Bettye on Writing: Character Development

I watched one of my all-time favorite films last night, the original version of the historical event Mutiny on the Bounty, which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1935. As much as I enjoy the film, I had to consider that Charles Laughton's portrayal of Captain Bligh was rather one-dimensional. He gave cruel commands, such as continuing with the flogging of a sailor who had already expired. There were virtually no reasons given for his behavior, and I never understood why he was such a miserable tyrant.

In contrast, the 1984 version, called simply The Bounty, showed Captain Bligh to be a flawed but more rounded individual, expertly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins (before he was knighted, so no Sir, thank you). It showed how the captain longed to make history by circumnavigating the globe, an urge so strong that he was willing to put the lives of his crew in danger to achieve it (shades of Hillary Clinton's nearly unrelenting drive to make history by being the first woman to receive the nomination of a major political party). It showed him as somewhat short-tempered and impatient with his men, particularly after they landed in Tahiti and the men got caught up in the sexual freedoms and generally hedonistic way of life in a Pacific paradise in 1788. In other words, he was written as human, where the Bligh of the original was simply callous and cruel (the only thing I understood was his all-consuming zeal and resulting paranoia in his unsuccessful quest to locate Fletcher Christian after the mutiny to see him hang for his offense).

The issue of character development is an important factor in writing. The reader has to have an inkling of why characters behave the way they do, even if the characters don't. Readers will complain if they feel they don't know your characters, or if they do something that seems out of the realm of their personalities. The reasons are usually simple, sometimes even cliché, just like those for real people. The man who has no urge for a family of his own might have grown up feeling unloved in foster care (or maybe that same man is desparate to marry and have children). The woman who grew up penniless values her material possessions above all else. The reasons can also be more intricate, dealing with repressed memories (the heroine of my most recent romance, A Love For All Seasons, had a few surprises coming to her) or something that has been building for a long time, like the honest man who just can't stand it anymore and either commits a crime or keeps that pile of money he's found.

You can't have your character do something out of left field and not give the reader some insight as to one of the most important questions a writer can answer, why. This in itself has to be carefully handled. You don't want to give your characters nightmares that wake them from sleep clutching the sheets in terror; that's as overdone as a reheated baked potato. There are other ways to convey messages to readers - through dialogue, through internal thoughts, etc.
But that's a column for another day . . . .


PatriciaW said...

I always confuse this movie with THE CAINE MUTINY starring Humphrey Bogart.

For me, the struggle is to avoid cliched characters, including their backstory. Yet many stories are common and universal and because we've heard them before, they resonate and are believable. I think the trick is to have the character do something unexpected but give the reader enough insight to make this new development work.

bettye griffin said...

Ah, The Caine Mutiny. Good film. I like the way the mental illness of Humphrey Bogart's character became more and more apparent.

I agree with you about stories being common and universal because we've heard them before, and I think you might have hit upon something with your theory of how to make it work.

Thanks, Patricia!

DonnaD said...

The problem I have is when there is no real character development. I've read several books and see the characters either a) showing no motivation/growth or b) showing all kinds of motivation and growth - at the end of the book. The best kinds of characterizations is when you see all this happening throughout the story.

I think the worst kind is shown in "Rainman". Tom Cruise is pretty callous about his brother for most of the movie, but at the end, he suddenly flips the script and gets all sentimental. Ruined the whole film.

Anonymous said...

"The best kinds of characterizations is when you see all this happening throughout the story."

Yes, I agree. If the character goes from being evil to good or vice versa, I like to see what motivated that change.