Columns > Published on April 24th, 2023

"Lack of Character Development" is Not Always A Problem

Header image: Andrea Piacquadio

Zero stars, lacks character development.

“Lack of character development” is a great thing to put on a negative review because it makes it sound like you know what you’re talking about when you definitely don’t know what you’re talking about.

It’s the new “wasn’t well-written.” It’s the new “didn’t pass the Bechdel Test, therefore is bad” (c'mon, Arrival doesn't pass, but it's feminist AF). 

It’s a quick and pointless way to dismiss a book without really saying anything about it, and if you use the phrase "lack of character development" in your book reviews, I’ve got beefs.

I know, the correct saying is, “I’ve got beef,” but my family is from Chicago. Me and Al, we pluralize beef.

Some Stories Are Stunted By Character Development

“Lack of character development” is a great thing to put on a negative review because it makes it sound like you know what you’re talking about when you definitely don’t...

I like to use movie examples because more of us have seen the same movies, so they’re a nice shortcut for talking about stories of all kinds.

Ocean’s 11. The characters come in, pull off a heist, and the characters who watch the Bellagio fountain at the end are almost identical to the characters we met at the beginning of the movie, other than having more cash on hand. And Ocean's 11 is thoroughly satisfying.

If you write a fast-paced book where the plot is the centerpiece, you might not need much character development. If the guy I’m reading about spends a good chunk of the story under a hail of gunfire, I don’t need a chapter where he thinks back on his relationship with his mother and how he could’ve done things differently.

Hey, if you want a plodding brick of a book that everyone thinks is super clever, but the President is named “Johnny Gentle,” sure, give yourself time between tennis sets to develop those characters (seriously, how did NOBODY tell me the President in Infinite Jest is named Johnny Gentle?).

Stories Can Push Characters Around

The humor that carries through Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness, and Ash Vs. Evil Dead is based on the fact that Ash Williams never changes, and he's not that deep. He’s always a buffoon, he always thinks he’s WAY cooler than he is. Even in the most extreme circumstances, fighting an undead clone of himself, battling his way through a bunch of skeletons pulling 3 Stooges gags, or even having himself crammed up the ass of a reanimated corpse—Ash refuses to learn anything, ever.

Sometimes, a character shouldn’t change. Sometimes, the character is the anchor, the unchanging center, and that gives us a consistent measure of how bonkers, how dangerous, or how difficult things really are.

Development Implies Improvement

Bones are not stronger at the places where they break.

Scar tissue is not stronger than normal skin.

That which kills us might make us stronger in some sense, but it might also put us into a wheelchair.

When people talk about a lack of character development, it’s very often about a character's failure to become a better person.

Life events don't put everyone in a better place.

It’s not how I operate.

In Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, we get a very unvarnished look at Vonnegut. He was a literary sensation, he worked really hard, he had a dark sense of humor...and he left his very supportive, loving wife for another woman, he had some peaks and valleys in his career, and his kids would probably rate him as a C+ father.

We learn more about Vonnegut from the movie, but it's not all good. 

Before you complain about a lack of character development, check and see whether the character DID develop, just not in the way you would have preferred.

Or, maybe the deepening of the character revealed them to be worse, and you're not used to reading that as development.

OR, maybe there's a non-linear development going on, two steps forward, one step back.

And Then I Learned

I had a writing mentor who told me that essays, stories, whatever, they should never end with “And what I learned was this:..”. He said that’s death for a personal essay.

Lots of storytellers handle character development that way: And then he learned.

That shit’s for children’s books.

Oh, the Sneetches all realized that the stars don’t matter!

Look at them, all developed!

Signposted, heavy-handed character development in service of making a point kills your story.

Look, if you want me to learn something, just tell me the thing. Don't march me through 300 pages of metaphor.

And if you didn't like a book because it didn't hang a banner on the lesson to be learned, that's cool, but just say that. Stop hiding behind this high-falutin literary nonsense.

Get The Evil Dead: 40th Anniversary Edition at Bookshop or Amazon

Get The Cool Side of My Pillow: A Book of Essays by Bruce Campbell at Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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