The Invisible Quality of Character Growth

When my oldest son was younger, I fretted about his ability to focus on his work. During his afternoon chore, whatever that might be, he’d often stop in the middle of it to play.

I’d pass by his room and see him re-building a broken Lego space ship instead of putting away clothes. Or I’d glance into the backyard where he was supposed to be raking only to find him swinging the rake like a light saber. A job intended to take 20 minutes would last an hour.

On occasion I would say things like, “I want you to learn to complete all your work first before you play” or “When you train yourself to work diligently now as a child, you’re preparing yourself to be a hard worker when you’re a grown-up.”

Now my son is on the cusp of becoming a teenager. He’ll turn 13 in about a month. Of course he’s grown physically which is easy to tell when he puts on his jeans and they’re an inch above his ankles. But lately I’ve noticed some signs that he’s also growing in character.

Last week, when I watched him mowing the back yard, he pushed hard and stuck to the task until it was done. Then I thought of other areas, like vacuuming, or shoveling snow, or even folding laundry—and I realized I rarely have to reprimand him to stay focused on the work.

Over the years, he’d grown in character—in diligence. The process was so slow and gradual, that I might have missed it if I hadn’t compared where he’s at now to where he used to be.

Isn’t that how most growth is? The process is invisible to the beholder. Usually we don’t notice the changes until much later, after it’s become more significant.

His growth gives me hope that if I continue to intentionally train my children in specific character traits, they’ll make progress forward. I may not see it while it’s happening and they won’t be perfect, but they’ll grow. Hopefully the same is true of the growth in my own life.

As I thought about how our characters should grow in our stories, I realized it involves a process similar to what I’m doing with my children.

*Narrow down our focus. My children need to grow in many areas. But if I focus on just a few things (or even one) for a time, then I can help them understand that specific weakness and how they can grow in it, instead of discouraging them with everything all at once. Same with our characters. We should pinpoint their main weakness (see this post). Too many issues can overwhelm or confuse our readers.

*Be intentional. I look for ways to encourage my children in their growth. I provide opportunities for them to practice what they need to work on. In our stories, we should be showing our characters failing and making mistakes. But along the way, we can give them opportunities to see their weaknesses and begin moving in the right direction.

*Don’t expect overnight success. The character growth in my children happens in tiny, invisible steps forward. It’s unrealistic to think they’ll change in a day or week or month. It takes time for real and lasting change. And the same is true of our characters. If we wait until the last chapter to suddenly give our characters a change of heart, it will feel contrived and unrealistic. Instead, they should be growing all along in self-awareness and we should gradually walk them up out of dark cavern of their Black Moments.

*Realize they won’t ever be perfect. My son might be growing in diligence, but he’s not perfect in it, and there are certainly other areas he needs to work on. By the end of our stories, our characters shouldn’t be perfect either. They should have their epiphany--that ah-ha moment when they realize their weakness and have begun to change. But they still have a long way to go, just like we all do.

When our readers come to the last page, they should come away with the feeling that our characters have grown in some way, even if it's nothing earth-shattering. Maybe readers won’t notice it along the way, but in hindsight hopefully they’ll see that the pants are an inch above the ankles.

How do you help your children grow in character? Are you intentional? And what about the characters in your stories? Are you intentional enough with their growth?

P.S. If you need a character worksheet, I've posted mine in a tab at the top of my blog. You're welcome to print it out and use it.


  1. I try and lead by example. Then there's lecturing, lots and lots of lecturing. Am I intentional? Sometimes. But oftentimes the girls see right through me and roll their eyes.

    My characters do too. ; )

  2. I'm inclined to think that one of the best ways to help a child grow is to give them plenty of room. Even now, as my children are grown, I try to reenforce the idea that, although many people may have advise for you along the way that, ultimately they are the ones who have to be happy with the decisions they make at the end of the day.

    It's not always easy to give that room but, as parents it's part of our job. Everyone needs to feel love and acceptance.

    As for my characters, their growth is not always huge. Sometimes they change in subtle ways. You're right about changes that evolve over time. Sometimes I think they are the ones that make the biggest impact in our lives.

  3. Jody, I love your reflection on your son's growth. I think leading by example really is a powerful tool. Maybe even more so, I think listening to children and being attentive to their needs as they develop is critical. It's a slow process, as you point out. But somehow, they find their way. So much of what you've said really is relevant to character development in our writing. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!


  4. I always taught by example, first. Then I would take teaching moments to discuss right and wrong. Character development in a child is, to me, like building a house. You need a sturdy foundation that is strong: clear rules, communication without screaming, safety in parents, fair punishments, example, and giving the child the right to be a child (childhood).

    I have a feeling you are a fantastic mom.

  5. I love all of your ideas so far this morning--especially teaching by example. Our kids need to know that we don't think we're perfect, but that we're trying to work on changing our weaknesses too.

  6. Great analogy. My kids are 9 and 10. The girl (10) is easier than the boy (9). The boy... well, the boy. That's all I can say.

    Positive encouragement works on both of them, the boy especially. You can scare the girl with a threat of punishment, but my son, forget it. Punish all you want. I was the same way. When someone punished me, I went all POW and balled up and it rolled off my back and nothing changed.

    I'm the same way today. Punishment doesn't scare me at all. All I want is the reward.

    The point is different people require different forms of correction and leadership. Realize that not only are your children different from one another, but so are your dogs, your coworkers, your teammates, your students, and anyone else you engage with on planet Earth.

    Now extrapolate that onto your written characters.

    Some are stubborn. Some are born wise and ready to receive information. Your characters should be as wide and varied in nature as are the people in your life.

    Sometimes sparing the rod is exactly what one character needs.

    But sometimes it's a knock on the head.

    They're all different, see.

    - Eric

  7. Sometimes I think I'm more intentional with my characters than my children, or at least they listen better. I throw myself into parenting, but I get thrown so often. I'll swear I've got one issue nailed, i.e. sibling fighting before 8:00am and then a new issue will crop up.

    Parenting truly is the most difficult, yet rewarding job there is.

    Writing can be very much the same.
    ~ Wendy

  8. This is SO well said. Just what I need to read about character development as I begin writing a new novel. Thanks!!

  9. Great analogy this morning, Jody. I think my characters listen more easily than my children do, but even the have a tenancy to ignore me at times. Sometimes, I think I'm the weak one. I'll have to work on being more intentional.

  10. Excellent post. I think that character growth in writing is a learning process for me. I believe my characters grow as they learn to respect, trust and love each other.

    Your children are fortunate to have a parent who wants them to be good citizens of the world. I think modeling the behavior helps set that in stone. When my child sees me diligently pursuing my tasks, she learns to put the same energy into pursuing her goals and dreams.

  11. What a wonderful way to compare your children to story characters. I love the advice about focusing on one issue at a time and being diligent. Thank you so much.

  12. How sad is it that my favorite part of your post was when you said your son helps vacuum and fold laundry? :-) So there is light at the end of the baby-and-toddler tunnel. LOL Of course, that assumes I train them early to be good helpers.

  13. My son is a grown man now, but I believe that leading by example is the best way to teach. I never thought lecturing worked well. At least it didn't for me growing up. And as I grew older, I didn't trust what my parents told me anyway. If they had shown by example, it would have been a different story. Your children are very very lucky to have you as a mom, Jody.

  14. My one and only is completing her first year at college, a year in which she's experienced tremendous growth. For her, it's been gradual, so she's unable to see how far she's come. Watching from a distance through text messages, phone calls, and periodic visits, I'm far more aware of the giant strides she's taken.

    In the same way, my characters undergo significant changes in the course of a story. They may not see the shifts in their behaviors and attitudes that are taking place, but if I've done my job well, a reader will.

    I like your point that although a character at the end of a story has grown, she still has a long way to go. That mirrors life. One ah-ha moment doesn't turn us into perfect people any more than one year of college has prepared my daughter for her goal of becoming a teacher. But she's further along than she was when she started, and that's rewarding for me as a mom. As a writer, I get the same thrill when my characters make progress.

  15. I've noticed my teen growing in character lately also, from taking initiative with homework and getting help to selecting a birthday cake flavor without prompting that he and his brothers will all like without to voluntarily doing dishes so I can workout in the evenings. Much more selfless and much more directed.

    But you're right. This has come over time from years of gentle promptings and directed teachings, time for him to mull, consider and accept or reject those teachings. I'm glad he's accepted them.

    In our stories, I think we have the opportunity to move our characters toward character growth by showing their actions first through rejection and later acceptance of the lessons they learn. I find it interesting when not all the lessons are wrapped up ever so neatly at the end of the story, but it's clear the character has still grown and is moving in a positive direction.

  16. I think what you're saying about growth here applies not only to characters in our writing, but to ourselves as writers also. It's a universal truth you've expressed beautifully here.

  17. I'm finding shaping the character of my children much harder than shaping the character of my fictional characters. While they all bring with them individual personalities my characters are more malleable and less influenced by my example. Unfortunately, my children are far too apt at mirroring my own weaknesses. My battles with them are usually centered in battles I have with myself.

    I've found finding a single aspect within my fictional characters with which to mold change helps drive the plot. One might battle jealousy, another self-loathing, another combats a sense of failure. The prime "flaw" in each character is a place for me to begin. The story events shape around these weaknesses. From the weakness comes opportunities to develop strength.

  18. Several have already mentioned teaching by example as being important, and it is. An extension of that is helping youngsters while they learn. Yesterday Ann Voskamp posted photos and a description of her family working together to clear rocks from a field and it made me think of how children must feel about a parent's constant instructions and lectures.

    I think sometimes it might be more palatable to be encouraged by receiving help to accomplish a task. "You mow this section and Dad will do the rest." "You fold these towels and I'll fold the shirts." "I'll help you put these toys away." Grownup tasks must seem mountainous to children and by modeling a sharing of the work perhaps we not only start them on the road of learning responsibility but also help them appreciate the benefits of helping others.

    I like Eric's comment that "different people require different forms of correction and leadership."

    Now if I could just figure out how to apply all this to my uncooperative characters! :)

    P.S. I like the subtle changes to your blog. I think, in addition to the most useful, it has become the most attractive and appealing writer's blog I've seen.

  19. I have tears in my eyes reading this, because my boys are growing so fast. So many times it feels like I just say the same thing over and over like a broken record, but you're showing me that it does work! Great tie in with character growth - fantastic post! Happy Weekend :)

  20. It's so rewarding watching our children grow. I often say things like, "try to put the best construction on things," when they complain, because kids have a difficult time seeing shades of gray. It's all black or white!

  21. Amen,Beth! They are growing TOO fast!

    Jody, I've taken your advice and character sheet into my own adaptation, and I LOVE it! Thank you.
    I'm learning so much from you and a few other writers!
    I've begun to learn who my characters are, and my MC in my WIP is showing me things about herself even still!

    I'm going to take a deeper look at character developement.

    I love this post, girl.

  22. Hi Jody...growth should be constant in everyone's lives. I try to make my character grow, not just age wise but in maturity too. I allow my characters to fall several times in the books, but the challenge lies in picking themselves up and moving ahead, and not giving up.

  23. Hi Jody -

    Your analogy helped me understand the "how" of bringing my character to a place of growth. Thanks!

    Susan :)

  24. I lecture a lot, but I also try to give them character by giving them some space. My teenage son has speech challenges and he will need to be able to face those. I put him in situations where he can grow and learn to interact with others.

  25. I agree with Susan, it is a good analogy. I need to remember this as I develop my characters.

    I taught my children with instruction, intent, example, and some trial and error:) I am pretty sure I learned more character and maturity wise in the process!

    Good post.
    Happy weekend,

  26. Is it bad that sometimes teaching my child to grow is easier than teaching my characters?? *grin*

    For my children, it's using the little teachable moments that we have. The ones where we've captured their attention and we might actually have 90 seconds where they will listen to what we say. It's being creative and intentional about the lessons.

    I try to be intentional about the growth of my characters too. Sometimes it's easier than others! I think I struggle the most with having my non-perfect character who needs to grow come across as "likable" in the beginning.

  27. Jody, your analogies are phenomenal, especially when they come from your hearth. I loved the visual of your son with his short pants. I can totally go there with you when it's put this way, and I agree 100 percent. Isn't it nice to know that we don't have to have everything figured out right away, or solve everything immediately? This applies to parenting and writing. It's a process. Focusing on the big picture is key!

  28. Wonderful personalization of such an objective task!

  29. Just from your blog, I know I'd love your book. I'm getting it!

  30. Hi Jody,

    Great, thoughtful post. I think character growth can only occur when you really know your character. When my children were babies, all I needed to do was tend to their immediate needs: love, food, basic care. As they grew and personalities emerged, then I could use their strengths to guide them and help them bolster their weaknesses.

    I think it's the same with characters. Little by little, we get to know them. Not in the first, furious draft, or even the second or third--but over time. Then we can guide and cajole them.

    God bless you this weekend.

  31. I like how you point out that there is effort and set-backs, effort and set-backs, then you have to pause and really notice the change. I think it needs to be a little more obvious in the stories we create. With our children, it's a work in progress every single day.

  32. I am not sure what I did. I must have done something right though. I have 3 fantastic adult children. Each one is making their mark in the world.
    Your children will grow into wonderful adults. You are teaching them life in a positive way. :)

  33. I thin k your children are blessed to have a mum like you.

    As for written characters, the main character must have some kind of growth. The reader is on a journey with the main character - and the other characters too, but I think it's the main ones that matter the most.

  34. As for my characters, their growth is not always huge. Sometimes they change in subtle ways. You're right about changes that evolve over time. Sometimes I think they are the ones that make the biggest impact in our lives.
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