character arc 7(a): Fears and desires

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After my brief hiatus, I’m back to character arc posts for a couple of days.

Sri asked:
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.

Sri, it sounds like you have a really good handle on writing character arc. Sometimes if you have a great scene in your head, it’s hard not to want to force your characters to fit it even if they don’t, quite. Usually when I do that, my characters refuse to budge, I swear a lot and get annoyed, and eventually I trash the scene or adapt it so that it does work. A lot of times I end up doing freewriting to try to work around the issue, just keep on writing down the question WHY? and then after I’ve answered, ask WHY? again until I come up with something that tells me the kernel of what’s going on.

So…some examples of coming up with scenes that make the character learn or resolve to act. This is actually quite hard to do without giving away spoilers for the books, because the “learning” or “resolving” scenes tend to be quite pivotal ones. In general, characters don’t want to budge, especially when it involves giving up what they think they really want, so you have to make their lives as difficult as possible in order to make them change. So, thinking about it in the abstract, you’ve got to design a plot/scene that puts as much pressure on the character as possible.

There are two really good ways of doing this:

A) You can make the character directly confront her fears by putting her in a situation where she can’t help it—in short, make the worst thing that can possibly happen to her, happen.

B) You can give the character exactly what she thinks she wants, and let her realise that she’s no longer the person she thought she was—in short, make the best thing that can possibly happen to her, happen.

You can do both these things in the course of the novel. You can do them several times; a character’s worst fear might change as the book goes on, or she might have several different but connected types of fears (eg failure and humiliation), or you might start out with a little bit of a corner of her worst fear, and then work up to the whole shebang.

You can do them both at the same time—both her fondest dream and her worst nightmare at once. Now that’s a humdinger of a scene, the kind that tends to come near the climax of the book.

So I’d start with the idea, “I need my heroine to face her worst fear, and her worst fear is X. Now what can I do to arrange events in the novel so that X happens? Even better, what choices can she make as the novel goes on, so that X happens?” Or, “I need my heroine to want Y to happen, but when she gets Y, I want her to realise it’s the opposite of what she really wants. What kind of things need to happen to her to change her deeper feelings?” And then I work out the particulars—the events, the setting, the characters involved, the sorts of scenes that I’ll need to lead up to that situation, the fallout afterwards. Designing one big pivotal scene can help you fill in a lot of the rest of the book!

In my next post I’ll try to show how I did that with one of my books, though as it will have some big spoilers, I think I’ll choose a M&B that’s been out for a while. 🙂

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  1. Hi Julie,

    Even though I haven’t commented yet, just wanted to let you know how fantastic I’ve been finding these character arc posts, real light bulb moment stuff. I’m saving them all and intend using them as a character bible.

    I realised how much I’ve learned from you when I watched a brilliant indie film last night with three main characters. Afterwards I bored my husband with a detailed analysis of all their arcs, but couldn’t help it as I was buzzing. The behind the scenes crafting you’ve explained so well suddenly became crystal clear and things really fell into place for me. The film is Sunshine Cleaning if anyone’s interested.

    Thanks again Julie, as always, you’re a brilliant teacher.

  2. Am absolutely hooked on these posts.

    I realise my efforts start with the situation and heroine’s personal goal; she is at place A in her life, and needs/wants to move to place B. What happens on that journey, usually, is she meets the hero, although it’s never plain sailing. I don’t consciously think about her arc, although I guess – HOPE – she does have one. (Jeez, I’d better check!)


  3. Carol, thank you! That’s so cool that you started applying stuff to the film you were watching.

    The magical place writers want to get to is to portray character arc so well that the reader doesn’t even notice it consciously, and is just caught up with the story and the emotions. But it can be really useful to stand back and analyse how someone does it successfully. Sounds like a good film!

  4. Jan, as I’ve said before, this is just my way of doing things, and there are millions of other ways that work, too. If you find a tool that works for you, that’s great. “Moving from A to B” sounds pretty much like a synonym for character arc, IMO.

  5. Hey Julie,

    Thank you so much for answering my question. Sorry I’m joining the party late. Trying to digest everything you said.

    Thanks again

  6. You’re very welcome Sri, it’s been fun! Thank you for asking the question.

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