The Yin/Yang of Character Development

Character development is probably one of the most important things we as writer’s are responsible for. People aren’t interested in characters in books or television that don’t grow or change (unless it’s a sitcom, of course, where the characters must be frozen in time. In that case it’s the situations and comedy that suck viewers in).

I like to view character development exactly like the Ying Yang symbol:

yingyangYou notice a curved division, not a straight one (because there is no “straight and narrow” path to the end goal–characters change, they compromise, experience loss, gain, regrets, etc. and if it were easy that would be predictable and people don’t necessarily want predictable. I mean, more often than not your main protagonist had better ride off into the sunset, but the path there must be rocky and full of obstacles–just like life.

Also note that within the white there is a little spec of dust, and within the black, a light at the end of the tunnel.

All interesting characters can easily be placed within this black/white model (grey isn’t as fascinating to read about or watch–I consider grey the narrator or the threshold characters must cross).

Good characters have a little darkness within them (perhaps a cross to bear), and the most evil characters may have a little goodness in them (for redemption purposes later, or simply to gain a little sympathy from the readership so when good defeats evil it is bittersweet (a far more complex twist than a happy ending).

A very literal visual example of character development is in the TV show “Once Upon a Time”  when (spoiler) Regina, the evil Queen (who is increasingly becoming understood and sympathized with through various justifications), pulls out Snow White’s pure heart and it’s got a small dark hole of blackness in it. The writer’s had to sully her somehow. Everyone around her is changing and compromising, it was time she also shifted. Plus, she’s Snow White, so I bet she bounces back a fully story arc later (3-4 episodes).

In the book “The Hobbit”, or “There and Back Again”, by J. R. R. Tolkien, Bilbo Baggins, a homebody embarks on a quest which takes him from his rural surroundings into dangerous territory for Thorin and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon, Smaug–the main antagonist. Personal growth and forms of heroism are central themes of the story, as well as the overcoming of greed and selfishness within some of the “good guys.” I think the battle for Lonely Mountain is best summed up by Bilbo’s comment: “Victory after all, I suppose! Well, it seems a very gloomy business.” That’s because no matter how pure the cause, in war and character development victory is never won without bloodshed (and at the “good guys” hands).

Again to recall some of my favorite character models:

Recall the center illustration and check this out:

yingyang5So, to keep it interesting you must (like all great and entertaining writer’s before you) take a protagonist and drag them through hell, dust ’em off, and put ’em back where you found ’em.

Just try not to get dizzy from all the circles.

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3 observations on “The Yin/Yang of Character Development
  1. Sami

    I like how you pull from all sources to convey good writing. Contemporary is great. You have an interesting process, one that is far more straightforward than any of my advanced writing classes! And it’s a lot shorter than my boring textbooks. Will you post who your favorite authors/teachers are?

    1. Sarah Isaacson

      Sorry it has taken so long to respond. Thank you! My favorite authors have always been non-fiction (which is strange that I lean to fiction in my own writing) because I like facts and figures. I skip around when I read–it’s hard to hold my attention. I like the bullet point list. I savored Emerson and Thoreau and transcendentalism in high school. I like reading things with metaphor, foreshadowing, words so delicate it’s like jenga-if you misplace one piece the whole message gets lost in translation.

      My writing was more inspired by the critical theory classes I took in college than the advanced creative writing courses. The reason, I think, is because it’s critical to learn how you view the world: your social constructs, and learning that there is no such thing as one “solid reality” because there is no control group in the world to base a “normal perspective” on. So, learn what your social constructs are (what is your individual world like in relation to the big world outside? Feminism, sexuality, patriarchy, capitalism, your own family?) and deconstruct those things. Allow yourself to strip away your personal POV and sort of take this magic carpet ride (and try not to get depressed!) and then you can write anything. For these life changers, it was teachers and Bell Hooks, Sut Jhally, and of course, salsa dancing, fighting, and having fun. Go outside! Then write. Hope this helps?

  2. Numbers

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