It's impossible to deny that Nathan Scott (James Lafferty) didn't have incredible character development over nine seasons of “One Tree Hill.” The troublemaker we saw in the pilot episodes is nothing like the doting family man from the series finale. Compared with the other main characters from the series, Nathan had the best trajectory and continued to develop well over time.
Reformed Bad Boy
When viewers first meet Nathan Scott, he’s the epitome of a bad boy character. He's bullying his half-brother Lucas Scott (Chad Michael Murray), stealing a bus with his teammates, and cheating on his girlfriend, Peyton Sawyer (Hilarie Burton). During the first half of Season 1, he maintains this persona, most notably by going after Lucas’ best friend, Haley James Scott (Bethany Joy Lenz) to mess with him.
However, Nathan ends up falling for Haley, and the two begin dating. This is where the audience starts to see him shed some of his bad-boy antics. Instead of doing a complete 180 and suddenly turning Nathan into a good guy, the progression is slow.
How Nathan changes is much more realistic because, as the show goes through the remainder of Season 1 and into the next four seasons, his actions change a little bit at a time. There are moments where you can still see that yearning to be a jerk. For example, in Season 3, when Haley returns from touring with Chris Keller (Tyler Hilton), Nathan acts cold toward her and sometimes downright mean.
After the time jump in Season 5, hints of his bad-boy traits are almost completely gone. The progression was done so well that his trajectory is completely believable.
Loyal Romantic Partner
It's clear in Season 1 when Nathan is dating Peyton that he's frivolous about relationships. He's seen cheating on her, talking down to her, and generally treating her poorly. Their relationship has a toxic quality to it. Shortly after they break up, Nathan finds himself dating Haley. They progress rather quickly as a couple and end up getting married in the Season 1 finale.
While the beginning of their relationship had turmoil, you can see that he's transformed as a partner with Haley. Having grown up with two toxic parents, Dan (Paul Johansson) and Deb Scott (Barbara Alyn Woods), Nathan rarely experienced a healthy romantic relationship. He had a bit of a learning curve to develop into a partner who is communicative and supportive.
One of the reasons fans love Naley so much is that they truly grew as a couple, despite getting together in the first season. They went from having a huge blowup when Haley started working with Chris in Season 2 due to a lack of communication to being immensely supportive when Renee Richardson (Kate French) accused Nathan of impregnating her.
Controlled Anger Issues
Likely as a side effect of his bad-boy persona, Nathan expressed some anger issues throughout the show. He was quick to use his hands to solve his problems rather than having a calm discussion or simply walking away. His anger got the best of him during the time jump, when he lashed out at a heckler in a bar and found himself paralyzed in a wheelchair.
It wasn't the first time audiences saw him lash out, and it wasn't the last. However, you can see that the months he spent in a wheelchair in a depressive state weighed on him. He was clearly working to change and control his anger, and he wasn't perfect with it. He made mistakes. He was working to better himself.
One scene that shines in showcasing how his anger issues change is in the last season when Chris Keller returns to the show. Nathan and Chris had butted heads, and Nathan had gotten physical with Chris more than once. The two hadn't seen each other in years when they reunited. While Nathan could have gotten angry with him for working with Haley again, he simply shrugged it off with an eye roll. The growth!
Playing in the NBA is a dream of Nathan's that is established right off the bat. He plans to go to Duke University to play Division I basketball and then sign with an NBA team. Unfortunately, he hits many roadblocks along the way.
In Season 4, Nathan faces financial problems and turns to gambling. He ends up participating in point-shaving, which causes him to lose his scholarship to Duke, and then struggles to find a Division I school that will take him. He ends up on a Division II team and excels in college. But, right before he was expected to be drafted into the NBA, he ends up paralyzed.
It would have been really easy for Nathan to give up playing basketball, especially when things didn't go the way he thought. Through these challenges, he persevered. He rehabbed his back and worked toward improving himself as a player. He fought tooth and nail to play in the NBA and made it. Seeing him work through so many challenges over a long period of time was unlike anything else we saw in the series.
Nathan had the misfortune of growing up with a father who bullied him and mistreated him. He fought so hard for his father's approval growing up and rarely got it. He ended up emancipating himself in the first season because of how difficult his father was. Despite all of that, Nathan went on to be an excellent father.
The first time audiences see Nathan in a fatherly role is in Season 5 when he's in a wheelchair. Because he's depressed and angry, he takes some of that out on Jamie (Jackson Brundage). Audiences can see how easy it would be for Nathan to become the father Dan was to him. Even Haley calls him on it. So, Nathan makes the choice not to be who his father was.
Throughout the remainder of the series, there are moments when Nathan is at a parenting crossroads. He could answer the pull within him to revert to what he grew up with or fight it by doing the opposite. Basketball was a huge point of contention between Nathan and Dan, but with Jamie, it's just not.
When Jamie decides he wants to play baseball instead of basketball, Nathan struggles with it at first before realizing he can't be like Dan. Instead of forcing his own passion on his son, he embraces Jamie's love of baseball.
Commitment to Thrive
In every area of his life, Nathan was committed to becoming better. That commitment is what drove him to become who he was. He's faced challenges, and audiences can see with each passing season that he's changed. His choices become more evolved, and he's more thoughtful in his actions.
Personal growth is continuous, and Nathan is one of the only characters on the show who demonstrates that. He sets the bar higher and higher each time, and he developed into a character you can't help but relate to.