This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific concepts pervasive in sci-fi or cultural/historical topics relevant to fantasy, with input from a real-world expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
About the Expert
Maria Grace has her PhD in Educational Psychology and is a 16 year veteran of the university classroom where she taught courses in human growth and development, learning, test development and counseling. None of which have anything to do with her undergraduate studies in economics/sociology/managerial studies/behavior sciences.
She blogs at Random Bits of Fascination , mainly about her fascination Regency era history and its role her fiction. (DK note: it’s a fantastic author website). Her newest novel, Wholly Unconnected to Me will be available in May, 2015. Both Science Fiction and Fantasy projects are currently in the works. Her books, fiction and nonfiction, are available at all major online booksellers.
Why worry about character development?
Characters are foundational to any story and much discussion revolves around getting them right. We create interviews and dossiers, yet, oftentimes they still fall flat. All the focus on their appearance and personality misses a crucial element, development
Psychological development is a key component in how people and characters differ from one another beyond simple temperament differences. It can explain how people who are fundamentally dissimilar may share a common way of interacting with their world, and how characters who might possess many similarities can be very different. Moreover, developmental issues can provide motivations and establish a realistic pathway for growth, and guidance for convincing character arcs.
Dimensions of growth
Development occurs on a number of interrelated axes including physical, psychosocial, cognitive, and emotional/personality. The physical aspects are the most obvious and the ones we tend to be most aware of. However, development along the other axes has greater potential for influencing behaviors.
Briefly, psychosocial development encompasses the changes in an individual as they manage the various distinct societal expectations across the lifespan. Cognitive development refers to changes in mental processes over the lifecycle. Not only does how much an individual knows change, but the way in which they know that information and how it may be used progresses along a predictable developmental path. More globally, individuals progress in their self-perceptions and how those perceptions influence the way they see others and make choices.
To begin, we will consider the psychosocial realm.
Psychosocial development considers way in which a person interacts with their society/culture and the role they play in it. These effects are cumulative and earlier experiences influence the way later development occurs. These aspects of growth generalize across different cultures, although gender may affect the order in which developmental challenges are faced and what a healthy resolution to the challenge might look like. Both physical maturation and changing social expectations of people as they progress through the life span fuel development.
Individuals who do not successfully navigate early developmental hurdles may appear ‘stalled’ at earlier stages of the lifespan. Under stress, adult characters may revert to immature, even child-like means of dealing with situations, acting far ‘younger’ than they actually are.
Although childhood spans several distinct stages, they all revolve around the theme of acquiring important fundamental skills—whatever is necessary for the culture, whether reading and writing or hunting and gathering. Successful individuals enter adolescence with:
- The ability to form healthy attachments to others
- A sense of autonomy and ability to do things for themselves
- Willingness to take appropriate risks and initiate activities
- A belief in their own competence and ability to be a contributing member of their society.
Unsuccessful resolutions to childhood developmental challenges are most likely when children are faced with: abusive, or unstable caregivers; are unable to interact with the world around them, such as trying new things and exploring new capabilities; denied opportunities to initiate activity of their own choosing and impact the environment around them; or lack age and culture appropriate skills training.
Adolescence and early adulthood are concerned with establishing identity and meaningful relationships that often lead to procreation. Usually, this transition is marked by the development of secondary sexual characteristics. In some cultures, elaborate rites of passage mark the move from childhood to adulthood/sexual maturity. Gender may play a role in the order in which these challenges are resolved. Females in particular may define their identities out of the connections (marriage, ect) they form.
Establishing identity requires a balance between the need for individual uniqueness and group solidarity. This is often achieved through experimentation where the person ‘tries on’ various ‘characters’ or ‘identities’ available in the culture. If the individual fails to find a sense of self that fits, the result may be an individual who drifts from situation to situation, apathetic, with few goals, little commitment and no declared values.
The capacity to form lasting relationships and to navigate other adult challenges may be seriously compromised without a strong sense of identity. Cultural institutions like education and military service can provide safe grounds in the search for identity, although some cultures allow for very limited exploration and tolerate little deviance from defined norms.
Deep meaningful relationships, romantic/love/sexual as well as platonic connections form major structural components of society. The ability or inability to create and maintain such affiliations impacts the roles an individual might occupy in society (parenting, mentoring, leading for example) and how they might impact future generations. Successful marriage and procreation may or may not be requisite for positive resolution to this challenge, depending on the cultural context. In either case though, resolutions to earlier developmental challenges strongly influence the way an individual navigates this developmental hurdle.
Early adulthood development figures highly in fiction, but middle and later adulthood transitions are more easily overlooked. Middle adulthood presents the challenge of caring for other generations, older (parents) and younger (children) or turning away from those responsibilities and focusing on the individual’s needs and wants. Ideally a person balances both of those needs.
Many times in fiction, the former responsibilities are explained away so that the character can focus on the conflict that is core to the plot. Writers ignore the opportunity to create complex and nuanced plots and character arcs to avoid dealing with the multifaceted challenges potentially faced by characters at this point in the lifespan.
In addition to the tasks of preparing older progeny for launch into the world and managing the increasing needs of older parents, individuals at this stage of the life span are also expected to step into social leadership roles. On a more personal level, maintaining long term relationships, both marriages and friendships, becomes a going concern. A commitment to lifelong learning and growth marks a positive resolution to this stage whereas Ebenezer Scrooge-like preoccupation with self and comfort mark an unsuccessful one.
As the lifespan draws to an end, the issues of late adulthood come into play. Individuals must adjust to the physical changes including chronic illness and accumulated injuries that may figure highly in an individual’s day to day experience. Individuals may retire or reduce their involvement in society, though this is not a given in all circumstances. Cultural attitudes toward the aged play a significant role in an individual’s adjustment during this stage. Societies that venerate their older members might invite their participation in civic responsibilities while societies that honor youth might push older individuals out.
Finally, individuals must deal with the loss of their friends, spouses and cohort members which may result in increasing isolation. Ultimately, the reality of impending death must be confronted as well. Those who manage this transition most successfully do so by recognizing the worth of their previous and continued contributions to their society and future generations. Depression, despair and giving up mark unsuccessful transitions.
How to use psychosocial development in sci fi and fantasy
While understanding the typical path of human growth and development offers man opportunities for writers to deepen their characters, authors can really go to town applying these concepts of development to alien creatures and societies. At a high level, authors need to consider what development might look like in cultures different from ‘earth norm.’ Physical development plays a huge role here. How quickly or slowly does a race mature? Is development a continuous progression, or does it happen in huge leaps—think insect development with larval, pupal, and adult stages. (What might a failed larval stage look like?)
Other considerations include: When do gender differentiation and sexual maturity occur? Are the young integrated into society at large or segregated and if the later, how does integration occur? Are physical skills acquired slowly or by abrupt transition? What role do mentors and teachers play in the acquisition of these skills? Answers to these questions will set the stage for early developmental pathways.
Differential paths for the genders or for classes or castes might be considerations. Consider the ‘classes’ presented in Brave New World. How might the developmental path for Alpha’s differ from Epsilons? In a culture analogous to a beehive or ant hill where individuals are bred for certain roles, how might developmental issues influence characters and plots?
Rites of passage often mark specific transitions between periods of development. What do those look like in an alien culture and what role do those play in a character’s development and sense of self? How do they translate cross culturally, for example, consider Card’s Speaker for the Dead.
In a completely alien culture, developmental tasks might be very different all together. In this case, the author should consider carefully the interaction between the individual and their society and how that might change through the lifespan the author has imagined. Major transitions are good indicators of developmental milestones that can be utilized for dramatic effects. Another interesting consideration, what happens to an individual whose physical being sets up one developmental path when raised in a setting where a very different developmental path is prescribed?
Successes and struggles during the developmental process offer an ideal structure for creating essential character backstory, informing who the character is and who that character will become. Moreover, they offer a strong framework for building character arcs, subplots and even main storylines.
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