Every character begins somewhere and ends somewhere else. Some go far, some barely take a step forward. As they experience everything their creator throws at them, they grow and change in ways they otherwise might not have. For a writer, you don’t just make arbitrary decisions on how your character is going to change over the course of your story- it must happen within the plot. How is this achieved?
Events detailed within a story influence the involved characters on numerous levels. You, the writer, must decide not only what twists and turns you throw at your character, but also how they impact him or her. Among the most prominent tools of development? Tragedy.
Tragedy has a way of completely altering the mindset and ideals of both fictional characters and real people. However, this comes at a price. Throw a tragedy at your main character that too badly warps him or her and fans may find the change unappealing. Let us examine a successful use of development through tragedy, and a failed example.
At the start of the first Godfather movie, Michael Corleone has no interest in taking part in the criminal activities of his family. He goes to college, joins the military, and spends most of his free time with his beloved Kay- secluding himself entirely from the dark mafia world of his father and brothers. However, after an attempt on his father’s life, Michael begins to change.
The youngest Corleone son takes a small step into the world he so isolated himself from in order to protect his father and to taste a little revenge. However it isn’t until his older brother, Sonny, is brutally gunned down that Michael becomes a cold, distant Mafioso mastermind- the complete opposite of his warm, friendly former self. The transition works beautifully because it makes sense and compels the viewer to consider Michael’s downward spiral. You must ask yourself- would I have done the same?
Then you have cases where the creator fumbles development through tragedy. Anime fans need only look to Sasuke Uchiha of Naruto fame. Sasuke is the last of a powerful ninja clan with an affinity for flame jutsus and the bearers of a powerful copy ability courtesy of their eyes. Sasuke himself is viewed as something of a mess in terms of character development. As a child he is lonely and neglected by his family- save for his older brother, Itachi. However, Itachi betrays the clan and murders everyone but Sasuke. What does Sasuke do?
He turns into a self-proclaimed ‘avenger’. This is understandable as Sasuke has lost his entire family. However this ‘avenger’ status completely consumes his personality. He spends the majority of his life glaring into the distance, awaiting the day he faces off with his brother. Females constantly swoon for Sasuke despite his brooding, unapproachable nature and clear disinterest in every other facet of life aside from vengeance. People are constantly intimidated by the prospect of facing Sasuke, yet his supposed talents never seem to surface. He rarely wins his fights and his much hyped flame techniques have never proven effective.
None of this is an exaggeration- Sasuke Uchiha has pretty much turned into an angry preteen that attracts countless girls without reason and strikes fear without talent. Yet Sasuke doesn’t become a total train wreck until the events of Shippuden, the continuation of the Naruto series. It is at this point that Sasuke’s experiences from the previous series as well as some recent tragedies culminate to form a cold-blooded extremist devoid of any personality or empathy at all.
Despite his lack of charisma, his inability to instill trust, and continued record of losses and failures, Sasuke manages to retain his past status as some sort of ideal teammate, soul mate, and ninja. In short, Sasuke’s behavior and personality exhibit every possible red flag to repel a potential love interest or friend. Viewer response to Sasuke’s winding road of character development has been overwhelming negative- to the point that fans are dropping the show entirely due to his tight hold on the spotlight.
Sasuke’s ‘growth’ is unrealistic and uninteresting to most viewers- made worse when his undeserved praise, esteem, and focus from other Naruto characters is considered. As a final flaw to Sasuke’s development, his actions throughout the series have earned him death yet this hasn’t been the case. Not because it can’t be done- Sasuke is simply always saved by a plot twist or coincidence that miraculously allows him to continue to survive despite the threat he presents and the terrible choices he makes.
The best way to approach development through tragedy? Compromise. Combine the realm of realistic reactions to the tragic event with what outcome you feel best compliments your plot. Determine ‘what you can get away with’ as you consider just what you want your character to become. Consider Michael Corleone. After trying so hard to not be dragged into the Mafia world, it becomes inevitable once his family needs him to pull the strings. Consider Sasuke Uchiha, the betrayal of his brother somehow both cripples him emotionally and nets him the attention of any eyes that fall on him and a desire to spend every second of his life in angst.
For those not interested in development through sorrow and hate, you have the polar opposite- love. Love can have an impact equal to or greater than tragedy, depending upon the characters and the events leading up to it. Love can make you do crazy things, as they say. It turns cowards into fighters, girls into mothers, and loyalists into traitors.
Yet development through love is a slippery slope. If you aren’t careful, you can build resentment in fans over how low their favorite character might be willing to stoop to impress or protect some undeserving love interest. The good thing about development through love is how much you can play around with the concept. Love can string someone along with a host of dark intentions likely to scar him or her. Love can melt the coldest heart and light to the darkest soul. Love can turn to hate at the slightest misunderstanding- or truth. Too bad one of the most well known cases of fictional love is such a bad example of how to execute it.
You need look no further than Romeo and Juliet. The tale is classic- feuding families, forbidden love, and a tragic end. Their eyes meet and forever their destinies were entwined. One could not live without the other- as the end of the play so boldly shows. Yet one can’t help but roll their eyes at the lesson behind Romeo and Juliet. Love is so immediate and potent that it can instantly instill the preference of suicide over separation. The desires and attachment gained in those moments were so powerful that giving up the people that had been with Romeo and Juliet their whole lives (their families) was a no-brainer. Wow, love is powerful.
In hindsight, Romeo and Juliet don’t exactly look like the tragic symbol of just how powerful love is that Shakespeare envisioned. Modern eyes see them more as hormonal teenagers that were too immature to realize their mutual infatuation wasn’t worth dying for. There was no development- only instantaneous change in a pair of total strangers.
The solution? Very simple. Why not have a secret, pre-existing relationship between Juliet and Romeo that during the course of the play is discovered? The events still go largely the same, but now their motivations and decisions are put in much better perspective. They’ve worked so hard to keep their secret, forbidden love alive that they don’t want to throw away all that effort now.
When utilized properly, love can make an already tense situation, a hundred times more serious. Case in point, Mobile Suit Gundam. An extremely popular Anime that spawned numerous sequels, movies, spin-offs, video games, and so-on. Though the original is what we’ll be focusing on. The original Gundam series focuses mainly on the eternal rivalry between two giant robot pilots- Amuro Ray and Char Aznable.
Amuro is a mechanical genius that’s pulled into a war between the space colonies (Zeon) and the earth. By a twist of fate, he ends up piloting the Earth Federation’s last hope for winning the war against Zeon- a prototype mobile suit, Gundam. Char is a Zeon ace pilot with a feared reputation as the ‘Red Comet’. Char is known for his trademark white mask, red custom mobile suits, and his exceptional talent as a pilot. The two clash repeatedly throughout the series in what many consider to be among the greatest Anime rivalries ever conceived. However, an Indian pilot by the name of Lalah Sune made things personal for Amuro and Char.
This sweet, gentle girl was confined to an Indian brothel after her parents died months earlier in the war. It was at this time that Char found and rescued her from this terrible fate. Char and Lalah became devoted to one and other- devoted lovers in private, dangerous companions on the battlefield. As Zeon and the Earth Federation shed their blood, Lalah and Char shared their own peace- despite their involvement in the war. Then Amuro entered the picture.
In the middle of the series, Amuro has a chance encounter with Lalah. The two immediately feel drawn to one and other- both are newtypes, a sort of hyper sensitive, psychic type in the Gundam series. They share a bond that ends in Amuro’s frustration upon discovering that she is entirely devoted to Char and sees him only as a friend. Trapped on the plutonic end of the three-way newtype bond, Amuro finds himself growing more and more apprehensive about Char. Yet it is not this that escalates the rivalry to newfound levels. In life, Lalah brought unexpected tension to the rivals. In death, she brought them hatred.
During a pivotal battle late in the war, Lalah Sune sacrificed herself to rescue Char from Amuro. Distracted by the realization that his sister was among the enemy, Char’s mobile suit was nearly dealt this fatal blow. After Lalah’s death, each rival blamed the other. Amuro would insist that it was in actuality Char’s fault for bringing Lalah into the war in the first place- whereas Char merely had to point out it was by Amuro’s actual hand that Lalah died. The rest of the series and the follow-up movie, Char’s Counterattack, would play witness to a much deeper, darker rivalry between the pair. Actions and decisions between them were no longer fueled by professional standards- now it was personal.
You can see that many factors and events can lead to personal growth in characters. Tragedy, murder, betrayal, revenge, love, jealousy, rivalry- all can play huge parts in shaping not only the plot, but those that exist within it.