captain America character was created in the World War II era by two Jewish artists with the express purpose of punching Hitler in the face (which was, in fact, the iconic image of the first issue). In Marvel’s world, Hydra is the evil organization associated with Hitler and Nazism.

So this writer decided to throw out 70 years worth of Nazi-fighting character development and turn this character into a lifelong double agent. Just. Because.

Readers Have to Believe the Story and Characters Matter

The only defenders of this character direction with Captain America were those making excuses like “Well, it’s the comics. We know it’ll all be undone in the future.”

Whether this horrible character idea is undone in a future comic issue with a reveal of him being a triple agent or it lasts until the next series reboot in a couple of years, there’s a problem with this defense.

For one thing, not only did this character reboot disrespect the intention of the original creators, but it also insults those who were affected by the Holocaust. Unlike most comics, Captain America’s backstory is grounded in the real world.

Real victims and survivors are now being told that their hero hates them. Talk about a betrayal.

Nick Spencer and the Marvel editor are both coming out with inflammatory quotes along the lines of:

“We want to push that button. … You should feel uneasy about the fact that everything you know and love about Steve Rogers can be upended.” (source)

“We knew it would be like slapping people in the face.” (source)

“While he couldn’t have predicted the magnitude of the response (or the #SayNoToHYDRACap hashtag), Spencer says outrage is exactly what he wanted.” (source)

They knew full well that this move would insult and hurt readers. And they didn’t care.

That brings us to the second problem with the “eh, it’ll be undone in the future” defense.

Even when we know that a romance will end happily or a mystery will end with a solution, we still need the fiction of the possibility of failure to make us care about the story. Without that fiction, a story becomes an emotionless analysis of how the author chose to reach the ending this time.

To suggest that none of the story matters is a great way to force readers into becoming un-invested in our story and our characters. We need them to care or else they won’t read.

Writers Have to Earn the Reader’s Trust to Veer Off-Track

Nick Spencer and the Marvel editor are both also telling readers that they’ll just have to wait and see:

“To say it’s a gimmick implies that it’s done heedlessly just to shock. The proof is always going to be in the execution. So you’ll have to read the rest of the story to see.” (source)

To a certain extent, this point is true. Whenever we write, we have to convince the reader that we’ll deliver a story worth reading.

We’re absolutely allowed to create plot twists and deliver angst, but readers have to trust that we’re capable of pulling it off. They have to believe that there will be a payoff and that it will be worth it.

Our plot twists and out-of-character moments have to make logical sense to the reader—or we have to sell readers on our ability to have it make sense in the end. They have to buy the zig we’re trying to sell them when they wanted the zag.

So far, the opinion—even from those who have read the issue and aren’t just commenting on the outcry—is that the execution is lacking. Captain America’s character is no longer based in the same character at all.

So what was the point? Money? Publicity?

Understanding the “Contract” between Writers and Readers

From our cover and blurb to our opening pages and characters, we’re constantly creating expectations—promises of what readers will find on our pages. Character development can’t be ignored without justification if it breaks that promise.

Shock for shock’s sake and blatant manipulation of readers isn’t something readers have to put up with. Creators can’t take for granted that readers will stick around to see the payoff if they haven’t established trust in advance.

As far as readers can tell here, the writer simply broke the “contract” of promises and expectations with the reader for reasons that have nothing to do with logical storytelling or character development.

Dismantling the Essence Destroys Readers’ Investment

This character choice, no matter the expectation that it will be undone, fails to understand the importance of story and character essence. Even Chris Evans, who plays Captain America in the (once again, I’ll say thankfully unrelated) movies, knew better than this:

As I’ve mentioned before about story as well as about characters, we can change plot events around and still maintain the same story and characters. There’s still an essence to each of those—recognizing what they each represent—that remains even as details change.

If we do our job well as writers, the essence of our story and characters is what will resonate with readers. If we fail to understand what those resonance points are, we might allow our story to be workshopped, critiqued, or edited to death.

Or in the case of Nick Spencer, we might throw away everything about the character that’s resonated with readers for 70 years just for short-term publicity.

In response to the outrage, Nick says:

“They’re emotionally invested, which is good.” (source)

But that misses the message of most of the complaints. If we break the contract with readers, they cut off their investment. They close the book, throw it against the wall, write hateful reviews, or put us on their Never Buy Again list.

As Jessica Plummer states in this excellent article about how the “temporary” nature of the storyline only makes the decision worse, not better:

“Let me be very clear: I don’t care if this gets undone next year, next month, next week. I know it’s clickbait disguised as storytelling. I am not angry because omg how dare you ruin Steve Rogers forever.

I am angry because how dare you use eleven million deaths as clickbait.

I am angry because Steve Rogers’s Jewish creators literally fought in a war against the organization Marvel has made him a part of to grab headlines. …

How little must we matter. … The people who need him. The people whose history and suffering and hope, as we stood on the brink of annihilation, gave you your weekly entertainment and your fun thought experiment, 75 years later.

I hope it was worth it, Marvel.”

Readers “Own” the Story and Characters Too

Once we publish a story, readers take partial ownership. They form relationships to the story and characters. They imagine what happens after the story ends. Etc., etc.

We’ve seen with George Lucas and the Star Wars “Han shot first” controversy that fans will simply ignore creators if they think the creators are screwing up the story or characters. And just as George is butt of jokes now, a good portion of the audience will permanently lose respect for the creators.

This disrespect happened to me with an author I read as a teen and young adult. I was tearing through every story in one science fiction icon’s catalog until he threw away an important aspect of a character (the fact that the protagonist was married) just so he could start writing the character having hookups with aliens.

No mention of divorce. No explanation for the wife’s (a previously important character) disappearance. The fact was just ignored. I never read that author again because the character no longer felt “real” to me. The author had broken the fiction, and I lost all respect.

At this point, thousands of people are actively hoping that Nick Spencer can’t pull it off because they’re that pissed. As Sasha said, the damage is done.

Personally, I’m imagining a fan fiction story where Chris Evans and/or Captain America punch the people behind this storytelling decision in the face. *smile*

What Can We Learn from This Story Failure?

Some of the take-away lessons from this Twitter-storm are:

  • pay attention to character development and what aspects of the character resonate with readers
  • recognize that character development builds a contract of expectations and promises with readers
  • understand that we have earn the trust of the reader to be able to do justice to our story and characters
  • ensure that any time we include out-of-character behavior, the reasons are either logical or motivated
  • be extra careful with any twists that disrespect and/or hurt readers or that dismantle the resonances of a story or character
  • be super-duper, extra-special careful with twists that might cause readers to become un-invested in our story or characters
  • accept that even if we’ve earned readers’ trust, they have no obligation to stick around for the payoff

We’re all allowed to tell any kind of story we want, but if we want readers to stick around for the ride, we have to convince them it will be worth it. Nonsensical plot twists or illogical out-of-character behaviors simply to create conflict feels shallow and manipulative.

Readers don’t have to stick around, and they don’t have to respect our choices. We need to have respect for the reader too. *smile*

Had you heard about this controversy yesterday? What did you think about it? What the riskiest twist you’ve ever tried to pull off in your stories? Were you successful? Can you think of any other lessons we can take away from this situation?

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Omg that is frankly traumatising! (I haven’t watched the latest Captain America yet.) I have definitely seen books like this before, where I simply believe that the author was making it up and just trying to shock us. So yeah! I have the choice to believe or to not believe the author too! As a reader, I definitely will not accept a twist that’s illogical. O_O In fact, I think it’s kind of immoral to distort a character like that. O_O I mean, how could you do that to your character?? On the other hand, yeah, if there are any out-of-character moments, we’ve got to make sure the reader understands the reason why they acted out of character. I’m quite paranoid about that myself, haha, so I may over-explain things in stories. I’m trying to strike a balance between explaining too much and explaining too little, lol. Oh in answer to your other question, I did have a plot twist where one of the main characters betrays everyone. However, this betrayal happened pretty early in the story, and very shortly afterwards (in the scene after the next), this character explains everything to another main character, and we understand why he was betraying them. Haha this “traitor” MC is one of my romance heroes, so I would be even more traumatized than the reader if he really were bad, haha. Anyhow, yes, he did actually betray them in action, but he did so out of a good intention (it’s complicated), so…  — Read More »

Christina Hawthorne

“Shock” writing, as opposed to good writing with shocking moments, is the difference between maintaining a committed relationship and exposing yourself in the park.

Julie Glover

Not being plugged into the world of comics, I had no idea about this controversy. But how awful! How genuinely terrible to ignore the entire point of Captain America and World War II. I would slam that door shut on Marvel too.

And now I’m going to tread into an area that might get me in trouble… I never appreciate one author taking another author’s world and dismantling its original intent. In this case, and others, I feel like if this author wants to write that kind of character, he should make up his own — not use an existing character like Captain America. Likewise, I really don’t like this whole “Jane Bond” movement. We ladies don’t need to take over the James Bond franchise to prove that we can be just as brilliant and kick-butt as 007. Go write another story! But let Ian Fleming and those who developed a 26-movie series have the character they developed; and the readers have the character they’ve come to know and enjoy. And now, I step off my soapbox. 😉

Lee Kilraine

I was discussing this (okay, possibly ranting) about the whole Captain America situation to my family yesterday and they didn’t get it. Now that you’ve laid it out so wonderfully, I’ll just have them all read it and say… “What she said. Exactly.” Excellent post, Jami! Thanks!

Mark R Hunter

I think the whole Captain America situation could be summed up with one thing from a writer’s viewpoint: Make sense. I have a character who (due to circumstances later revealed), absolutely hates and fights hard against all illegal drug use. Cap being revealed as a Hydra agent makes about as much sense as that character being revealed as a drug dealer.

Tamar Hela

I LOVE that you addressed this! And especially because you used the Captain America hype as an example. Great points, as always. Thanks for putting into words what my same sentiments are. And, I will say that I’m grateful for this reminder. All writers should remember the contract they have with readers. 🙂


[…] inspiration, Lisa Cron tells us not to give our characters a time out, Jami Gold reminds us of the implicit promise in character development, Malcolm Mackay shows how to write fully-formed characters, and Mary Kole discusses the over-use of […]

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