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Character Development in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Character Development Defined
  • 1:42 Direct vs. Indirect
  • 2:49 Hamlet
  • 3:56 Ebenezer Scrooge
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Ideally, literary characters experience change and personal growth just like we do. Learn more about character development and arcs, as well as how such changes are made clear to the reader through direct and indirect means.

Character Development Defined

You've probably seen all sorts of things develop in your lifetime: pets, land, even film (unless you've only used a digital camera). You've most likely witnessed a number of people develop, too - yourself included. As we get older, learn new things, and do new things, we all undergo certain changes that help make us who we are.

When this happens to people in literature, it's known as character development, or the collective observable changes in an individual's defining characteristics over the course of a narrative.

When we're young and about to enter our first growth spurts, many of our parents periodically mark a wall or doorpost with our growing heights. When you stand back and look at all the marks together, you're able to see your growth in a new context, see it as a whole picture, and may even be able to associate certain marks with particular events in your journey. Similarly to these marks, a character arc represents the total extent of transformation characters undergo during their development.

Just like the people we encounter every day, most literary characters undergo changes, some of which can be rather dramatic. For instance, there is the tale of Saul, the early Christian persecutor who eventually becomes Paul, one of the greatest apostles and saints of Christendom. However, there are also much less striking character arcs that may only involve a single minor change throughout the entire narrative (i.e. habitually ordering rhubarb instead of pecan pie). Nevertheless, if there are only minute changes to a character's persona, authors will typically include some amount of character development to prevent readers from becoming bored or disappointed with their characters, as well as to reflect the real growth that most people usually undergo.

Direct vs. Indirect

But how can we tell when these changes are happening? Sometimes, as with your heights marked on the doorpost, we find the information openly displayed to us through direct characterization, which is the portrayal of characteristics through straightforward statements from characters or the narrative voice. For example, a narrator might directly characterize someone by saying 'Jack was a sickly boy.' But, just like we can't depend on the doorpost alone to show us how much we've grown, we can't always look merely to direct comments to fully characterize a literary person, either.

For other cases, there's indirect characterization, or the portrayal of characteristics through that person's words, thoughts, deeds, interactions, or appearance. So, if we wanted to indirectly characterize Jack as being a sickly boy, we might say 'Jack was pale, and his twig-like arms were scarcely strong enough to support his begging bowl.'

Now that we've seen how to pick up on a character's development, let's take a look at two of the most famously dynamic character arcs in literature to see how their transformations are characterized!

Hamlet

Countless literature classes in the English-speaking world have encountered the fascinating character study that is Shakespeare's Hamlet, and yours may well have been one. Though we all probably know how the prince of Denmark's story ends, it has captivated audiences for centuries, mostly due to the ways in which Hamlet's character develops over the course of the tragedy. Once a young scholarly prince full of promise, by the beginning of the play, Hamlet has already become a melancholic brooder after his father's death.

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