character arc 4: Planning character arc

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If you’ve stuck with me this long, thank you! I’m going to answer questions over the next few days.

Johanna asked:
How do you plan the character arc? How do you make sure the character changes gradually, and not too suddenly/implausibly?

I think the key in this is to realise that, in fiction as in real life, people will change, but they don’t really want to. It’s easier to stay the way you are, even if you don’t like it. If it were easy to change, we’d all be super-fit, eat five portions of fruit and veg a day, drink two litres of water, never drink to excess, and floss after every meal. Just like me. (HA!!) (Well, I do floss.)

It’s hard to change. You have to want to do it, you have to make a big effort. External events (ie, plot) can only drag you along so far. In the end, you have to take the leap yourself. And it’ll be a big challenge to do this, it will take courage and strength, and the more courage and strength it takes, the happier the reader will be with your happy ending.

So when you plan your character arc, or when you’re thinking about it at least, try to build in some forwards steps, and some backwards steps. You’ll notice in the example I gave, about trust, that the heroine gets dragged into changing a little…then goes back. Then changes a bit more…then goes back, but now it’s harder. Then she goes almost the whole way…then really freaks out. Finally, she finds the courage to make the plunge.

This feels more realistic to the reader than resisting and resisting and resisting change and then all of a sudden, changing all at once. When that happens, it’s a character spike, not an arc, and it’s in all those books where the heroine and hero hate each other for the entire book and then suddenly get together on the penultimate page.

If your heroine or hero has a problem, think about the little steps they can take, forward and back, each step getting bigger and scarier as the book goes along. How long this takes is really up to the kind of book you’re writing, and who the character is.

This is for the main characters, of course. For secondaries, you may want to simplify this a lot, or just show the major points of their arc—like how they start, something that puts them on the road to change, and how they’ve changed.

(And Johanna, thank you so much for asking me to cover this topic! I’m really enjoying it.)

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  1. This has been fantastic – a whole workshop, which has helped me get unstuck! I see what I need to do now. Thanks, Julie.

  2. Brilliant, Jo! That’s really great.

    I’m doing a workshop on character at the Festival of Writing in York in April, and writing these posts has helped me think about what to put in the workshop. So it’s really useful for me, too.

  3. Wow! This free info has been great. Thank you so much Julie 🙂

  4. You’re very welcome, Xuxana! Have you looked at my updated home page? You might find a link you’re interested in… 😉

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