character arc 5: Aha! moments

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I’ve got a busy and exciting day today, starting with yoga class in a few minutes and then to London to listen to the Romantic Novelists’ Association industry panel. I think I’ll be staying overnight and if I’m lucky, going to Apsley House tomorrow, as a bit of research for my next book.

Today, though, I’ll answer Ehle’s question:
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?

You know, character arc is something that hardly changes at all for me as I revise the book. Generally the character arc, and maybe the theme of the book and its major “hook”, are all that I know when I start writing. I may have a few incidents in mind, but sometimes those don’t even make it in, because the book evolves as I write it. But usually the arc stays more or less as I’ve imagined it in its basic form, though the particulars work themselves out.

I don’t think that’s because I always have the arc right at the beginning; more like it’s the first thing I think about as I write each individual scene. The arc becomes real to me, the characters act true to themselves, and everything else arranges itself. Most of my revisions, in my Little Black Dress books at least, have been to add scenes to deepen the characterisation that’s already there. My LBD editor had this amazing talent of picking out the key metaphor/image/scene I’d written that summed up my character completely, and saying, “Give me more of this.” It was scarily wonderful.

With Nina and the book I’ve just finished, it was a little bit different. I didn’t get the character right at the beginning, and I had to write myself into the book and the heroine before I had a really good sense of who she was. Partly, I think, because these were “transition” books for me—bigger, more complicated things than I’d ever done before. Also, both of the heroines were sort of problematic. I wanted them to grow and change through the book, but in order to have a good character arc, they sort of had to start out being really flawed. And it can be really hard to write a flawed heroine and make her sympathetic to the reader.

With Nina Jones, I knew she was pretty deluded at the beginning of the book—or rather, she was deluding herself. I wanted her to come across as superficial, because I wanted her to learn to look deeper than appearances, to see what really mattered. So her character arc was there. What I didn’t quite know, was why she was so concerned with appearances in the first place. And it’s the why that makes the character sympathetic. I played around with backstories and with secondary characters and all kinds of things that subsequently got cut or changed completely.

My “aha!” moment was about 1/3 of the way through the book, when I suddenly realised what had happened earlier in Nina’s life which made her the way she was. It didn’t change her character arc, or who she essentially was, but it really did explain an awful lot about her, and by threading it into the story, it made her actions understandable to the reader, and therefore more sympathetic. From that moment on, the plot and the secondaries all fell into place, and the whole thing became much more understandable to me.

Something similar happened with the last book I finished, too—the character arc was there, but I needed a single event (which happens in chapter one) to kick it off, to give the reader a key to her behaviour. Those things didn’t come to me until I’d already written about 1/3 of the book, or more.

Fortunately, the solution came to me eventually, but I have to say the 1/3 of the book beforehand was quite a painful thing to write, as I was pretty much overwhelmed by feelings of suckage.

Right, I’m off to do the downward dog etc. I’ve got at least one more question to answer, which I’ll tackle tomorrow or Saturday. And as always, I’m open to more questions, too. Thanks for asking this, Ehle!

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  1. Thanks for answering, Julie! I had an “aha” moment myself while reading it. All this time, I’ve been doing the character thing bass-ackwards.

    I love what you said about heroines needing to be flawed, but still likable. Every time I see a heroine called “Too Stupid to Live” — even if she deserves it — I’m reminded of just how hard it is to create a character who has problems, without creating a character who is the problem.

    Another top model quote for you: “People don’t like frailty; they like vulnerability. There’s a slight difference between those words.”

    Talk about fierce.

  2. There are some very valuable life lessons on America’s Next Top Model. That’s why I watch it. Um, really.

    I don’t know about “bass-akwards”; really whatever works for you, works. I’m just saying how I do things, or how I’ve ended up doing things. In a lot of cases I’d recommend you NOT do things my way, because I have been in a world of suckage with my last two books until I figured out where I was going.

  3. Thing is, what I’d been doing hadn’t always worked for me. It was hit or miss, really. I’d always been so obsessed with the WHY and how that translated into the WHAT that I completely forgot to consider to flip it around and let the WHAT help clue me in to the WHY. Does that make sense? I don’t think so! I’m on 3 hours of sleep.

    I ain’t even gonna pretend I watch ANTM for the life lessons. I watch it for the drama and the snark and because I can turn it on and tune it out. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from it anyway. You’d be amazed how many Jades I’ve avoided since I got a close-up look at how one worked.

  4. Hi Julie,

    Wanted to come out of lurking and say wow! Listening to your process really is opening up my mind to some new processes of my own. And also to help me realize what my own pitfalls are. I write category romance. While I have the GMCs and the character arcs of the Hero and Heroine pretty well thought out in my head before I start writing, my problem is in how I execute that journey , how they learn that life lesson.
    I try to make sure the scenes flow from their motivations and conflict and not the other way around but I fall into the trap of writing a scene and then pretzel the characters into why they’re doing that.
    If it’s not too much trouble, can you go over some more examples of how you come up with the scenes where the Character is learning something new or resolves to act in a new way that challenges their initial belief.

    Even if you don’t have time to answer my question, thank you so much again for this.


  5. Donno why it reduced my name to S in that comment.

  6. Ehle, I do think in the ideal world, that the WHAT would come out of the WHY. But sometimes, my brain just doesn’t work like that. I’d say it was because of the process of writing those two particular novels; I probably started writing them both too early, before I’d let the character fully grow in my head. Then again, maybe the writing itself made the character grow. That’s more likely.

    As long as the final character is all of a piece, then it’s good. How you get there, is different every time.

  7. Hi Sri (aka S)! Nice to see you here.

    Hmm. That’s an interesting question. I’ll try to get to it next, after I’ve answered today’s question.

    Thanks for asking it!

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