Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Evolution of a Character

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

I've heard it said recently that character is king. Give a reader an engaging, likeable character (or characters) and he'll forgive you a few plot holes (not craters, but "oopsies"). One of the things that makes characters engaging is development. Your protagonist starts as one person and grows to become a richer, fuller person - hopefully. Flat characters are hard to love.

Very few fans of crime/mystery fiction have not read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic "Sherlock Holmes" stories (or at least heard of them). Many who have not read the stories, have seen movies with Basil Rathbone or the late, great Jeremy Brett (my personal favorite).

But as much as I love Brett's manic, quirky, arrogant, yet gentlemanly, portrayal of Holmes, I think he's being eclipsed in my mind by the new face of Sherlock: Benedict Cumberbatch. Why? Character development.

In the first episode of Holmes, he's really a jerk ("I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your homework."). There's little to like about this man. He's arrogant. He's rude. He dismisses everybody and everything as beneath his notice, including Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Molly the lab tech. He's brilliant of course, but he takes that for granted. Anybody who doesn't measure up (and that's just about everybody) he dismisses (he does somehow take to Watson).

In short, he's a guy who I can admire as a genius, but wouldn't invite him to dinner in a million years.

Then in Season 2, there came the moment. Watson makes a comment about friends, and Holmes retorts, "I don't have any friends." Watson is clearly hurt and starts to pull away from their relationship. And Holmes misses him; it surprises him, I think, but that stings, to lose Watson. And later he says, "I told you the truth; I don't have friends. I have one." The message is clear: Holmes considers Watson his one friend. There's another moment where this goes further in the Season 2 finale, but if you haven't seen it I don't want to spoil it for you.

That, my friends, is character development. Holmes is still arrogant. But he's realized that these people, Watson in particular, matter to him. He's a little less isolated and a little more human.

That humanity is what makes characters appealing. Real people change and grow (or at least they should). If we want our characters to be people our readers would invite for dinner, we have to make them human. We have to develop them in a way that makes them change and grow.

What's the best example of character development you've read or seen?


  1. I think the TV show Friday Night Lights is a really good example of character development. Some of the characters who were completely unlikable in the first season transformed into some of the most interesting characters by the series end. As a writer, I feel like that show is a must-watch for character development.

    1. I never watched Friday Night Lights. I'll have to look it up. I think it's easier, sometimes, to see character development in TV because it's visual as well as auditory.

  2. Actually, I thought the Christmas party scene where he humiliates Molly horribly--and then visibly feels badly about it and tries to smooth things over--was an even better sign of Sherlock's growth.

    1. I forgot about that one. Yeah, the Sherlock from Season 1 would never have done that.