Questionable: Character Arcs

Tamsin asked:

Character arcs – how do you know if you have a strong one for your character? How do you winkle it out of a character that is refusing to tell you what theirs is?(!) And is there a diagrammatic shape/structure that you use for character arcs? Do characters have separate arcs for different aspects: i.e. an emotional arc and a mystery plot arc or should those be welded together as aspects of each other?

Let’s break this down into its parts first, says the teacher.

An arc in a story is the movement from the beginning (when the conflict starts) to the end (when the conflict ends). Some arcs are higher than others: some things only change a little bit and some things do a 180 degree turn and become the complete opposite. All arcs move from stability to stability; that is, just before the story begins, everything is stable (not necessarily happy, but stable). Then the conflict begins and grows and escalates until everything blows up at the climax, at which point everything settles down into a new stability and the arc ends.

There are two kinds of arcs, plot and character.

An example of a plot arc is a stable story world in which someone is murdered. The story world is thrown into disarray because there’s a killer loose, and as the characters try harder and harder to catch the killer and the killer tries harder and harder to escape detection, the plot arcs in tension, danger, and stakes until finally the detective and the killer meet in the climax, the killer is arrested, and the world of the story returns to stability. This is external plot arc because you’re talking about events between two characters.

An example of character arc is a person who is in a stable situation and who is thrust out of that stability by events (see plot arc) at the beginning of the story and is therefore forced to do things he or she normally wouldn’t in order to survive. While the actions the character takes are part of the plot arc, the impact of the actions changes the character, forces him or her to cross psychological boundaries that were uncrossable before, and with each boundary crossed, the character changes, over and over again, each change greater, until at the end, the character fights the last battle in the plot arc, forever changed emotionally and psychologically from the battle, and achieves psychological stability again, his or her character arc finished. This is internal character arc because you’re talking about emotional/psychological changes within the character.

Events cause character change, and character change is demonstrated in event, which means that plot arc and character arc are inextricably linked. If the events of the plot don’t have enough impact on your character to change him or her, the story will lack impact. If your character arcs but the events in the plot have nothing to do with the change, your character will be unbelievable. So what you need is an event strong enough to push your character past a psychological barrier he or she would never cross, which changes your character since a boundary once crossed is destroyed. That change in your character then means that he or she acts differently in the next section of the story, which moves the plot, the events of which escalate to another event that’s strong enough to push the character past the new boundary, which leads to more character arc, which leads to more dangerous plot events, which lead to . . .

Plot should change character, and character should change plot. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Let’s consider Jane, mostly because I’m growing quite fond of our beheaded-Barbies stalker who shoots pigeons out her bedroom window.

Jane works for a multinational corporation in their trouble-shooting department, which means she hires assassins when the company needs them. Jane is very good at her job because she’s absolutely honest, she keeps her personal life segregated from her work, and she lives to support and protect the corporation. She also has a strong moral code: she may hire assassins, but she’s not one. It’s her job to keep the corporation safe, but she’d never hurt anyone.

• Our story opens as Jane, having shot her morning pigeon, arrives at work and is assigned a new project: Hire a new assassin to take out a difficult target. The corporation suggests Alan, and when Alan walks into her office, Jane is smitten: he’s gorgeous, he’s funny, he’s smart, and he smiles at her as if he’s been waiting his whole life just to meet her. At the end of the interview, Jane hires Alan, and he asks her out.

Jane never mixes work and personal life, but she can’t resist, she’s fallen for him, and she crosses that boundary. Super-controlled Jane is now making decisions based on emotions. Her character arc has begun.

• At dinner that night, Jane has a marvelous time; Alan is even more amazing than she realized. But as they’re leaving the restaurant, they run into one of Jane’s co-workers, who pulls her aside and says, “Isn’t that the new assassin you hired?” On the spot, knowing word will get back to her superiors and her perfect record will be sullied, Jane lies in her teeth and says no.

Jane never lies but she has to protect her job, so she crosses that boundary. Now she’s mixed her personal and professional lives and lied about it, and since she’s done those things once, she’ll have to keep on doing them, which will bother her less and less. Her character is arcing.

Jane and Alan walk through the park, trading stories about their lives and achieving a perfect understanding, right up until the moment when they’re in darkness under a bridge. Alan pulls Jane to him and kisses her passionately, and then says, “I’m sorry, I really like you,” and pulls out a gun. Jane, acting on instinct, knees him in the groin and takes the gun, and says, “What the hell, Alan?” and he tells her that he was hired to kill her: the corporation is phasing out the assassin department and she knows too much, so her severance package is a bullet. Jane stares at him through a red mist of rage, betrayal, and corporate vengeance, says, “Alan, as far as I’m concerned, you’re just another damn pigeon,” and shoots him between the eyes.

Jane has never killed before, but the events have pushed her across that boundary, and now she sees clearly that her allegiance to the corporation as its head assassin wrangler has been for naught. That finishes Jane’s 180 arc: she’s mixed business and pleasure, she’s lied, she’s killed, she’s lost her belief in the defining institution of her life, and now she’s a brand new Jane. The honest corporate helper monkey is gone and Jane the dangerous ass-kicker has been born.

• Jane puts Alan’s body in his trunk, goes to the home of the head of the corporation and tells him she knows where all the bodies are buried (literally), and that he’s going to give her a promotion, and oh, by the way, there’s a body in his front yard he’s going to have to do something about. As the story ends, Jane’s in a new and better apartment, shooting a new and better pigeon, getting ready to go to her new and better office as senior executive vice president in charge of anything she wants, prepared to take out anybody who gets in her way. In particular, she thinks, it might be time to go see Richard about those headless Barbies . . .

So keeping all that in mind, here are the answers to your questions:

How do you know if you have a strong [arc] for your character?
Look at who your character is in the first scene and who he or she is in the last scene. If the character hasn’t changed much, you don’t have much of an arc.

How do you winkle it out of a character that is refusing to tell you what theirs is?
Your character doesn’t know. Look at how much you’ve changed over the years without really noticing it. Instead, look at the events of your plot. What kind of impact does the inciting event/first scene have on her? How does that force her to begin to change? Then go through each event in the story to see how each changes her character incrementally, and how those character changes drive events. (Remember, most character change happens through conflict, so you’re doing the same thing for your antagonist.)

Is there a diagrammatic shape/structure that you use for character arcs?
I use a basic turning-point-and-acts linear plot structure, making sure that the major events at the turning points also swing character into a new direction, but there are any number of ways to structure different kinds of arcs. Whatever works for you is good.

Do characters have separate arcs for different aspects: i.e. an emotional arc and a mystery plot arc or should those be welded together as aspects of each other?
Generally speaking, you’ll have a main plot/external arc and a protagonist/internal arc, and they’ll interlock, as explained above. But you’ll also have external subplot arcs and internal character arcs for other people in the story, so you’ll have a lot of arcs, all interlocking like gears in a machine, and as each one turns, the others turn. Concentrate on protagonist arc and main plot arc in first drafts, and then in later rewrites consider the other arcs.

Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

19 thoughts on “Questionable: Character Arcs

  1. Thank you so much, Jenny, for answering my question! There is so much in this post, I am going to keep coming back and rereading until I grok it all, but there are a few points that have hit me where I needed it already!

    Thanks to reading all of your posts about narrative and story, I recently had a blinding realisation that the issue I’ve been running up against without realising it ever since I started trying to write (so, literally for decades), is that I was feeling my way into stories from the bits I naturally found easy – i.e. emotionally-complex characters – but the whole thing kept dying on me because I had very little conscious understanding of how plot/narrative worked or needed to work. I didn’t understand how to use the plot to force my characters to change, and so I’d have these great characters, but they didn’t want anything, so there was nothing driving the narrative and it would just flat-line on me.

    I’ve recently been gorging myself on some really good how-to books on plotting and outlining thanks to some of the recommendations on this blog and in the comments (K.M. Weiland, Rachel Aaron, Deb Dixon and Holly Lisle) and I’m experimenting approaching it from the completely opposite direction – focusing on plot-first and trying lots of different plot/character combinations to practice the feel of plotting – it’s still early days, but I’m hopeful that this might get me somewhere different than the usual lots-of-words-and-no-plot! Which is a long-winded way of saying this is a really helpful answer at a really useful time! Thank you again! 🙂

    1. You might want to go back to the characters you already love and start with them again, just asking yourself what the most important thing is to them and then taking that away. Or what would be the worst thing that could happen to them and then doing that. It doesn’t have to be a death; it can be losing the family home or a job he or she loved, or a relationship that was important . . .
      I think if you naturally start with character, starting with plot is going to be a creativity killer for you. Go ahead and try it, but if it doesn’t feel right, go back to the characters you want to write about and just find their weak spots. Then poke them with a stick.

  2. I especially like the last question and answer. Thank you.
    Alan. Every time I hear Alan I now replay that animal video in my head. The You-tube one with the talking squirrel. Alan! Alan! Alan! And Jane…well, I guess this isn’t a romance, but she did get a HEA. ; )

  3. I like the concept of a survival system. The protagonist starts with one, a system of beliefs that guide her, then systematically through events of the plot, has to change her system of survival. Of course, she clings to it as long as she can, then when her dark moment arrives, she falls back on what she knows, and fails. This sets the stage for her final victory, when using what she has learned–her new survival system–she wins. What Jane has learned is it’s every woman for herself. The hardest part of the character arc for me is showing the incremental changes in the character throughout the arc. The plot events generating those changes are much easier. I love these lessons from Jenny. It makes me go back to my WIP and reevaluate it. It will be much stronger for this.

    1. I like that idea of survival, but be careful because survival is reactive; that is, it’s the character reacting to events instead of taking control of them (or trying to take control). Something happens and the character reacts in the beginning, but it’s not just survival because she’s going after the goal that was threatened by that first event. If it’s survival, she just tries to return to stability; if there’s a goal, she needs to be active and go after it in order to return to stability. So while survival is always part of the equation, it’s not as important as getting that goal. She’ll risk her survival to get the goal.

      1. I’m wishing for a dark comedy about Jane!

        I used to love reading sea survival stories as a kid. Can’t you have many goals to fight actively for in a survival story? You might literally risk your life every ten minutes to achieve goals that will help you live longer than a day or two. The irony is huge and part of the fascination.

        1. Okay, standard disclaimer that you can write any story you want to, of course.

          The problem I have with Human Vs. Nature stories is that there are only two ways that story can escalate–human error and bad luck–so you’re essentially watching one person trying to survive instead of two people pushing each other to change. You can argue that Nature is an antagonist, but that would be like writing a story in which the protagonist kicks a brick wall and then says, “This wall is my antagonist.” No, it’s not. It’s a wall the protagonist was stupid enough to kick.

          So Human Vs Nature usually devolves to either seeing how one character copes with adversity (character sketch) or screaming as the impossible wave takes out the small boat (weather porn). I don’t that find that nearly as interesting as watching two sentient beings trying to defeat each other, but that’s a personal preference. There are many roads to Oz etc. etc.

          And I have to admit, when I watch the Human vs. Nature stuff, I’m always kind of rooting for Nature. “You knew that mountain was high,” I want to say to the protagonist, “but you thought you’d be cool and climb it and then stand on top and yell, ‘I’m king of the world’ to show you’ve conquered Nature. Serves you right.” And that probably goes back to the contempt I feel for so much of modern business that’s been trashing the environment for decades while denying climate change because it’s Man’s Destiny to Control Nature. Yeah? Nature’s coming for you, asshats. Good luck.

  4. Has anyone on here read Deerskin by Robin McKinley? And how/what would you say about the character and plot arcs in it?

    1. This is just on the fly, but the main character arc seems to me to be taking Lissar from a child (in a woman’s body) who has terrible things done to her by her father, and she runs, to a woman who faces her father and destroys him. Events push her to keep hiding and lying, until she finds the person and the place and the situation that make her stand her ground and confront him, and bring him down with the truth.

      1. Thank you. I love that book (which is why I asked) and I’m not sure why. The writing has always struck me as gorgeous.

  5. Thank you for Jane. I have read 300 page books that failed to entertain me as much as this post did. And now I know why, too.

  6. Pardon me but Jane the pigeon killing assassin hirer? F-expletive brilliant , Jenny!
    Where do you come up with this stuff??? Turning point; denial and justification 101… The few, the proud, the damned. I would have turned her into a Branjelina a$$ kicking vigilante…. Ah, anti corporate patriarchal nut busting is sweet, especially in action adventure pussy riot dystopian fantasy land. Bring it!

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