I decided to sit down and watch some old How I Met Your Mother episodes once, and by old I mean Season One. It was weird to watch since everyone was well, so different from where they are in the more recent seasons. It’s jarring in light of where they end up.
This, of course, is one of the great things about TV shows: character development. When you have a couple dozen episodes per season you can spend a lot more time with the protagonists and working out who they are.
Now, character development in this case is different from a character arc. A character arc is more often seen in movies, like Carl going from grumpy old man to loving surrogate-grandfather in Up, or Columbus deciding to actually step up and be a hero in Zombieland, or Scott learning the power of self-respect and becoming a decent human being in Scott Pilgrim VS The World. Arc’s are a character getting from a to b.
Development, on the other hand (or at least as I’m using it) is where a character goes from a to b to c to d. It’s a series of arcs, one after another. It also takes time and is often far more nuanced than in a movie.
Let’s take Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender. He starts off as the skeptic in the party (Team Avatar, that is), and proves very useful as our exposition man. As the series progresses, Sokka loses his skepticism (to point b), finds his place as the idea man/tactician of the group (point c) and eventually the de facto leader of Team Avatar (point d). It takes all three seasons for him to get to that point. The Sokka of Book One is wildly different from the Sokka we see at the end. It takes time for him to get there.
Similarly, Zuko in the same series has his own very complex character development. He’s introduced as a selfish antagonist hellbent on capturing the Avatar. Within the first season we come to know him and his relationship with his uncle. Through it we’re given hints that beneath his exterior he does have traits worth redeeming.
Come Book Two we see him grow in his own right to be an honorable, if still mildly maligned, young man. He eventually rejects the call of the light side and winds up starting Book Three with everything he ever wanted from the beginning. In light of what’s happened to him, though, he decides it’s not worth it and finally switches sides. Even then it still takes time for him to become a proper hero. It’s a convoluted, bumpy arc of redemption, but all the more rewarding for it.
Stories of redemption tend to benefit most from the format. Sawyer, in Lost, started out as the guy no one liked. Over time we found out that he didn’t want any one to like him because, as far as he was concerned, no one ought to like him. As the story goes on he becomes a sympathetic character to us and, through a con on the part of a friend, ends up ingratiating himself to the other survivors (see episode “Left Behind”).
Later on, Sawyer quite literally faces his personal demons. That done, he can progress from his original arc (a vengeful man haunted by his past) to what’s next in store for him. Sawyer becomes a protector of the others and, eventually, a man who just wants to live life as it is. It’s a marked change from the selfish prick the series started out with.
Video Games can do this too. Ezio Auditore of Assassin’s Creed II is introduced as a bit of a brat. Granted, he’s seventeen, but he’s not the best guy you’ll find. His family gets wrongly executed and he finds himself thrust into a world of espionage and conspiracy he didn’t know existed. Ezio is forced to grow. He gains responsibility, takes up the mantle of an Assassin, and by the second sequel (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations ) is radically different from where he started out from.
It’s not just one arc, though, it’s a bunch of small ones and moments that tell us not only who he is but who he’s becoming.
That’s the hallmark of character development: those little moments along the way that show us where a character is. It could be Sokka guiding the blind Toph onto a boat or Sawyer running through a gauntlet of gunfire as he carries Claire to safety. It could be Willow deciding she doesn’t need the ghost sheet outfit anymore or Jayne sliding the cup of booze across the table at Simon.
It’s those moments where you look at characters and realize that wow, they’ve changed. And you hardly noticed while it was happening.
Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s a collection of short stories however, so no epic character arcs.