In the comments to yesterday’s riff on why I don’t tend to start with my characters pre-heroed, UZ pointed out that there are two things that can both mean character development. It’s a topic I couldn’t resist poking a bit.
I’m going to start by assigning names to them so that we can keep the silly things straight. The first kind of character development, or at least the kind we usually think of, is the one that involves change as events warrant. This one’s pretty common in your standard RPG—if nothing else, because the way mechanics work tends to at least lead to changes in power level if not necessarily personality. Let’s call this one character growth, since that’s the form it usually takes in a storyline (though just because a character’s growing away from the light doesn’t mean they aren’t still growing.) On the other hand, you have the characters that don’t tend to change much, but instead get illuminated by events such that aspects of their personalities and histories are revealed over the course of the story (UZ’s Holmes example comes to mind). I’m going to call that one character revelation, since things about the character are being revealed—yeah, yeah, I know, Captain Obvious.
Character growth tends to be more a feature of the characters who don’t really have a history. Sometimes they seem like they popped onstage fully formed, like some sort of cocoon-grown clone-creature; sometimes what happened before really doesn’t seem to matter outside of the occasional vague reference. Of the two, I’ve found it to be slightly more popular in tabletop RPGs; the characters are getting into situations that their backstories didn’t quite cover, finding new and inventive problems to solve, and of course steadily accruing XP, so they’re going to be growing and changing all over the place.
Character revelation tends to be more for characters who are already established as awesome and on the top of their game, or at the very least as characters who have histories. There’s not as much need for them to change, nor as much room, but they’re awesome and interesting (hopefully, anyway) and we want to know how they got to be that sort of awesome and interesting. It’s also popular in in medias res situations, and in stories where the plot is more important than the character.
They aren’t mutually exclusive, either. While many stories focus on one type or the other, it’s not impossible to get both with the same character—I know my favorite characters to play are the ones who keep suddenly acquiring bits and pieces of backstory that weren’t relevant until five minutes ago but make perfect sense now. Conversely, one could just designate different main characters to focus on growth as opposed to revelation; in the webcomic Manly Guys Doing Many Things, for instance, it’s fun to look at the steady growth-arcs Jared goes through as compared to the Commander’s steady characterization and regular doses of revelation.
Both forms of character development serve the same purpose in the end, giving a sense of who the character is, where he came from, and what specific circumstances made him what he is. The rest is all plot and perspective.