My MC is a woman who is shy, introverted, has a strong sense of right and wrong but also a doormat personality - basically, even if she sees a wrong done she would rather stay unhappy than speak up about it. Then she is thrust into a situation with an abusive husband, manipulative family and cut off from all her support systems. They expect some terrible things from her, and she does them, out of obligation, duty and fear. She is tied to the people around her, because she still loves her husband and has no other family apart from this one. She has accepted this as her lot in life. The thing is, at the end of the story, after something really bad happens to her husband, she breaks free from them anyway (with some personal losses).

My question is, is it possible for me to show realistic character development, within the space of a single novel, for my heroine to take this drastic a step, with no support system, no encouragement, and being who she is - not a risk taker?

  • I'm uncertain why this question is off-topic? My question is about character development despite circumstances actively preventing it. All the specifics were just to provide context. But, if necessary, I can reword my question.
    – Bumble Bee
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 16:14
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    I didn't vote to close, but the question is being perceived like "How do I make Cinderella a princess?" or "How do I get my farmboy to destroy the Deathstar?" The answer is the character's entire journey, it is the story. See the link in the message about questions that ask "what to write". Questions on WritingSE need to be answerable. Some questions are so broad they become "unanswerable" because there are an infinite amount of "correct" answers. You have also given nothing to work with, there is no description of this character bad stuff happens to her and then boom, she is freedom woman.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 16:32
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    I did vote to close, and wetcircuit has hit the nail on the head. The question is incredibly broad and subsequently difficult to answer. Your asking for us to flesh out a cardboard character and develop the character growth with next to nothing to work on. The answers already supplied are speculative (but not incorrect).
    – user18397
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 22:49
  • Okay, I get it. The question was inappropriate in retrospect. The answers I got were good anyway, so thanks!
    – Bumble Bee
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 1:46
  • It's superficially different, but the story this makes me think of is The Mosquito Coast, where an initially passive and obedient protagonist is forced to take initiative to save the remnants of his family. Commented Jul 16, 2021 at 19:40

4 Answers 4


There are two issues being raised:

  1. How to plan character growth?

There is nothing to plan. Growth happens under any circumstances (except perhaps coma, hibernation and the likes)! Your MC is above all a human being. She has the capacity to understand, analyze, think and plan. She can choose her most reasonable reaction to every environmental cue, be it to temporarily adapt to a demeaning situation, or to fight, full on, from the very first moment. She will grow from experience, and she will choose the path that is most suitable in her understanding of the situation.

From your description of the character, an introvert may first adapt and study the situation. She may identify breakpoints in those that wish to abuse her, and she may build trust with others around her who are being abused. She may slowly build the path to weaken the foundations of her cage, put her jailers in agony, and break free. How she does this, that is your plot, and for you to design. I sometimes work these situations backward: for instance, I plan that she will be free after she get her husband's mother to an asylum, which happens after she inherits her husbands fortune, which happens after her son dies, which happens after the husbands' creditor challenges him for a duel, which happens as soon as they hear that the husband ran away with the money, which happens after the husband receives a letter that the MC has forged telling him that he is going to be bankrupt, which is sealed with the stamp, stolen from the lawyer by that maid, with whom the MC has been very kind in times of distress, etc...

  1. the MC itself

Sorry for saying this, but the MC has the colors of a Natalie Sue in disguise. Being at the same time introvert, non-conformist, and righteous, and being a free spirit one day, and a caged prisoner the next, would be a truckload of flags if I were to review this writeup. I'd suggest to flesh out this character a bit better, make it more human, add a third-dimension to an otherwise flat collection of stereotypes.

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    Well, in addition to being a Natalie Sue, there is always the possiblity of being a Lizzie Borden. Very dramatic story, that. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 16:04
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    " the MC has the colors of a Natalie Sue in disguise." Thank you for this comment. I'm rather early in the rewriting stage, and I'm glad for this realisation. I'll rework the heroine.
    – Bumble Bee
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 16:18
  • @WhatRoughBeast I'm sorry but could someone explain the 'Natalie Sue' and 'Lizzie Borden' references? Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 9:45
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    @SaraCosta - Actually, I have no idea who Natalie Sue is (or was). But the idea being expressed was pretty obvious. Lizzie Borden, on the other hand, was an American accused axe murderess, and you should Google her. "Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks. When the job was nicely done, she gave her father forty-one." Unexceptional, obedient and well-behaved until she wasn't. Or perhaps she was innocent. Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 17:03
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    @WhatRoughBeast: Thanks. I have since read about Lizzie Borden, but I kept expecting to find a reference to Natalie Sue as a variation of Mary Sue (with some particular characteristic meriting a different name). Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 17:31

I can’t tell you what to write, but if I were writing such a character, I would have bending or breaking not choices, but the result of choices made. Assuming a traditional society, she has entered into an arranged marriage and meets her husband when they marry. She has the option of declining, as is the case, but chooses to accept him to honor her father’s wishes.

My character would gradually discover that her position is a difficult one, but would strive to adapt first as that is what her training suggests. A point comes when she must choose and this stressor will threaten everything she has worked for - huge consequences whichever path she takes. She decides that she matters more than she was taught - not a realization but a choice. She has seen women around her who mattered, she must choose to become a person of consequence.

Her strength would be tested but as she has been inculcated with the notions of being only significant with regard to the men in her life, she would find assimilation easy - too easy. She has been trained for this and has the tools.

RS29 has a point, though, in that even in the most ‘traditional’ societies a woman still had influence. Often, she had much more influence than was generally admitted by the men around her.

Create a world of characters and make each real. Give them problems and lives to live - even apparently circumscribed by societal standards.

The Joy Luck Club has examples of this transformation in a couple of its characters. In one, a daughter is told of the suicide of her grandmother that was strategic and designed to give her daughter not only a strong position in the family but a strong personal voice, becoming someone none could silence.

The granddaughter hears this tale from her mother and it changes her. Previously a rather meek woman whose husband ran the show and was getting bored with her, she finds her voice as her mother did before her, making the grandmother’s sacrifice even more powerful.

  • Presenting bending or breaking as results, not choices - that is a great advice. I hadn't even realised I had provided this as options to the heroine until you pointed this out. Thanks for that. And I haven't read The Joy Luck Club yet, but I'll read it soon!
    – Bumble Bee
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 16:24

You are writing political propaganda, stop

Your character looks like ticking the boxes of PC list: female-check, non-conformist - check, oppressive society - check, forced marriage - check, abusive family - check, path to liberation - check. You may score few brownie points among leftist, liberal and feminist crowd, but actually nobody likes such straw-man characters and stories.

In reality, life is very complex, and historically there was no country where women didn't have any influence, not even among strictest islamic societies. What you need to do is to create diverse and life-like supporting characters around your main character, to interact with her. Some of these characters would abuse her, but you need to motivate that abuse. Some would help, but again you need to find reasons for that too. Also, try to develop some situations around her. Usual cliche would be that her husband gets incapacitated (war, prison, illness ... ) so your character now becomes head of the house, and must act more like males of that period. You don't need to use that cliche, but it could be useful if you create story where she would be taken out from her usual routine, and must act on her own.

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    +1 for the checklist. That is precisely the weak point of the OP's question. I don't get the reason for the negative votes.
    – NofP
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 15:08
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    The checklist helps, really. While there are points that I disagree with you about (it isn't the society that made the heroine without influence, it is that she had influence and she squandered it away at the start, and then later, when she needed it again, she didn't have credibility anymore.) but thank you for the critique. It has given me a lot to think on.
    – Bumble Bee
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 16:31

You just need to shift your perspective. This scenario isn't preventing character growth, it's forcing character growth.

Before her marriage, your character has never really been tested. She's been around decent people, doing decent things. No one is really abusive to her, so she can get away with being passive --maybe something traumatic in her past convinced her that was the right way to go.

After her marriage, her husband and in-laws systematically and ruthlessly shut down every possible course of action, except the one thing she needs to do, but doesn't want to do --stand up for herself. Some one thing is the breaking point.

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