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In my screenplay, I have my female protagonist wear Prada, and perhaps drop other hints of her character, but not act like Miranda Priestly for the first two acts, until she gets a promotion at the end of Act II. In Act III, having arrived, she lets loose her inner Miranda, perhaps surprising the audience.

A female critic of my script said, in effect, that the late character development is interesting, but did I have to wait so long? Does the plot (as I have outlined it) justify or support such a format?

In most movies I've watched, or screenplays I've read there is a strong burst of character development as early as the first Scene of Act I. Is there a "conventional wisdom" for writers as to when, or how early, character development should take place?

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That sounds more like a twist ending, the big reveal with "haha! I was acting this entire time!"

Having the protagonist act one way the entire time and then pulling the rug out from the audience will leave them feeling a little bit confused and annoyed. If they've rooted for a genuine person all along and then they turn out to be a bitch, they won't feel satisfied.

As to your question: in order to do a delayed character development, you really need strong supporting roles that the audience can identify with. They are the ones that can be developed instead of your protagonist, and the audience can follow their progress instead through the eyes of your protagonist. That can then affect your lead role later in the story.

If there is someone that your protagonist has worked with all through the crisis, and then at the last minute steps on to them to get to the top, the audience can at least sympathize with the support character.

Think about The Sixth Sense. The character played by Bruce Willis is the protagonist, yet you follow the story of the little boy through his eyes. You understand very little about anything of Bruce Willis' character until the end. The mystery about him allows the shock reveal at the end, whilst still following the story of the boy. If the kid wasn't as primary a role, either the reveal wouldn't work, or the film would be about nothing.

The only way you can have a character change, even if it is the main character, is to reveal nothing about them. However, you can always show who that person is behind closed doors, and allow her to reveal herself to other characters rather than the audience. It's OK to have an unlikable protagonist.

Think about Carrie from Sex and the City. She is intensely unlikable, and just a horrible person, yet the story is told through her eyes. But she has a very strong supporting cast that make up for her failings that the audience can identify with.

My advice would to put a secondary character in a more prominent role. They don't need to be the main character, but an audience needs at least someone to engage with throughout the story.

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  • Actually there is a supporting character who lasts through the story, and acts as a foil/lightning rod, for the protagonist. At one point, I considered making the "supporting character" the protagonist. – Tom Au May 15 '15 at 15:32
  • @TomAu I think your story sounds interesting, and it would be good to see behind the scenes of someone pretending to be nice just to get ahead. This person is usually the villain, so seeing it from a protagonist perspective would be a nice change of pace. – Mike.C.Ford May 15 '15 at 15:36
  • The protagonist is not a villain (in the usual sense of the word) but she's not a "nice girl" either. Her date (the supporting character) is much nicer. – Tom Au May 17 '15 at 0:06
  • I think that this may be a reference to your supporting character. writers.stackexchange.com/questions/17897/… – Tom Au Jun 26 '15 at 16:35
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I think there's a difference between character development and character depth. Development means change. You can have an interesting villain who is only ever a villain, but still has backstory, motivation, relationships, and hobbies. That's a deep character who doesn't change.

But if your character acts like a boring, shallow buffoon for two acts and then suddenly gets hit with a Plot Ball and turns into La Maupin, she's not going to be believable, and your readers will wonder where this fascinating spitfire was for the first two-thirds of the book.

Unless there's some compelling, in-character reason that she deliberately wants to hide her candle under a bushel, try to dole out hints of who she really is from reasonably early on. You don't have to give away the whole game, or reveal her to the other characters, but the readers should realize there's more to her than what the other characters think.

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    I receive the impression that she hides her character to facilitate promotion. I suspect part of the challenge is hinting to the reader that something is being hidden from other characters without revealing so much that the reader does not feel at least a portion of the surprise that the other characters experience. Perhaps having other characters speculate about what she might be hiding might foreshadow the reveal. Multiple speculations might emphasize that something is hidden, perhaps with some true but on less significant hidden information (e.g., a lesbian or a liberal vs. a tyrant). – Paul A. Clayton May 13 '15 at 21:22
  • @PaulA.Clayton: She minds her "p's and q's" at work, but tells a series of dates what she hates about her company, until she finds a man who helps her advance, and then gives her an idea for a corporate coup d'etat. writers.stackexchange.com/questions/17107/…. I would guess that the reader or viewer is better informed than her co-workers. – Tom Au May 13 '15 at 22:33
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I think you may need to look at the traditional three act structure.

  • Act one is setting up the every day life of your character(s) and ends with the inciting event which leads into act two.
  • Act two is the main bulk of the story, leading up to a large peak and ends with that moment where it looks like your hero(ine) cannot possibly succeed.
  • Act three is where your hero(ine) does succeed then descends to tidy up the loose ends for a good emotional closure of your story.

For me, you'd be best to re-think your ideas of the three acts. Have your character get her promotion at the end of act one as that's your inciting event. Act two becomes the new her when she has her promotion but you need to think about what the journey is for the character and how you'll lead into act three and tie up the emotional journey. Does she become a better character? Does she get outwitted by the girl who actually is as nice as she seems? Does she get everything she thought she wanted but actually ends up alone?

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    Not a bad suggestion. But here's the storyline. Act I is the "crisis" which the character must overcome. Act II features the character climbing high on back on of the crisis, which is why the promotion isn't the inciting event; the crisis resolution is. Act III is exactly as you said. And that's why my note to Paul Clayton refers to a planned sequel. – Tom Au May 14 '15 at 12:59

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