Posts Tagged ‘character arc’

Jan

18

2010

character arc 2: Creating character arc

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To me, plot and character arc go hand in hand. Plot provides the opportunity for the character to change, and the character’s development affects what choices she makes to make the plot go forward. As I said, I believe that in women’s commercial fiction at least, character arc is more important than plot, because readers want to be pulled into the emotional life of the heroine and to feel satisfied at the end that something has changed.

In a lot of Mills & Boon books, there’s hardly any plot; the emotional journey carries the reader through. I wonder sometimes if people who say M&Bs are formulaic are missing this particular aspect—they’re looking at the external plot, which tends to contain the same sorts of things (courtship, arguments, lovemaking, marriage, misunderstandings, etc), instead of the emotional character arc, which is unique to each character and author.

In theory, at least, you could have a bigger book with very little plot and the focus almost wholly on character arc, but I can’t think of that many. You just need a bit of plot to give a bigger book pace. Anybody Out There, by Marian Keyes, I seem to remember, has very little plot, mostly focusing on the emotions of the character to one pivotal event. But maybe I just don’t remember it very well. I tend to remember character arc much better than plot in any given book.

Anyway, all of this leads to the next bit:

How do you create character arc?

Well, rather, how do I create character arc, because I’m sure it’s different for every writer. Right now I’m in the planning stages of my next book, and to me, that’s all about character arc. I’m not a plotter, but I am an arc-er. I do it in steps.

Step one: create inner conflict.

Usually, when I begin to plan, I identify my main character, who she is, what her problems are. I’ll do a bunch of brainstorming around her to figure out what her main (internal) issue is, and why. So say, for example, I decided my heroine will have trust issues. I’ll then spend a lot of time working out why she has these issues, how it’s affected her, what decisions she’s likely to have made because of these trust issues. For example, she’s likely to have a shaky relationship with her parents and family, she’s likely to work alone and live alone, though maybe she’s at the top of a ruthless corporate ladder; she may not have any close friends, or maybe she just has one or two close friends who are the only people she lets into her life. She may have developed a bad habit of betraying other people before they get a chance to let her down; she may, on the other hand, be immensely charming and yet superficial because she’s afraid of being hurt. There are a lot of possibilities, and part of planning a book is deciding which ones to use. The bigger the book, the more complex you can make this conflict, and you can give a character more than one related conflict.

This main conflict will affect her career, her family, her friendships, her behaviour, her way of dressing, her speech patterns, her reputation, her favourite cuddly toy—in short, everything about this character will be determined, in some way, by her inner conflict, even if this particular aspect might seem contradictory.

So, for example, I’ve got Fil in Girl from Mars, who has low self-confidence as one of her inner conflicts. She thinks she’s unattractive, and socially inept. Yet she dyes her hair bright look-at-me colours. You’d think that would convey confidence, but as a matter of fact it’s because she’d rather people noticed her hair than her. So late in the book, when she changes her hair colour, the reader can see it’s significant in showing how she feels about herself.

Step two: play with the conflict to create the character arc.

Once you know a character’s problems, then you can also figure out how to solve them, at least on a basic level. A character who’s afraid to trust needs to learn to trust. A character with low self-esteem needs to gain confidence. Et cetera. This is the easy part. And, by extension, their solving their conflict will lead to changes in their lives—they’ll get the hero, or find a better job, or reconcile with their mother, or whatever it will take to make them happy. (Sometimes I don’t really know the exact outcome or changes before I begin. I’ll know the character has to trust, for example, but I don’t know yet how that will lead to her having a job she’s happy with, or what that job will be. For me, those are details, and they fill themselves in as I write.)

Once you’ve figured that out, you have both the start point and the end point of your character arc. The problem is, of course, how to get from one point to the other.

A good character arc is never smooth. Characters don’t want to change. A character who doesn’t want to trust, for example, isn’t just suddenly going to start trusting because we’re on page 257 and we need to end the story soon. She needs to be challenged, and fail, and she needs to learn from it—perhaps several times. Maybe she needs to be forced to trust, and it doesn’t work out. Maybe because she doesn’t trust, something awful happens. Every little event is a step forward or back, but generally, events and emotions are sweeping her forward towards the great change that will happen near the end of a book.

When I’m designing a story, I think in the most general terms of character arc—something like this (which is simplified):

  • Heroine doesn’t trust
  • Not trusting causes her to fail
  • She decides to try a little trust
  • That’s really rewarding, but it doesn’t work out, so she’s reinforced in her original decision not to trust
  • But she keeps on thinking about how great it was, so she tries to get the good things back without trusting
  • Eventually, she ends up realising that she’s trusting despite herself. So, afraid of being hurt, she cuts herself off
  • This makes her miserable, but she’s no worse off than before. Well, a little bit. Well, a lot.
  • Something happens that forces her to trust, some sort of life-or-death situation or similar
  • She’s scared to death, but she finds courage to do it
  • It works out! Trusting worked! Wow, who knew? She’s really happy!
  • But then all her previous distrust comes back and bites her in the butt. She vows never to trust again
  • She’s really frickin’ miserable
  • She makes an even more courageous decision to trust, even more courageous because it’s her decision and not forced by events
  • Way-hey! Happy ending!
  • This is, as I said, really simple. But I think it shows how a character will go backwards and forwards, learning things one step at a time, with the stakes becoming higher and higher. You can also see that there are no plot events specified in that outline at all, just “something happens”. That’s because the plot isn’t so important; the specific events don’t really matter in this instance, it’s just what effect those events have on the character arc.

    Also, for me, that final decision to change (right before the happy ending) has to come from the character herself, and not purely from external events. She can be pushed into other things, but if the reader’s really going to believe she’s changed, she needs to make the final decision herself.

    Right, I have more specific stuff to say, but this post is really long, so I’ll finish it now. And go into more detail and answer questions tomorrow.


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    Jan

    17

    2010

    character arc 1: What is it?

    Filed under: writing | Tags:

    I haven’t done a craft of writing post in ages so I was really pleased when a writer who was on one of my courses some time ago wrote to me, asking if I’d talk about character arc on my blog.

    As I’m in the planning stages of my next book, character arc is something I’m thinking about a lot right now. So I’m going to try to break it down a little bit, and talk about how I’ve been using it lately.

    What is character arc?

    It’s also known as “emotional journey”, or you could think of it as the resolution of the inner conflict of the character. Put most simply, it’s the way that a character grows and changes from the beginning to the end of the book. So if we look at a simple story, such as Cinderella, the heroine starts off as a victim, helpless and lowly, and by the end of the story, she’s gained confidence and learned about her true identity.

    Character arc is different from plot, though they reflect each other closely; the plot usually is instrumental in helping the character go through her arc. So Cinderella has her fairy godmother, and the ball and the prince (the things that happen to her, ie the plot)—all of these things help her to grow and to change (ie the character arc).

    Some books or stories don’t have a noticeable character arc. For example, Tom and Jerry, the cartoons, don’t have character arcs. They might learn something every now and then, but by the next cartoon, they’re always trying to beat each other up again. On the other hand, some writers weave in very subtle character arcs; Sherlock Holmes doesn’t change much from one story to another, but he does learn a few things about respect for others as the stories go on, and becomes more humanised.

    Romance and women’s fiction generally is all about the character arc. The reader is looking for emotional growth in the heroine from the first page to the last.

    Who has a character arc?

    Always your heroine, in women’s commercial fiction. If you’re writing a romance, generally your hero will have his own character arc, too. Secondary characters might, or might not, depending on the type of book you’re writing, and the type of character they are. And how much of a character arc you’ve got for each character—that is, how much they change—depends on your vision of the book.

    In my shorter Mills & Boon novels, I usually had two main character arcs for the heroine, the hero. I might throw in some mini-arcs for secondary characters, probably two maximum per book. The other secondaries tended not to change that much over the course of the story. For example, my first book, Featured Attraction, had major character arcs for Jack and Kitty, the hero and heroine. Nobody else really changed very much. But I was interested in Jack’s best friend, Oz, and Kitty’s brother, Nick, so I wrote separate books about them, giving them their own arcs.

    As I’ve written more books, I’ve become more confident in weaving secondary arcs into the story. So my later M&B books had two or three secondary character arcs, and my Little Black Dress books have several.

    For example, in Girl from Mars, I felt that the heroine was the most important person in the book. So her character arc is by far the greatest—she changes the most. But I had arcs, too, for the hero, and for her three best friends, and also smaller ones for her parents and for the fictional cartoon character Girl from Mars.

    Usually these secondary arcs are related to the main characters’ arcs in some way. And adding more, related arcs to the story is one way to make a simple plot into a “bigger” book, not just in word count, but in depth—because the secondary characters’ arcs look at the main character’s arc from a different perspective, or in a different way.

    I’ve got to go out now, but I’ll continue this tomorrow, by talking about how I design a character arc. Questions and comments are very very welcome!


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