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I am working on a series where one of the intended primary draws is character drama and growth. I have an ensemble cast of five characters who more or less share the role of main character equally, though there is a clear viewpoint character. I am trying to avoid making any character exclusively "comedic relief", so what I have done is give them a mixture of serious character arcs that provide drama or flaws that either provide levity or conflict, though obviously some characters end up skewed towards levity or drama. The story is heavily, heavily character-driven.

The problem arises with character development. The story is one where part of the intended appeal is watching the characters grow over time, become more mature, and overcome their flaws. However, I am finding that with positive character development the characters are losing the traits that make them funny, appealing, and likable as distinct entities. I find their immaturity makes them do or say stupid things that make the audience laugh. Their flaws cause them to make mistakes and create tension in the plot. As they learn from their mistakes they seem to be less spontaneous, less interesting, and overall less proactive. Taking this to the extremes if the characters were perfectly mature in a Platonic sort of way they would never say stupid things and always make the right decisions, but of course no human being is like that.

A good example of this in my case is one of the protagonists who has a fatal flaw of frequently neglecting to look before they leap. This character ends up going from being the effective deuteragonist at the beginning of the series to being a little more than a sounding board for the other lead characters by the end of it because they lack agency due to character development. If I try to get them to do the same things that made them entertaining at the beginning of the story it comes off as them being uncaring about the needs of the people they care about around them and being unable to learn from their mistakes. There is a subplot in the first book where 90% of the conflict was driven by this character exacerbating the problem with their arrogance and lack of forethought, but applying a comparable plot in, say, Book 3 wouldn't work because that character isn't the same person who would make those mistakes anymore.

Two other, smaller examples show additional ways how this is a problem.

  • Another character lacks confidence, and part of what is supposed to make them endearing is them learning to act in spite of it. Gaining confidence is always a good route for long-term character development with insecure characters but gain too much confidence and they have now lost the core part of the character that made them endearing. I remember this was a problem with Simon in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the character’s development came off as interesting up until episode 11 but I couldn’t help but feel that after that they had discarded all of Simon’s prior character traits that made him interesting and just made him blandly cool rather than compartmentalizing it as part of a multi-faceted character.

  • A third character has a core personality trait of “lovable jerk”, which is a major factor in their personality but is also their greatest flaw. If they were to develop such that they lose the jerkiness they now cease to have a personality.

The problem with this is that with sufficient character development it is no longer these quirky, distinct, memorable characters interacting with each other and having adventures, but a bunch of generic heroic self-inserts for the reader, and the plot is no longer about internal character development but external confict. This is a particular problem with teenaged or young adult characters that are expected to grow over the course of the story such that by the story’s end they come off as archetypical and messianic rather than a three-dimensional character. Older adult characters (in which the main characters older than the age bracket represented by protagonists) I’ve noticed in fiction in general have a similar problem: either they come across as being too world-wise or else come across as having deep-seated issues that are presented as a red flag to the reader that they are stuck in their ways and will never change.

I remember thinking the Ben 10 franchise is the perfect example of this. The original Ben 10 series was popular because the main character got into stupid, immature antics that the audience could laugh at or created tension in the plot. Fast-forward to the sequel series, Ben 10: Alien Force, and in the first two seasons the main character lost all the character flaws that made him well-rounded and interesting and became blandly heroic. I remember dropping the series for exactly this reason. Fan outcry over this extreme change in character led the writers to try and bring back elements of Ben’s original characterization in season three of Alien Force, but this resulted in a lot of viewers complaining that this made Ben annoying and immature.

I have often heard it said that “we never learn to overcome our flaws, we just learn to compensate for them better”. That was one thing I was thinking about aiming for, the characters get better at dealing with their flaws but they don’t always completely overcome them and they have their ups and downs. For example, the character who fails to apply forethought, never manages to completely kick that habit and become a thoughtful person but instead merely manages to improve their “batting average” when it comes to such situations. However, one thing I’ve noticed is that readers hate watching characters backslide, they claim that it’s “character regression”, even though in reality people typically have ups and downs when it comes to a flaw. Hirohiko Araki actually wrote about this in Manga in Theory and Practice where he says the reader wants the protagonist to be “always rising” even though that's not how it works in reality. However, this is also the same Araki who throws his cast out the window every four years or so to avoid this exact same problem.

This is also the same reason why having the characters develop bad habits instead of good habits can be a bit difficult.

The characters also have multiple flaws that aren't always highlighted with every decision, the difficulty with that is you have to forecast it ahead of time or else it comes off as the author/writers creating new flaws wholecloth because they've run out of previously-existing character flaws and dimensions to explore (viewers of serialized television will know what I'm talking about). And even then that is only delaying the problem because as the character learn to deal with multiple flaws they start having the same problem again.

The big issue with this is it creates diminishing returns. Case in point.

  • Book 1 - The characters are great because their flaws are at their most pronounced and their clashing against each other creates drama and narrative tension

  • Book 2 - A little less interesting because some of their flaws are being compensated for and the character's edges have been sanded down

  • Book 3 - The plot tension driven by character growth and inter-personal issues is at its minimum and the story is less interesting as a result

Some might say "well that's why you end the series there", but the broader issue is that...

  1. It cheats the audence of seeing the characters profit from their personal growth (audiences like seeing characters profit from long-term character development, I've found)
  2. The characters have to be interesting enough to carry the series to the finish line where it can wrap up its overarching plot
  3. The characters have to stay interesting enough for the author to want to finish the story.

So, given all of this, how do I balance character growth and immaturity to keep the characters memorable and entertaining, progress the plot, and avoid them from becoming "blandly heroic"?

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This is a big, important question. After all characters must be distinct and unique or else they are no longer characters, but rather bland, amorphous machines whose actions can only be explained by a need to advance the plot. On the other hand, characters changing and growing is vital to plot; otherwise why do we the reader care about them?

Sidenote here, there are many great plots where the character doesn't end up growing; these are tragedies. Hamlet is a wonderful example; Tony Soprano is another. But even in these stories character growth is critical; in fact it becomes even more important that we see them change before they revert back to non-change.

So now to my answer to your question:

The way that the protagonist changes must be in accordance with their personality.

It has to make sense for them in particular. It has to be their style, and in line with their abilities.

For instance let's say we have a story about a kid who is very introverted, shy, reserved. Perhaps his main struggle is the ability to speak to others, and the biggest hurdle of all is to ask a girl out. When he finally does ask a girl out, it won't be the way that a confident pro ball player asks a girl out. It will be his style--perhaps he asks her out by writing a poem and handing it to her. And perhaps he almost crumples it up at the last moment instead of handing it to her. But he does hand it to her. And when she takes it he's terrified and looking at his shoes. But he did it.

The devil's in the details. When a character changes in a way that is overly generic, it doesn't feel like a real character. It's generalized. When the character changes in a way that is particular to his proclivities, his way of talking, his way of acting--that's what feels like the person we've been getting to know having meaningful growth.

Some tools that have helped me piece together characters are by determining what their personality types are according to multiple personality systems (myers-briggs, enneagram, life languages, etc), and then honing that in even more by finding certain persons in my life or in films or books or letters, and then piecing together what it looks like for a person with this personality to grow in some particular area. You get a sense of what they are capable of doing and what they are not.

Edit: one other important note, I think, is that not every flaw must be overcome--in fact IMO there should probably be notable flaws that are not overcome. This is much more true to life.

Second edit: regarding series of books on the same character, I have really enjoyed watching characters change and develop new and necessary flaws because of those changes. One of my favorite series is by Robin Hobb. In the first book, Assassin’s Apprentice, he is a boy for part and a teenager for part. He is afraid and ostracized and learning how to survive. He is mentored by two people who he learns a lot from but also inwardly judges—he will never be like them in certain ways. For example the assassin who apprentices him at night and whose thinking is cynical and plotting and ends-justify-the-means to a certain extent. Long story short, in book three the protagonist has become a lot like that person. He has matured from being impetuous and rash to now being insightful and careful, but now he comes to realize he has become a lot like his mentor: using others for his own means, cynical, and painfully isolated. The way it showed this transformation was very touching to me.

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No matter how much real or fictional people grow, they never become perfect. That's one of those observations that simultaneously seems impossible and obvious: obvious because no-one is ever perfect, and impossible because how do they keep finding new imperfections that need work? My own experience - in myself, in people I've known, in people I've known of, in fictional characters I've loved in other words, and in characters I've created - is that it comes down to a few things (I'll illustrate with TV examples because they tend to have enough duration to be comparable to your situation, in a way a single novel might not):

  • Growth comes at a cost. The Doctor in Doctor Who gradually became more caring about others, more sure of his (later her) right to intercede in other's affairs, and more forthright in challenging their own people. All good, right? But this eventually culminated, at least in many in-universe detractors' eyes, in self-righteous hypocrisy, self-appointed policing of others, and a willingness to sacrifice their species. Once aware of that, the Doctor experimented with various forms of retreat from such overreach, only to find it cost dependents dearly. More recently, she has tried a more constrained and empathetic form of intercession. At the time of writing, the most recently aired episode, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, even this hasn't worked right for her, and she had to revisit some of the darkness she overdid in the past. In other words, 2 steps forward, 1 step back... only in more than one dimension.
  • Characters grow in a specific way, because of difficult choices they make about how to do it. In one episode of Silicon Valley, Dinesh seeks Richard's advice when there are no right answers to deal with a crisis. Richard tells him he's found it's more about finding the one wrong answer you can live with. In that scene, it seems like an aspect of in-the-moment decisions. But if you look at Richard's character arc over the series, it seems to also characterize the ways a character chooses to experiment with self-growth. As per the above point, they often have to get worse in one way to get better in another, if only because of overshooting like a pendulum.
  • One often doesn't know whether a change is for the better until one has gone so far down it one can't really walk it back; one can only see how to grow next. This time, I'll talk about my own work. I have a protagonist who, in her first book, keeps to herself because she is terrified of the way the world threatens her, only to realize how much power she can exert over it, in ways no-one else can. This leads her to morally dubious actions to keep herself safe, and later to try to help others in her own 10-year-old way, until she has a what-you-are-in-the-dark moment at the end. In a later story, she learns that coming out of her shell attracts dangers half-similar to what she'd envisaged, and at first tries to do even shadier things to neutralize such dangers. But as she gets older, her caring for those weaker than herself grows, and eventually she dedicates her life to a cause she can't expect to ever see fulfilled. In the story I'm working on now, unforeseen events allow her to see the end result of what she did, and everyone's happy with it but herself. Then she's forced to take a leadership role she never sought, and has to change again to do it right.
  • Much growth is needed because of new problems. A character with such experience can give half-valid advice to someone else. This is connected to my second and third bullet points (and arguably also my first), and I could illustrate it with the same examples, but this time I'll talk about Frasier instead. Roz became a parent after a few seasons, and wasn't confident she'd do it well until Frasier told her about how long it had taken him to learn certain important facts about it. Later, Niles admits his love for Daphne and she reciprocates, but she eventually challenges him to explain why he'd be more loyal to her than his ex-wife, and he explains it's because this is his first relationship not attributable to what others expected of him. What these examples have in common is that character A advises B on how to deal with a situation B didn't find forced upon them until recently, whereas A can speak about it from much older experiences, often predating the first episode.

I suspect you can think of examples of these points applying elsewhere - in your work, in other fiction, and in real life.

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DISCLAIMER: I won't say tl;dr, but I will say Too long; I skimmed. Love your thoroughness though.

A few ideas of mine (take or leave):

  • You could spread out when each character has their "AHA" moment. Maybe one guy has improved himself fundamentally, but this only deepens the core flaw of his girlfriend because of their dynamic. She'll have to wait longer to fix herself.

  • You could also have a character overcome a core flaw, but then in its place (maybe as a result of that change) comes another issue they must deal with. More specifically, a character could go from one side of the spectrum to the other and have to find a happy middle ground where they can behave in a way that is healthy/right (pushover turns to arrogant ass from overcoming their fear).

  • You can mix and match with the different types of conflict (man vs man, man vs self, man vs nature, man vs society, man vs technology), having one flaw participate in several types of conflict, so that it takes a long time for the flaw to be resolved but it's still interesting to read (if you go deep and dirty enough, the readers should care enough to stick with the character's struggles through the end). If your flaw is showcased through social interactions, internal dialogue, societal norms, etc. and the difficulties change as the flaw is worked on, it would be believable enough to be enticing to read about. It's not like people either have a flaw or they don't - there is a gray period, like you touched on in a way in your question. Basically, you don't solve the issue quickly - you have it present itself in different ways and go all-in. Then you won't end up with perfect characters and no tension.

Side Note - adding a new character to the mix, therefore creating a new dynamic, could be a way to emphasize a character's problem and stir up disfunction. Maybe some characters go through their arcs quickly, coming in and out, and your core guys take longer.

Side Note 2 - developing bad habits could be perceived as backsliding, sure, but maybe those bad habits are a result of a coping mechanism for something. The bad habits could make one aspect of the character's life more difficult, but maybe they serve something else going on, or they contribute to the character hitting rock bottom. Because people only change when they hit a wall. "Regression" could actually be pushing the character to their worst, which they need to visit in order to be motivated to improve. You must get worse before you can get better. In this sense, backsliding is actually the character "always rising".

Side Note 3 - if you develop a backstory that is the cause of a flaw, then exploring that could most likely add depth to your character and give you more material to dive into, lengthening the whole thing (because it seems to me - and maybe I'm wrong - that you're worried about having a character arc not being long enough to span multiple books).

Hope this was of at least a bit of help. I'm no professional. Have fun with your bok (and for the record - I think character-driven stories are the best so good on you).

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I think you're on the right track with the "compensating" for their flaws, in combination with actual growth. As for compensation, this can be external factors. Look at the character of Alexander Hamilton from the musical Hamilton. This is a character that "leaps before he looks" and needs to learn to wait for the right moment like the antagonist of the story (Burr). (Spoiler, I guess) Hamilton reaches the end of his character development by waiting in the duel, and gets shot. He takes a passive role in a sense, and the story acts on him, which you should always handle carefully as that is treading into Mary-Sue territory. But for Hamilton, it works. So, letting the story and other factors act on a character that needs to learn to think before they do, could be a useful tool.

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Something no one has brought up yet is that many character "flaws" are in some contexts adaptive and useful. Someone who is brash but improved may still be more likely to take action when others are hesitating at a time when quick action is optimal. A recovered jerk may be more likely to speak up at someone else being abusive than would someone more used to being polite.

As for more maturity leading to less conflict, I think that may be true only of certain kinds of conflict. Sure the petty conflicts may be less, but interpersonal conflicts remain still. Consider politics. I claim that any time you have two or more people, a decision to be made, and a disagreement, you have politics. There is tension and conflict in politics even with mature participants because many decisions don't have clear right answers.

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I can't tell you how to write but I can condense this entire question:

Why was Tasslehoff Burrfoot the (second) most enjoyable character to read about in the entire Dragonlance series?

Tas, like all kender of the Dragonlance series, could be compared to a 5-year-old child; he is utterly irresponsible in any task that is not of the utmost importance, and often takes things that do not belong to him, which to a kender is "borrowing" and not stealing.

Like all kender, Tas is completely without fear for himself. However, Tas is different from other kender in that he does know fear, not for himself, but for the people that he cares about.

It's a question of when do you want to complete their charter arc. "As they learn from their mistakes they seem to be less spontaneous, less interesting, and overall less proactive."

Once he's old and wizened, he still 'steals' stuff from his friends, but he's learned that if he leaps before he looks, he might find himself in trouble and knows that his friends will jeopardize their own safety to save him. He's no less interesting, he just can't be compared to a 5yo anymore; arc complete.

"the plot is no longer about internal character development but external conflict" - between the Chronicles trilogy and the Legends trilogy, that line becomes blurred. But it is not until six books later that Tasslehoff's character arc is complete, which is spelled out for us in no uncertain terms in the last chapter of the last book.

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