Character development

Characters usually change over the course of a text. These changes can be a powerful way to present themes and important ideas to the reader.

As the text continues, the author often adds more details to the picture of a character.

How the reader reacts to a character can be very important to how they feel about the text.

Look for contrasts or contradictions - not just between characters, but within each character. In real life no one is simply good or bad. All effective characters have more than one side.

Typical contrasts between characters

  • Characters who think versus characters who feel.
  • Characters who talk versus characters who act.
  • Sociable characters versus solitary characters.
  • Predators who take advantage of people versus characters who are victims.
  • Characters who want one thing versus those who want another.

Typical contrasts within a character

  • A person who says one thing, and does another.
  • A character who sacrifices something important to pursue a goal of their own.
  • A character who wants two opposing things.

Example

This extract is a description of a character from Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Bring Up the Bodies. Thomas Cromwell is the King’s Secretary – an important role. What contrasts can you find, which help to develop the character?

Thomas Cromwell is now about fifty years old. He has a labourer's body, stocky, useful, running to fat. He has black hair, greying now, and because of his pale impermeable skin, which seems designed to resist rain as well as sun, people sneer that his father was an Irishman, though really he was a brewer and a blacksmith at Putney, a shearsman too, a man with a finger in every pie, a scrapper and brawler, a drunk and a bully, a man often hauled before the justices for punching someone, for cheating someone. How the son of such a man has achieved his present eminence is a question all Europe asks. Some say he came up with the Boleyns, the queen's family. Some say it was wholly through the late Cardinal Wolsey, his patron; Cromwell was in his confidence and made money for him and knew his secrets. Others say he haunts the company of sorcerers. He was out of the realm from boyhood, a hired soldier, a wool trader, a banker. No one knows where he has been and who he has met, and he is in no hurry to tell them.

Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

Analysis

  • There’s a contrast between Cromwell’s background, as the son of a blacksmith, and his current job and position.
  • There’s a mystery about how Cromwell got to where he is – people gossip about him. They don’t seem to like him: either he ‘came up’ with the family of the queen, or maybe he owes his rise to ‘sorcerers’.
  • He’s had many different jobs – a soldier, a wool trader, a banker – which might suggest that he’s a man of many talents.

Some of these things make the reader feel sympathy for Cromwell. He’s a self-made man, who is sometimes looked down on by those around him.

But some of it suggests he doesn’t need our sympathy, and perhaps that he deliberately manipulates his image. He’s in no hurry to reveal the truth, so perhaps he’s dishonest.

curriculum-key-fact
When you are writing about characterisation, don't just describe what characters are like. Always give evidence, and always give a range of language techniques the writer uses.