The Art of Character Development and Sons of Anarchy

Character development is a tricky thing all writers have to face during the process of creation. We may say we know our characters well, down to what they may be listening to while getting dressed in the morning, but have we really developed said character within the folds of the plot? I struggle with character development. Sometimes, I believe I know my character a certain way and then when I start writing a scene, my character does something totally different from what I had in mind. Note, I may have used the word “struggle,” but I don’t mean it in a negative sense. It’s good to struggle with developing a character because it allows you to explore different sides of a story. Without a character, we don’t have much of a story. Or, at least, that’s how I choose to see it. When I read a book or watch a show, it’s the characters and the way the story is told that keeps me interested.

I’ve heard about Sons of Anarchy for a long time now. I must admit to not paying it any attention until recently: four seasons, to be exact. What made me start watching the show now? Not having anything else to watch for almost a week. No Vampire Diaries. No Secret Circle. No Pan Am. No Once Upon a Time. The list is very long. And once the episodes stop, I go into a really bad case of TV withdrawal. I get restless. I start pacing. So, I asked myself: what can I watch in the meantime? From the titles I’ve mentioned, you might think that Sons of Anarchy is the last thing I would choose. But, as a girl who likes anything with an engine, I said: why not? I started with the first episode of season one on a Thursday and started mainlining the whole series for the rest of the weekend. Seriously, a season a day. Yes, I have no life. But as the biker drama took a fierce hold of me and refused to let go, I learned something: the art of character development.

When you watch Sons of Anarchy, you can’t help but sympathize and fall in love with the members of the club. You know they deal guns (which is illegal) and the law is after them for it, but something happens in you while watching where you start routing for the club versus the justice system. You actually want them to get away with it. That’s what I call excellent character development. When the line between good and bad blurs and you’re not quite sure who’s the hero and who’s the villain it’s an example of masterful writing.

Let’s take the character of Jax. He is the vice president of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original). Smart. Strong-willed. Compassionate. Stubborn. And complicated. He can even be cruel and cold-blooded when he needs to be. Basically, Jax gets things done, for the club and for those he loves. Notice, I mentioned compassionate and cold-blooded together. How is this possible? That’s character development, right there. It’s not necessarily about showing who the character is, but more like dropping him into any situation and seeing what he does. For example, Jax can go from dealing with a rival motorcycle gang where he acts tough to coming home for the night and cooing at his baby boy, and it’s believable. You believe that Jax can hassle a rival gang and be a loving father to an infant. He begins to feel real. You stop suspending your disbelief and actually accept every decision the character makes. This is what great character development does to the audience.

Now that I’ve finally caught up and am waiting for the rest of the episodes to air, I’m hanging on a ledge. The last episode was a total cliffhanger, so you must forgive my little divergence. I’m a visual learner. Demonstrate something, and I can usually do it afterwards, which is why I watch TV. I know it sounds like such a slacker life, and I promise, I do air myself out once in a while, but watching shows teaches me how to write. I learn how to put scenes together, how to end a chapter where the reader will flip to the next page because he or she can’t wait to see what happens next, and how to develop a character so complex that you would forgive him anything because he’s touched your life in a way most real people don’t.

I may not be making sense at this point. And I may be writing this purely as a fan sucked into the world of SAMCRO. But, I also know I’ve learned something because of this series. I wish someday I get to a point in my writing where I can blur the line between good and bad and show readers characters they will love to hate and hate to love.

So, I leave you with two questions: Just because a guy does something bad, does that make him a villain? And if a bad guy does something good, can he be a hero?

Certainly something to ponder while getting to know the characters in your head. If Sons of Anarchy taught me one thing, it would be: no one is inherently good or totally bad. The situations we find ourselves in and the decisions we make while in said situations is what develops character.

Now, if you will excuse me, I think I’ll start from season one all over again.


  1. I don't watch much TV except for sports, so I can't comment on the shows or the people in them. But I'd make two points about character development:
    1. I always find that my characters make me take them in the directions they want to go. If I try to force them to fit some preconceived scheme of my own, they resist, lose some of their credibility. I like them to surprise me.

    2. Your question about bad and good actions is right to the point. I prefer books where both hero and villain have some flaws or redeeming factors. In fact, much of my novel, The Darkness, challenges readers to think what they'd do if faced with the choices the characters have to make.
    (There's nothing either good or bad
    But thinking makes it so.)

  2. @Bill = Hey, Bill, thank you so much for stopping by my little piece of the Net. And you're right, whether something is good or bad can boil down to perception. :-)

  3. I've heard a lot about this series. Never watched it though. :) Great review. I started thinking that same way (rooting for the bad guys) during FAST FIVE. I mean, they're thieves, but I want them to win. LOL!

  4. I totally love Sons of Anarchy! My husband and I have watched it from the very beginning and every season gets better and better.

    I think the writer is extremely talented in that he is able to draw us into illegal club dealings, watching SAMCRO be all rough and ruthless, and then watch how tender and loving they are with their families. It is a true work of art to be able to develop characters in such a profound way. Like you stated, no one is neither all good nor all bad, therefore for someone like Jax to deal with the ghost of his father's wishes, to the club's activities, he is in a constant struggle with good and bad.

    TV isn't a bad thing to enjoy, especially when it motivates you and teaches you with your writing. Thanks for the post on SAMCRO. Can't wait to tune in tonight.

  5. @Lynn = LOL! I know what you mean.

    @Autumn = I can't wait to see tonight's episode as well. You think Clay's dead?

  6. No, I don't think Clay is dead...he is the main antagonist. They wouldn't kill him off, though I'd like to see him go for all the crap he pulled this season.

  7. @Autumn = If not dead, at least not leading the club anymore. I have a feeling Jax needs to straighten out the club because Wendy's going to threaten to take Abel away. I think season 5 will have that story line.

  8. Hi Kate.

    I loved your post. It takes a good writer to have the viewer or reader sympathize with a "bad guy." These are my favorite kind of heroes. Not quite towing the line on the side of good but will cross into the light long enough to save the ones they love.

    Jean Murray

  9. Love the post, Kate. I don't watch very much TV, but I agree, it's a great way to learn to understand character development, pacing, the order of scenes. Thanks for the post. Jordan

  10. @Jean = Totally. Having a character that strikes a balance between good and evil can be so engaging. A little of the naughty, a little of the nice.

    @Jordan = You're welcome. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. I was distracting myself from the fact that I needed to wait for the next episode to air. *laughs*

  11. Great post, Kate. I haven't seen the show, but I'm all about flawed characters. I'd much rather read about a hero with a dark past or someone who's struggling to make the right choices (and sometimes fails). It makes the character seem more real. Same goes for the villain.

  12. I don't watch TV much myself but I just got Netflix and am watching some of the stuff my friends talk about. Right now I'm starting The Walking Dead. The premiere was promising!

  13. @Cindy = I really recommend it, to everyone and anyone. :-)

    @John = Hey! Long time. I should email you. I have news.


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