We’ve heard of underdeveloped characters. Writers of every stripe have asked themselves whether the characters they’ve created are “interesting”, “multifaceted” or “complex”. It’s the reason why the internet has no shortage of fun and challenging character development exercises, from the Gotham and Proust questionnaires, to any number of prompts from Pinterest or Tumblr. These tools are brilliant–I absolutely love them, and I use them all the time.
But can your characters ever be overdeveloped? That’s what I’d like to debate with myself today.
To my mind, an overdeveloped character is one whose development far exceeds the requirements of the plot. And I am torn on whether this is a problem.
Because I have first-hand experience with this. I have a handful of characters who are very dear to me. I’ve had them in my head for literally years, and over time, I’ve worked out every little detail about them. I know everything from their childhood nightmares and favourite toys, to what’s in the closet and refrigerator. When I go outside, generally to a mall, I can at a glance identify which of the clothes my characters would wear. I can tell you what they’d order if they went to a Starbucks, and even what side of the bed they’d sleep on. Almost none of this is plot-relevant.
While it helps to have such solidly-built characters in my head, it can actually be a hindrance too. Because the more sharply defined the characters became, the more the plot floundered. I found myself trying to adjust the plot to fit around their little quirks. I can’t change them. I cannot, for instance, kill them off, even though it might objectively make the story better. I can’t even rename them, even though I am not entirely happy with their names. The idea of making such changes feels incredibly drastic, almost akin to tearing up a favourite dress or misplacing an heirloom. I can’t do it.
And so the plot suffers. It’s the reason why I haven’t been able to write the story I’ve been wanting to write. The story that actually includes all these characters. Because the plot always falls apart.
So yeah, there’s a part of me that thinks that these characters are overdeveloped. I’ve done too much. I love them too much. They’re too precious to me. And it’s a problem.
On the other hand, having such developed characters makes for extremely rich reading. Whenever I write for them, their dialogue shines. I know their every movement, I know the inflexions of their voice. Those scenes are some of my best, and I don’t think I could achieve that level of clarity and engagement if I didn’t have such a crystal clear idea of who my characters are.
It also informs my plot. I know that there are certain things that my characters will do. Certain things they won’t. I know their philosophies inside out. Their boundaries. What makes them tick. What they fear the most. So when I spin a plot around them, I know that there are some elements of the story that just have to be there. I know I have to hit certain beats. I know where all the twists are. It’s like playing chess. Every piece moves in fixed ways, so it’s possible for a good player to foresee every move on the board.
Also, should our characters only exist for the story? Shouldn’t we know them as people? Doesn’t that make them more realistic? I’ve always felt that characters have three-dimensional humanity, that they are as variable and deep as real people. It’s not just about their hopes and dreams and fears; people are so much more than that. We are our favourite coffee orders, our nervous ticks, our lazy-day outfits. We are the extra five minutes we spend in bed after snoozing the alarm. We are the way we do our hair.
And creating characters that acknowledge this…well, it’s more enjoyable to read. My constant gripe with certain novels (like Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music) is that the characters don’t feel real. They don’t have those precious moments of domesticity. I won’t even use the word ‘relatable’–characters don’t need to be relatable, they just need to be real–and that lack of realistic detail makes them feel flat and boring. The story suffers as a result.
So yeah, there’s also a part of me that wonders if ‘overdevelopment’ is an actual thing.
Stories are character. When we seek out a story, we are seeking out characters and their journeys with the world (and themselves, by extension). But for the story to have any power, the writer needs to know when to deploy certain character details, and when to hold back. Does the reader need to know your character’s Starbucks order? Or their favourite athleisure brand?
But do you need to know it?
Also–maybe not. However, I don’t necessarily think it can hurt. If you are able to keep your story on track, that is. With me personally, it’s a struggle. I can get lost in the lives of my characters without really caring too much about the plot. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but I find it genuinely fascinating to imagine how they’d go about their day; what they’d wear, what they’d eat, whether they read the ads on the subway or not. Plot be damned. It’s an instinct I really need to work against when I tell their stories.
That’s me. I’m curious to know what you think about this. Leave your opinions in the comments! Thank you so much for reading!