character arc 2: Creating character arc

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To me, plot and character arc go hand in hand. Plot provides the opportunity for the character to change, and the character’s development affects what choices she makes to make the plot go forward. As I said, I believe that in women’s commercial fiction at least, character arc is more important than plot, because readers want to be pulled into the emotional life of the heroine and to feel satisfied at the end that something has changed.

In a lot of Mills & Boon books, there’s hardly any plot; the emotional journey carries the reader through. I wonder sometimes if people who say M&Bs are formulaic are missing this particular aspect—they’re looking at the external plot, which tends to contain the same sorts of things (courtship, arguments, lovemaking, marriage, misunderstandings, etc), instead of the emotional character arc, which is unique to each character and author.

In theory, at least, you could have a bigger book with very little plot and the focus almost wholly on character arc, but I can’t think of that many. You just need a bit of plot to give a bigger book pace. Anybody Out There, by Marian Keyes, I seem to remember, has very little plot, mostly focusing on the emotions of the character to one pivotal event. But maybe I just don’t remember it very well. I tend to remember character arc much better than plot in any given book.

Anyway, all of this leads to the next bit:

How do you create character arc?

Well, rather, how do I create character arc, because I’m sure it’s different for every writer. Right now I’m in the planning stages of my next book, and to me, that’s all about character arc. I’m not a plotter, but I am an arc-er. I do it in steps.

Step one: create inner conflict.

Usually, when I begin to plan, I identify my main character, who she is, what her problems are. I’ll do a bunch of brainstorming around her to figure out what her main (internal) issue is, and why. So say, for example, I decided my heroine will have trust issues. I’ll then spend a lot of time working out why she has these issues, how it’s affected her, what decisions she’s likely to have made because of these trust issues. For example, she’s likely to have a shaky relationship with her parents and family, she’s likely to work alone and live alone, though maybe she’s at the top of a ruthless corporate ladder; she may not have any close friends, or maybe she just has one or two close friends who are the only people she lets into her life. She may have developed a bad habit of betraying other people before they get a chance to let her down; she may, on the other hand, be immensely charming and yet superficial because she’s afraid of being hurt. There are a lot of possibilities, and part of planning a book is deciding which ones to use. The bigger the book, the more complex you can make this conflict, and you can give a character more than one related conflict.

This main conflict will affect her career, her family, her friendships, her behaviour, her way of dressing, her speech patterns, her reputation, her favourite cuddly toy—in short, everything about this character will be determined, in some way, by her inner conflict, even if this particular aspect might seem contradictory.

So, for example, I’ve got Fil in Girl from Mars, who has low self-confidence as one of her inner conflicts. She thinks she’s unattractive, and socially inept. Yet she dyes her hair bright look-at-me colours. You’d think that would convey confidence, but as a matter of fact it’s because she’d rather people noticed her hair than her. So late in the book, when she changes her hair colour, the reader can see it’s significant in showing how she feels about herself.

Step two: play with the conflict to create the character arc.

Once you know a character’s problems, then you can also figure out how to solve them, at least on a basic level. A character who’s afraid to trust needs to learn to trust. A character with low self-esteem needs to gain confidence. Et cetera. This is the easy part. And, by extension, their solving their conflict will lead to changes in their lives—they’ll get the hero, or find a better job, or reconcile with their mother, or whatever it will take to make them happy. (Sometimes I don’t really know the exact outcome or changes before I begin. I’ll know the character has to trust, for example, but I don’t know yet how that will lead to her having a job she’s happy with, or what that job will be. For me, those are details, and they fill themselves in as I write.)

Once you’ve figured that out, you have both the start point and the end point of your character arc. The problem is, of course, how to get from one point to the other.

A good character arc is never smooth. Characters don’t want to change. A character who doesn’t want to trust, for example, isn’t just suddenly going to start trusting because we’re on page 257 and we need to end the story soon. She needs to be challenged, and fail, and she needs to learn from it—perhaps several times. Maybe she needs to be forced to trust, and it doesn’t work out. Maybe because she doesn’t trust, something awful happens. Every little event is a step forward or back, but generally, events and emotions are sweeping her forward towards the great change that will happen near the end of a book.

When I’m designing a story, I think in the most general terms of character arc—something like this (which is simplified):

  • Heroine doesn’t trust
  • Not trusting causes her to fail
  • She decides to try a little trust
  • That’s really rewarding, but it doesn’t work out, so she’s reinforced in her original decision not to trust
  • But she keeps on thinking about how great it was, so she tries to get the good things back without trusting
  • Eventually, she ends up realising that she’s trusting despite herself. So, afraid of being hurt, she cuts herself off
  • This makes her miserable, but she’s no worse off than before. Well, a little bit. Well, a lot.
  • Something happens that forces her to trust, some sort of life-or-death situation or similar
  • She’s scared to death, but she finds courage to do it
  • It works out! Trusting worked! Wow, who knew? She’s really happy!
  • But then all her previous distrust comes back and bites her in the butt. She vows never to trust again
  • She’s really frickin’ miserable
  • She makes an even more courageous decision to trust, even more courageous because it’s her decision and not forced by events
  • Way-hey! Happy ending!
  • This is, as I said, really simple. But I think it shows how a character will go backwards and forwards, learning things one step at a time, with the stakes becoming higher and higher. You can also see that there are no plot events specified in that outline at all, just “something happens”. That’s because the plot isn’t so important; the specific events don’t really matter in this instance, it’s just what effect those events have on the character arc.

    Also, for me, that final decision to change (right before the happy ending) has to come from the character herself, and not purely from external events. She can be pushed into other things, but if the reader’s really going to believe she’s changed, she needs to make the final decision herself.

    Right, I have more specific stuff to say, but this post is really long, so I’ll finish it now. And go into more detail and answer questions tomorrow.

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    18 Responses | | Comments Feed

    1. Julie – this is really great! You don’t mind if I copy and paste do you? This is one for the keeper file.

    2. Copy and paste away, Donna, though you know all this stuff already, and of course if you use it anywhere, I’d love a link back to me.

    3. Great post Julie. It has already given me a bit of a lightbulb moment for a new story idea. YAY!

    4. See, this is great, because I’m terrible at plotting but need something to strengthen my character arcs–most specifically, the conflicts. There’s a story I’m currently percolating where I’m just not sure exactly what my characters’ issues are. “She’s shy and he’s reserved” aren’t quite cutting it. If I can pin them down, I’ve probably got a better shot at resolving them and working them into the character arc.

      The internal conflicts and resolutions in your books have always impressed me, Julie. They always seem to be part of the character, and there’s never a sense of contrivance (which I confess I find in some books). Thanks for explaining this in talking-to-idiots terms I can understand!

    5. This is great stuff, Julie! Thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂 You are brilliant, as always! 😉

    6. Nina, I’m so glad you got a lightbulb moment! Hooray!

    7. Kate, I think a lot of it comes down to “why”? Why is she shy, why is he reserved, why is it a problem, why is it a strength? How does it affect everything about them?

      Characters in fiction have to be much more consistent than real life people. On the other hand, this is a great thing for us novelists, because we can use everything about them to show what we want to show.

      I’m sure you know their conflict, you just have to spend a bit of time digging. Sometimes I can’t find it right away, either, and need to do a lot of freewriting and brainstorming for it to come out. (Will talk more about that tomorrow.)

      Anyway, if my “talking to idiots” guide can help you with a lightbulb moment, it’s totally worth it!!

    8. Er…Kris…? You were my editor? You taught me this stuff, dude??

    9. Julie, I think I know her ‘why’ but not his. Of course, being so bloody reserved, he won’t tell me.

    10. Julie said: “I wonder sometimes if people who say M&Bs are formulaic are missing this particular aspect—they’re looking at the external plot, which tends to contain the same sorts of things (courtship, arguments, lovemaking, marriage, misunderstandings, etc), instead of the emotional character arc, which is unique to each character and author.”

      I think it’s a little bit of both. For one thing, I think there is a formula to writing any fiction, but only when it comes to structure, not content, and even then, the “formula” is unique to each individual author. I also think there are some authors who, either due to inexperience or laziness, see what works for someone else and adhere to it without understanding why it worked. Harry Potter sells well, so I’ll write a book about a boy wizard. Twilight sells well, so I’ll write a love story about a vampire and a human. Pride & Prejudice is revered, so of course my hero and heroine will be just like Elizabeth and Darcy. This isn’t the case all the time, but it does happen, and if a reader is, like you say, blind to the internal workings of the story, the structural similarities can be jarring when it does.

      Julie said: “Everything about this character will be determined, in some way, by her inner conflict, even if this particular aspect might seem contradictory.”

      Not to make light of your post, because I’m dead serious about this, but I’ve seen this in action SO MANY TIMES on America’s Next Top Model. Take a girl who already thinks she’s masculine-looking, stick her in a house with 12 other beautiful women, cut her hair into a pixie ‘do, and then tell her to be sexy. Most likely, she will cry and cry and cry until she either owns her fierceness, or is booted for not having any confidence. I point this out because just so true of human nature, and characters behaving as humans is what makes them… well, human, right?

      I’m right now preparing to get started on a novel after an extended period of being away from writing, and these character arc posts are helping more than you can imagine. Plotting and pacing have always been my strengths–not character, NEVER character–and one of the reasons I’ve been putting off this particular project was because I knew the characters and their internal conflicts were going to play a heavy part, and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Reading these posts, this one especially, has given me ideas on how to weave what I do have (plot, action) with what I don’t have (internal conflict) together in a way that almost feels cohesive enough for a first draft. It’s still a huge step outside the norm for me, but after reading this, I feel pumped enough to at least give it a go. Thanks!

    11. Thanks, Julie. Excellent, clear, incisive post. Am seriously questionning now, if I’ve really got it right in my current WIP, yet.

      Food for thought!

    12. Another brilliant post! Thanks Julie!

    13. Ehle, you could never belittle my thoughts by relating them to ANTM! I love that show! It’s the only thing I watch on TV. Seriously. All of human nature is there.

      I know what you mean, about people taking the external “trappings” of a book and thinking that’s what’s the important part. It’s the character that’s going to hook you, and you can’t copy that.

      I’m glad these posts are addressing something useful for you. Me, I could use some hints on how to come up with plot. Because plotting really doesn’t come naturally to me at all.

    14. Thanks Jan and Lacey.

      Jan, don’t forget, there are SO MANY different ways of doing this stuff. This is just the way I think about it.

    15. True, Julie. However my inner voice has been prompting me for a while that something is missing…and comments from a couple of readers suggest the same – so I think I’ll do a little exercise, questioning my heroine’s motivation and influences more deeply, inspired by the content of these blogs.
      Taa. x

    16. I know, I know. But I think like a writer more than anything else these days. 😛

      And baby brain doesn’t help matters in any way, either…

    17. Good luck Jan, I hope it helps!

      Kris, baby brain doesn’t help. But I also think looking at work as an editor is different from looking at it as a writer. It’s a different thing to teach someone how to do something, than to do it yourself.

      Witness: me going on about character arc this week, and I’ve really only done minimal work on my own heroine’s character arc… whoops.

    18. […] I really think it’s a necessary ingredient when formulating a plot and I highly recommend this fantastic article that goes into more detail. The first sentence says it […]

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