Authors should always ask themselves, “What is the one trait I want my central character to have?” You should strive to have your character navigate several junctures throughout your story in order for them to reach their zenith.
Don’t be afraid to develop your character in a nonlinear way. For example, your character may generally be a good person. However, throughout several situations they scramble to hold onto their moral premise. They may have grown up with values that they have to abandon momentarily to get themselves or someone else out of a dilemma. Have them struggle a bit, go back and forth in their mind about whether or not they should do something and if the consequences will leave them morally bankrupt.
One of my favorites is the ‘fallen hero’ concept. It is often a character that thrives on their reputation for being a humanitarian and savior. Then, something occurs in the novel that knocks them off their game. They lose a loved one, possessions, or are framed for something they didn’t do. The character then roars down a path of vengeance, scorching anything or anyone that gets in the way.
Another concept to develop is the “flawed hero.” This character may arrive in the novel as innocent. Throughout the book they are generally benevolent. What makes them intriguing is that they walk in an area of gray. They test the waters when they feel that they aren’t getting the results needed to solve a dilemma. I firmly believe this is why the Harry Potter series is so wildly popular. Harry wasn’t afraid to abandon his virtues or change course. One of the most prevalent memories of the series that comes to mind is when he leaves Hogwarts. He has outgrown magic school and needs to get on to bigger and better things.
The opposite is the character who was evil from the beginning of the book. Throughout the novel he or she begins to see the error of their ways. At times they may feel a surge of repentance for their previous wrongdoings. Think A Christmas Carol by Dickens. The reader is moved by the sense of social justice that Scrooge seeks to rectify in the end. This concept can be a bit boring if it is too long or drawn out. It can work best when it is a split second scene. For example, the morally bankrupt character may decide to help out a person in distress at the last minute. This is used widely in action scenes when help comes from an unexpected person just in the nick of time.
What’s even more stomach churning at times when you read the book is their decision in the end after the primary conflict is over. Does the main character decide to go back to their old, good girl/boy moral ways, or do they decide to become evil for good? Why does this resonate with us as a reader? Because we feel with this character’s vibration. It humanizes them. It makes us ask the question “How would I have handled that situation?” Readers may agree or disagree with the ending.
Personally, I like it better at times when the character prefers to stay evil in the end. After all, we all have a shadow side.