January 11, 2011

character arc

I've been writing stories for a long time. I've suffered the dreaded critique sessions where others reveal my weak, flat characters, loose plot lines, and shoddy world-building... all to my utter embarrassment. I was at the point in my writing where I believed what I had written was golden. Everything. My pen flowed with golden genius. To have my words ripped apart like that, stepped on, mangled, ravaged, and defecated, was a hard blow to my self-esteem. Every time I got a bad critique, it made me want to quit writing. But I couldn't.... My critique group was actually a classroom. I would have to turn in another story in three weeks or my grade would suffer. I couldn't drop the class because I would have lost my scholarship for dropping too many hours.

I had only one path ahead of me... keep writing, and write better. By the end of the semester, I had one compliment to my writing: "You have an excellent grasp of pacing." To this day, I use that advice as a talisman against my doubts. Over the next few years, I wrote a lot. I wrote better. I came to the point where my short fiction had strong characters, solid plots, and seamless world-building, as well as phenomenal pacing. The problem? I didn't want to write short stories for the rest of my life. I wanted to write novels. And as most of you know, novels are a whole different monster.

I somehow managed to transcribe my success with plotting and world-building to the fiendish novel, but for some reason, my characters went back to the flat characters I had written before. They were passive, unchanging, and without clear motivation... and if they did change, it was too abrupt and unbelievable. That's when I came across the term character arc: the status of the character as it unfolds throughout the story; characters begin the story with a certain viewpoint and, through events in the story, that viewpoint changes.

That seems simple enough right? By that definition, a character just needs to change viewpoints somewhere between the beginning and end of a story. Unfortunately, no, it isn't that simple. A character needs to grow and change over time, not as the result of a single incident. Characters should change by degrees, growing in gradual stages from one side of the spectrum to the other. I can tell you right now... this is the one thing I have the most trouble with. Honest.

I have found a model for the character arc that I personally find rather useful. While this particular model transcribes to the Hero's Journey plot structure, I don't necessarily force each step in the arc to fit in sync with each stage of the journey.

From beginning to end, the character has...

  1. limited awareness of a problem
  2. increased awareness
  3. reluctance to change
  4. overcoming reluctance
  5. committing to change
  6. experimenting with first change
  7. preparing for big change
  8. attempting big change
  9. consequences of the attempt (improvements and setbacks)
  10. rededication to change
  11. final attempt at big change
  12. final mastery of a problem

Another thing to note: the character arc isn't limited to the main plot, nor is it limited to a single problem. A character may have multiple arcs. In my current work in progress, the main arc deals with the main character's relationship with another character, not the quest at hand. Her secondary arc deals with that.

It's good to have arcs for secondary characters as well. Even though their inner change may not affect the main plot in the same way your main character does, it makes them feel more human. My secondary character has two arcs, his first dealing with his relationship with the main character and the second dealing with the fear and doubt he casts on himself.

Some characters don't have character arcs. They stay the same throughout a story, providing a static backdrop for comparison to those characters that do change. The hero of a story may not change at all, but the secondary characters may change tremendously, and vice versa. Understanding the needs of a story and the needs of the characters themselves can dictate how to use character arcs.

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