Content Editing and Character Development: Part 2

People are more than their physical appearance. Yes, people often form an opinion of a person’s inside based on their outside; but we all know that looks can be deceiving. As discussed in Part 1, it’s always a good idea to shake things up a bit. Just like the math professor doesn’t have to be short, balding, and wearing thick-framed glasses; he also doesn’t have to be nerdy, shy, or afraid to talk to women.

The same goes for the librarian. There’s no hard-set rule that dictates that she must always wear a pencil skirt and cardigan sweater or always have her hair in a bun. Don’t be surprised to find out that she also doesn’t have to be shy or introverted. She can be just as brazen as a biker chick; and the biker chick can be studious.

In essence, character development is more about a character’s personality and flaws than it is their physical characteristics.

Let’s take our math professor, for example. How about we name him Jax and make 6’3” tall with red hair, green eyes, a full beard, and a penchant for wearing T-shirts featuring rock bands from the 60’s? Sound good?

Now, let’s discuss Jax’s issues – and yes, he DOES have issues just like every other human being. Our intelligent professor is hard on his students and his women. He trusts no one and believes everyone is out for their own good. He’s grumpy, difficult to please, and extremely judgmental. It has nothing to do with his upbringing, as he’s reared from a very lovely mother and attentive father. His siblings are all easy going and love a good joke. Jax is the way he is…well, just because he is.

Did you catch that? Jax doesn’t have to be cynical because a woman broke his heart. He doesn’t have to wear boring clothes just because he’s a cynical professor. He doesn’t have to be distrusting because his mother betrayed his father, or because his father never attended Jax’s Little League games. That doesn’t mean your character can’t be a product of their environment and/or upbringing. It’s realistic for us all to be affected by these things. All I’m saying is it doesn’t HAVE to be that way. Characters don’t have to have a reason to behave the way they do. Sometimes people are just who they are.

That doesn’t mean they can’t change. Of course, they can, and should. Although it makes sense for this change to be brought on by the situations they face, people they encounter, and/or their love interest (specifically, in romance novels); the change should be something the readers see as permanent.

Let’s use the characters from one of my favorite movies as an example.

Pretty Woman is a film featuring Richard Gere as Edward and Julia Roberts as Vivian.


At the start of the movie, Edward has trouble forming emotional bonds. He treats his personal relationships like business arrangements. As the movie progresses, so does Edward. Viewers notice a change in his behavior in his personal and professional lives. The key to this change was that it happened slowly and was not due to one life-changing event, although viewers may consider him picking up Vivian as a life-changing event. Although this assessment wouldn’t be totally false, Edward didn’t change the night he picked up Vivian. It can be argued that although that fateful night changed the course of his life, his character developed throughout the movie.

Now get this. Edward changed BECAUSE of Vivian, not FOR her. Viewers are left to assume that even if their relationship failed after the movie ended, Edward wouldn’t once again become emotionally unavailable. In other words, his change was permanent.

The same can be said about Vivian. Her encounter with Edward increased her self-esteem. By the end of the movie – before Edward returned for her – she’d already decided to turn from prostitution. She even stated to him that he’d changed her, and he couldn’t change her back. She changed BECAUSE of Edward, not FOR him.

That, my friends, is character development.

Now, let’s revisit Jax. The goal is not to make him a happy-go-lucky individual who buys Girl Scout cookies, adopts orphans from Third World countries, and sits up all night shooting the shit with Jake from State Farm. The goal is to make him less cynical and a little more trusting.

Just like people learn and grow in real life, so should they in your novel. Growth doesn’t mean perfection, and it shouldn’t happen all of a sudden. It doesn’t mean your characters can’t have an epiphany that alters their behavior in some way or causes them to make a decision. It does mean that just as people evolve over time so should your characters.

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