Posts Tagged ‘character arc’




character arc 9: The uses of appearance

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Suz asked:

I’ve come to a point in my book where one of my characters’ body is going to be physically altered based on her personality. Do you have any idea if a character arc could help me decide what my character will eventually look like?

Suz, this sounds so interesting! And your question makes a really good point, which is that a character’s appearance can often have a lot to do with her personality. It might completely fit the way she is inside, which can cause problems, or maybe it actually contradicts what she’s like inside, which can also cause problems. I use this technique all the time—for example, Fil in Girl from Mars is short and skinny, without many curves, like the tomboy she believes herself to be. On the other hand, Nina in Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom is tall and blonde and has model-type looks, while inside she’s insecure and afraid and desperately struggling to live up to who she should be. I love plain-looking characters who are actually extraordinary (think Harry Potter) or villains who are incredibly attractive.

But the idea of a character’s appearance changing to fit her character arc is a great idea. It’s used fairly often, in “makeover” or “Cinderella” stories, where the plain heroine changes her appearance to fit the beautiful person she is inside. It’s also used in less mundane ways—I’m thinking about the wonderful Northern Lights trilogy by Phillip Pullman where everyone has daemons, which are animal manifestations of their souls, sort of like familiars, but closer. Children’s daemons are mutable and change shape often, because children are so changeable and malleable. But when a child grows up, her daemon takes on its true form, which reflects how she really is inside.

I can see how this could be great in paranormal shape-shifter stories, or other types of fantasy.

I’ve done it more subtly in my books, by having the characters change their appearance themselves to fit how they feel inside. So Fil in Girl from Mars, who starts out the story with blue hair and wearing boyish clothes, changes her hair colour and her clothing to fit how she has developed. Another, male, character does something similar in that story—it was an effective and economical way of my showing the heroine and the reader that he had changed. Nina Jones in the Temple of Gloom, who starts out very image-conscious, relaxes her feelings about clothes as the story goes on, as she discovers that other things are more important.

I had a really good time with this idea in the last book I wrote, where the heroine was an identical twin, and so much of her sense of identity was involved in how similar and different to her sister she looks. In the past, she’s always tried to look very different from her sister, but at one point they don’t see each other for two years, and when they meet, they’re surprised to see that they resemble each other more than ever. When everyone mistakes her for her sister, to the extent that she’s actually able to take over her sister’s life, she really begins to question how different she is from her sister at all.

So yes, appearance can really be useful in showing, and also determining, your character’s arc.

Your story sounds great!

Do you have favourite examples of characters whose appearance reflects, or contradicts, their personality?





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.





character arc 7(b): Some examples

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Okay, so some examples of scenes where the character has to (A) face her worst fear, or where (B) she gets what she most wanted and doesn’t want it any more.

In my 2006 M&B novel All Work and No Play… (called Mistress in Private in the US), the heroine Jane is an achiever. She was never valued for her prettiness or femininity, instead always having to impress her mother with her success, and has become a workaholic. Her fiance has just broken up with her for another, more desirable woman. The only person she can trust is Jonny, an old friend who she hasn’t seen for years, but who she keeps in touch with over the internet.

She fears failure and humiliation. She desires success and prestige. Down deep, she wants to be valued for who she is, not what she achieves, though she doesn’t feel she deserves it. There’s her conflict. Her character arc is to realise that it’s worth risking failure for love, and that she deserves to be loved regardless of her success.

There’s a scene near the beginning which is designed to give you both the (A) and (B) scenarios, where the character is confronted with her worst fear, and also gets what she wants but then doesn’t want it any more. Jane meets this totally hot model called Jay and they’re really attracted to each other. He asks her out on a date. Jane sees this in terms of success: this guy is way out of her league, but if she can get him, she proves that she’s good enough. It’s like two fingers up to her rotten fiance, who I think is called Gary. (Rotten exes in my books always have names beginning with G.) However, her insecurities about her own appeal are way too deep, and so she asks her friend Jonny for advice. This is risking humiliation for her, but she figures nobody will ever know, because she trusts Jonny and they’ll never meet face to face.

So after a long cyber-talk with Jonny about what’s sexy and what men want etc, she has her great amazing date and passionate lovemaking with Jay. She’s won! She’s succeeded! Yes!

Then of course, she discovers that Jay is actually Jonny. The guy she had to ask advice from. Epic fail (scenario A)! Huge humiliation (scenario A)! Also, her trust in Jonny is totally gone, because he didn’t tell her in the first place (to be fair to him, he honestly thought she knew). So she’s had this totally great sex and is maybe more reassured that she’s attractive (which is what she wanted), but she’s lost her only friend in the world (so she doesn’t want it any more…therefore scenario B).

Since this happens near the beginning of the book, this is just the sort of thing that propels Jane forward and then backward, rather than any great pivotal learning moment. But hopefully it’s emotionally rich, because it’s confronting a character with her greatest fears, and also showing her that her coping strategies and goals are not adequate. And as the book goes on, she’s confronted over and over again with these problems, and the way she deals with them changes as she grows in character and courage. I hope.

Now, I’m not sure I thought of this particular scene consciously by thinking “how can I make my character face her worst fear and her best hope at the same time”? I do know, though, that I was always thinking, “how can I make things much worse and much more emotional for my character?” And really, that’s the same thing.

Does that make sense (I hope)?

Obligatory promo: If you’d like to see this scene in action, Mistress in Private is still available as an ebook for Kindle or in other formats on the eHarlequin website.





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. 🙂





character arc 6: Backstory

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I’ve had a brilliant weekend away and am now all fired up to write. However, writing involves starting a new story, and I’m a little bit scared of that, so instead I’ll answer another question about character. 🙂

Lizzie asked:
My particular problem is: I know my characters pretty well, but when and how do I drip feed their background into the novel without overwhelming the reader with TMI. Yet at the same time let the reader know enough about the character to care about them and understand their motivation ?

Ah. Backstory. Backstory is an eternal dilemma. You’ve figured out everything there is to know about your character, and why she is the way she is, and you want your reader to know it, too. But at the same time, you want your story to go forward.

I don’t have a definite answer for this one, I’m afraid, and it would be really useful if any of my blog/Facebook visitors could chime in with their thoughts. But I’ll give you my general thoughts and experience, which might be helpful, or not.

To a certain extent, it depends on the kind of book you’re writing. Category romance has very little time for backstory. Longer books can take more, and you can even put in a flashback if you need to. Some books actually depend heavily on backstory, and keep on going forwards and backwards in time. (In women’s commercial fiction, I’m thinking of Lisa Jewell’s The Truth About Melody Browne, or Kate Harrison’s The Self-Preservation Society, both of which deal heavily with the past as well as the present, and have parallel stories about the heroine’s past and present.) Knowing what kind of book you’re writing can help you decide what to do with the past in your story.

In general, my feeling is that commercial fiction most often needs to take place in the now of the story. If you’ve got a thrilling backstory and a static present story, why do we need the present story at all? Likewise, if you’re writing a book set mainly in the present, you need to think carefully about how much backstory is actually needed. Pretty often, you need a lot less backstory than you think you do. The key is that the reader needs to care about the character now, because of what she’s doing now, and not because four years ago she was run over by a marauding granny on a lawnmower.

If the backstory is all of a piece with the present character and her arc, pretty much everything your character does in the present is going to illustrate her history anyway. You might find that actually, by showing her present actions, you’ve implied her past enough so that you don’t need to go into detail. You may find you can deal with it by referring to it briefly in conversation. You may need a brief moment of reflection, or a dream, or a letter, or an argument about the past, or any of a thousand ways that you can give your reader some gentle information without hitting them with an info-dump. The more varied your methods, the less likely the reader will find it repetitive or difficult—as long as it’s not actually repetitive and difficult.

There are so many good novels where you can notice how the author is gently feeding in backstory in an interesting, useful way.

You may, too, find that you can remove info-dumps in revision, because you’ve actually threaded in backstory enough without actually telling the reader the bare facts. If you’ve designed everything really well, your reader will know lots about your character without maybe needing to know the nitty-gritty. Generally, I guess the rule is, if it’s repetitive, cut it out. Sometimes you as an author need to know something, but the reader doesn’t.

I’ll give you an example. I wrote a 10,000-word flashback for this last book. It was a great scene, about the heroine at ten years old, and how she completely ruined her town’s first Christmas pageant. I had a blast writing it; it was one of the first things I wrote, and it really made the heroine very clear to me. However, when I began revising the book, I couldn’t quite figure out where to put it. And I also realised that though writing the scene had been really useful to me in learning her character, actually, the heroine’s character was adequately shown in the present without this scene.

So I cut it. Though it does still take place in the story world, and several of the characters refer to it later on in the book, I figured the reader would be able to figure out what happened well enough by the references. (Because I love it, though, I’m going to keep it as an “extra” here on my website.)

I guess I’ve gone on enough without really answering your question. Overall, my feeling is, if it’s absolutely necessary, keep it. If not, cut it. And if it is necessary, experiment with different ways of getting the information in so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming.

What does everyone else think?





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!





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.)





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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