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 conflict. This is a particular problem with teenage 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 archetypal 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...
- It cheats the audience of seeing the characters profit from their personal growth (audiences like seeing characters profit from long-term character development, I've found)
- The characters have to be interesting enough to carry the series to the finish line where it can wrap up its overarching plot
- 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"?