Friday, October 29, 2010

The Character Arc

We all know the perfect character in any story will only add a plastic element of make-believe like something pulled from a Disneyland parade. No one in real life is perfect and, if they appear that way, then they will bore us to death when it comes to reading an entire novel about them. We want flawed characters and we want them to overcome their inner conflicts so they can conquer their outer conflicts.

This is where the Character Arc comes in:

The Character Arc is the gradual development of the characters through the story. It’s about their inner struggles and growth reflected by the outer changes in the plot. The reason why it’s so important is because it gives depth to the characters. We want to cheer for them, we want to cry for them, and we want the novel to grab us by the heart and involve us in the story.

To plot out an Arc for a character many writers start at the end. They want to know where their characters are internally and externally so they can work out the best possible path to that point. For example, if I wanted a character to show an act of courage at the end of the novel, then the act becomes more poignant and heartening if the character starts the story with a lack of courage. Think of the Cowardly Lion in Wizard of Oz.

The change can be more subtle than the example I gave above, but it shouldn’t be a sudden change. It’s unrealistic (and a bit of a cheat) for a character to do a sudden 180. No one decides to change their ways without reason. Instead, key moments in their story will guide them to the changes they need to make.

Do you plot out the Character Arcs before you begin a novel? How detailed are your Arcs? Do you ensure an Arc is present for your secondary characters as well as your main character?

32 comments:

  1. Great post! I don't plot out anything before I start writing. :) But I love the backward planning model. We do this all the time in teaching and it makes great sense!

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  2. I try to have all the characters grow in some way. I'm a panster, so I think about it when I'm writing. I'm amazed over how many books get published where the friend or even the MC doesn't have much development.

    If you get a chance, stop by my blog "Substitute Teacher's Saga". From 10/28-11/1 I'm hosting a Halloween Haunting. There are prizes!

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  3. You have an excellent point here in the last paragraph about the changes being subtle ones. There should be a string of moments that lead up to a change and the character should be slowly making the change and in one, final, critical moment, they should take the final step.

    Ummm... I don't plan the arcs but I know that they are there...

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  4. Every time I go back to a character arc over the course of a novel, I get chills thinking about the success as well as potential I have for the characters to make the changes needed in the story.

    Excellent post.

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  5. I'm not a great planner but I do always have an idea about what change I want my charaters to go through. Also I usually try to have the major characters hesitate a bit,k one step forward and two back.

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  6. I've never tried a character arc- but I think I will for NaNo. Thanks for the idea. I don't know why but it just never occurred to me.

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  7. Jemi, I don't always backwards plan but when I'm struggling I find it helps :)

    Theresa, it is amazing but it also shows how flat those characters are despite publication.

    Melissa, yes, exactly :) And not everyone likes to draw out a plan, but knowing the arc is important helps.

    Jeffrey, it can give chills when it all comes together :)

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  8. Melissa, yep, that's all you need. And the stepping forward and back thing helps the realistic yet subtle change grow in the characters.

    Summer, I find writing out a Character Arc often clarifies a story (whether I'm doing a full outline or not).

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  9. In one session at the SiWC last week the presenter talked about creating intrigue - don't show everything about the character at once or we won't be interested. Not unlike when you meet someone new and they tell you everything about themselves all at once - we tend to back away from that. So the characters have to reveal themselves gradually (through action and dialogue of course!).

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  10. Great post! I usually plot out a general character arc for my MC and key supporting characters before I can start writing. It almost always changes-- or at least deepens-- in the first draft. Then I go back in and make it more detailed, and work those details into the story. I love discovering my characters that way!

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  11. Jan, yep, that's true too and it's a part of the character's development but the Arc itself is more about what we know about a character at the beginning of the story and how that progressively changes through the story. Although you can definitely weave some of the intrigue into the arc.

    Shallee, yes, the character arcs have a strong influence on the storylines. Getting to know our characters is part of the joy of writing :)

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  12. I never looked at it this way. It's a good idea. When I switch from NF to fiction, I will try and remember this. Right now all I have are a bunch of scribbling of note cards, napkins, etc..
    thanks!

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  13. Good reminder! I need to PLAN more of this in my stories, instead of letting them "happen" quite so much. (I plan plots but not arcs so much.) Altho it is fun to see how the characters develop along the way, and be organic and surprising. And boy, thanks also for the reminder that 2ndary characters need it too, not just the MC! I think I tend to focus too much on the MC.

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  14. Lynda, I never thought along these lines. A brilliant reminder to plan that character arc that adds depth to the character. I like the idea of starting at the end.

    Btw ..there is an award for you on my blog.

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  15. Never thought about it in terms of an arc.

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  16. I don't think about arcs before I start a story; I don't really think about much of anything, actually. :P

    I've been thinking about my character arcs lately, and I know I'll have a lot of editing/revising to do when the first draft is done--they're pretty rough.

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  17. I agree, the novels I found bad were usually the ones in which characters didn't develop and didn't mature.This is why a writer has to be a good psychologist as well.

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  18. i've never consciously made a plan for a character arc- but i kinda think that characters develop organically throughout the path of the story... events change them... so- i guess we're kinda saying the same thing, right? :)

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  19. I always found this nomenclature of "arc" confusing. Thanks for clearing it up. It's important I think to plan character arc for every character, no matter how steep or flat. It keeps things interesting.

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  20. I don't really plot out detailed characters arcs. Mostly, I just write where I want the character to start and where they'll end up. Then I figure out what lies or obstacles they'll have to overcome to get there and how they will do it.

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  21. I do plot out to an extent my characters, but often they develop as they interact as I fill out the MS. Just as in real life, you can be a match maker, but really have no idea how people will interact until you put them in a room together, often under trying circumstances.

    Stephen Tremp

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  22. I recently started writing a character arc for each of my characters - even quite minor ones, and I find it helps a huge amount with plotting.

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  23. Sort of on the first draft. I have an ending in mind. I must or I can't write. I need a goal to write toward. Sometimes in the first draft, it all changes.

    I do the heavy planning before the revision now. Maybe that will change in the future. I wouldn't rule it out. :D

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  24. Thanks for the reminders.
    Things go more smoothly with ending, beginning then middle. ind of like a kid looking out of the back window of the car when you start home from a trip.

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  25. I do start with writing my last line first. I like this idea of plotting of character arc starting at the end. Great post!

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  26. I just read a book where the character did not change, not over the course of four years. It bored me to tears and left me so flustered when I finished!

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  27. Pat, in some respects non fiction is easier ;)

    Carol, as long as you keep it in mind, you can keep that organic development of the characters. Not everyone likes to preplan.

    Rachna, starting at the end is so helpful. Thanks so much for the award! :)

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  28. Alex, often it's a subconscious unfolding for many writers.

    Golden, for me, anything that reduces the editing time is a winner ;)

    Dezzy, often those kind of novels leave the reader feeling flat and disappointed. I agree we have to be psychologists! If only we were paid as well ;)

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  29. Aspiring, yep absolutely. It's just another way of approaching it. You just have to find the way that works for you :)

    Ben, glad it helped. Often the secondary characters get forgotten.

    Cindy, yep that's a good approach.

    Stephen, that's so true. It's why it's important to listen to the story.

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  30. Kate, it does... characters drive plot.

    M Pax, yep, I've changed a few times the way I write. I don't think I'll ever stick to one way.

    Mary, good analogy :)

    Lynn, I've never been able to write the last line first, but I've always had at least a vague idea of where I wanted to go.

    Tamara, it leaves you with such a feeling of being cheated doesn't it? My hope is I never make that mistake.

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  31. "overcome their inner conflicts so they can conquer their outer conflicts"

    This is the best part if this post. I hadn't thought about the causality of this relationship before.

    I often plot backwards - it works for me.

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  32. Ishta, I think that's why I find it easier to plot when I know what's happening internally with my characters.

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