character arc 3: Using key words and creating events

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In my last post, I sort of gave the impression, I think, that I actually plan out my character arc in bullet points and steps like the one I set out about the heroine who’s afraid to trust. (Which, you might notice, follow pretty much your typical three-act structure of introduction, complicating action, climax, dark moment, resolution.) As a matter of fact, I used to do that, with my first few books. But now I’m much more instinctive about the whole process. Sometimes, though, I’ll revisit my character arc mid-book, to put myself back on track, and I might write down the stages she’s achieved and what she needs to achieve, emotionally, next.

Using key words

I tend to design my heroine and her conflict in quite a bit of detail: I freewrite about it, I research character type, I plan out her life as determined by her conflict, I see definitely what her problems are. To help myself, I often try to sum up the conflict in a single phrase or word. I write this word very large somewhere, and keep on coming back to it. Because most of what happens in the book, character and plot-wise, will reflect those key conflict issues.

So, for example, here are the key words for the books I’ve written lately:

Girl from Mars: “loyalty” and “self-esteem”
Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom: “appearances”
The Bad Twin (or whatever it’ll be called—we’re playing around with titles): “identity/self-worth” and “anger”

This single word, simple as it seems, really does help me focus the entire book. I don’t plan events; usually I just know that something has to happen in order to test loyalty, or challenge self-esteem, or something like that. And I make up that “something” as I go.

Designing event to reflect character arc

The outcome of this method, I hope, is that the plots of my books tend to serve the character arc. And they expand and complicate this quite simple conflict, so that it becomes bigger throughout the story.

So, for example, I needed a scene in Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom, quite near the beginning, where I show that appearances are important to Nina, so much so that she’ll ignore her true feelings in order to force herself into the mold she thinks she should fit in. I decided to show her shopping for clothes, because shopping scenes are such staples of chick-lit that I love playing around with them. Shopping for clothes is all about appearances. Plus, I knew that Nina was going to lose all her money later in the book (I had plotted that far, but only because I needed an event to challenge her world-view), and so I could use a parallel shopping scene later, when she’s broke, to show how much she’s changed. (As a matter of fact, I used two. I love doing things in threes.)

So I wrote a scene where Nina makes a bad decision about which man she’s going to choose. Meanwhile, she’s trying on all these clothes and they don’t exactly fit, but she decides that they’re good enough, as long as she buys a new belt, too. Hopefully it’s clear to the reader, though not to Nina, that ill-fitting clothes=wrong man=Nina making bad decisions based on what she thinks she should be like, rather than what she really wants.

A very simple scene, but it’s an example of plot, scene and structure being designed to fit character arc and conflict, rather than the other way round. Making a scene do its work in forcing the character forward or back, rather than just being thrown in there because “every chick lit needs a shopping scene.”

Right now, I’m designing my next book, and I haven’t got very far, yet. But I do know that my heroine’s problem is “escaping from reality”, and I also know, because of that, that the plot and the other characters need to reflect that problem. Working out new and fun and poignant ways of doing that, is the hard part. Yesterday, I rearranged the heroine’s family structure a bit (something as simple as making her sister pregnant instead of having the baby already), because I thought the change would make her conflict worse for her.

Hmm. I’m aware I haven’t answered any questions yet. So my next post (tomorrow) will be all about answering questions. Promise. So please ask some if you’ve got any!

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5 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. You’re so smart…

  2. Hmm. A bit anal, maybe.

  3. You’ve talked extensively about rewriting on this site, and also about pantsing and plotting. So I’m curious how your character arcs change or evolve over the course of revision. I know in one book (Nina?) you had an “aha!” moment at the end. Did that reshape or help structure your character arcs in that book?

  4. Bookmarked all three parts and will reread until I can get over my crows of doubt. Thank you, Julie!!

  5. You’re welcome, Lyvvie! I’m glad it’s helpful.

    Ehle, I’m answering your question today.

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