character arc 8: Changing vs being revealed

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Josh asked:

My question is – I want to write about a character who in my mind doesn’t “grow and change” as such, but who is more “revealed and discovered” by events.
Is this actually the same thing, just looked at slightly differently, or is it a big difference?

I think there’s a big difference, Josh. Just look at the verbs you’ve used in your questions: “grow and change”, active verbs, vs. “revealed and discovered”, passive verbs. In the first, you’ve got an active protagonist, who does things and changes and carries the reader along with him/her. In the second, you’ve got a passive protagonist, who lets the events and the reader do everything for him/her.

Of course it’s never purely one or the other, but in commercial fiction, an active protagonist is much more appealing. If you look at most of the protagonists of popular fiction and film and television, they’re overwhelmingly active. Not necessarily because of jumping through burning buildings or whatever, but because they take their lives into their own hands. Even protagonists who start out passive, eventually are forced to become active as the story goes on. (This often happens with Wes Anderson films such as The Darjeeling Limited, where the characters are drifting through this weird unhappy situation which is revealed and discovered, and then they take matters into their own hands and grab a form of reconciliation and happiness by growing and changing.)

Of course there’s no hard and fast rule, and literary fiction can be much more static than commercial fiction. (There’s no character arc in Waiting for Godot.) And there’s no rule to say that character arcs have to be positive, leading to a happy ending; they can be retrogressive, leading to tragedy—for example, Macbeth, who starts out merely ambitious and ends as a nihilistic mass-murderer and tyrant. (Good villains always have a character arc of their own.) Or characters can grow and change and become richer, more complex people, and still have a tragic ending—like Hamlet.

And of course you can have a mixture of both active character change and passive character discovery, positive and negative motion, no matter what you’re writing. I’ve got a character with Alzheimer’s in the book I just finished. And one of the issues I wrestled with was what type of a character arc she could have. Even if she did change, she’d forget it almost immediately. So she could have an arc, but she’d keep on going over the same arc repeatedly, if you saw “arc” as meaning “positive progress”. But her decline from a strong, proud woman to a vulnerable, demented one is an arc, too. It’s mostly the disease acting, but she does make choices. She’s still a person. She’s the centre of her own world, and she affects those around her and the entire community.

Her greatest change is in the protagonists’ eyes, though, and in the reader’s, because her dementia causes her to reveal aspects of herself that she always kept hidden. So she’s a character who’s mostly “revealed and discovered”—but I do believe she also has her own form of “growing and changing”. Which I hope makes her a rounded, complex character rather than a paper enigma.

In the end, it all comes down to what you want to write. Thinking through these choices consciously can be really useful.

Thanks for your question! That was fun.

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  1. Julie – this series on character has has been absolutely brilliant.

  2. That was a great question, and I liked your answer, Julie.

    In one of my favorite books, HOTEL WORLD by Ali Smith, one of the character’s arcs is not only shown in her actions, but also in the punctuation. The spirit of a dead girl recalls her life, and throughout the story, she starts fading away. As her memory becomes less and less clear, the punctuation lapses, the words jumble together, and the reader watches as she devolves into nonsense. Though it’s not an action, per se, I still found that to be very effective in communicating her character arc.

    Another thing that came to mind was The Tudors and King Henry VIII. That story is full of discoveries and revelations, but also growth and change. Henry’s belief that God will grant him no male children while he’s married to his brother’s wife may have changed him and his affinity to Catherine of Aragon, but it’s the actions he took because of that belief that changed everything else.

    So I guess the way I see it, the two go hand in hand. I don’t think it’s possible to grow and change without having discovered something in the process. And I also don’t think it’s possible to have a discovery or revelation without that having some sort of outward reflection of it. Maybe not a big, earth-shattering reflection, but something, at least. A girl who finds out she’s in love with her best friend, for example, isn’t going to act the same way around him that she did before, you know?

  3. btw, I got the package the other day! Woo! I started reading GIRL FROM MARS right after watching 3 hours of X-Files. I giggled like a fool on page one. 😉

  4. Wow, great answer! 🙂

    I’m fascinated now by the mix of active and passive in a character. Doing and done to. (Sinned against and sinning?)

    Thanks so much for this,


  5. Hi, Julie!
    I have just been to a local Chapter of RNA, heard many great things about you. . .everyone loves you!
    Lara 🙂

  6. Liz, I’m glad you’re finding it useful! And thanks for the link in your blog. 🙂

  7. Ehle, I like the way you explain how both revelation and action happen to make character arc. That’s really useful.

    Hotel World sounds really interesting. I have The Accidental, but I haven’t read it yet. Bad me. But it’s a good reminder that character arc doesn’t just happen in actions and events, but also in voice and style, metaphor and symbol. And even punctuation.

    And hooray…so glad Girl from Mars gave you a giggle! You started reading it at the right time, right after an X-Files marathon. I had to catch up on a lot of episodes myself before writing the book.

  8. Josh, you and I have been discussing this elsewhere, too. 😉 It’s a fascinating topic and of course I’m only talking for myself and the type of novels I write and read. But I do think it’s worthwhile thinking about active/passive while writing, and making conscious choices about how you want your character to be.

  9. Lara, that’s great! I’m so glad you joined the RNA and are going to meetings. And I’m glad the RNA likes me, because the members are some of my favourite people on the planet. It’s a great organisation.

    (I owe you an email, whoops!)

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