What’s the deal with character arcs?
I won’t say writer’s block, but I will admit that when I started my current WIP the flow came in drips and drabs. I dreaded starting a new chapter because I just didn’t have a good sense of what was going to happen. Or what should happen.
Because I wasn’t clear on what my characters wanted.
The events in the novel were forcing the characters in a variety of directions. But they weren’t making decisions and moving ahead of events. They weren’t taking control of the story and without that, my writing was like pushing a stubborn mule. It wasn’t going. But I was putting in a lot of effort!
What to do?
Oddly, I teach using character arcs. And I’ve used them for the primary characters in my novels. I won’t say main because I’m on book 5 of the same fantasy world. Many of the characters from previous books appear, and have a part, in the story. So I’ve ended up with a slew of important characters that blur the line between main and secondary.
If they are in the book, they are important.
And that is the point, isn’t it? If the character is in the book for more than a brief walk in, walk out, they are important. And even THEN, why that tertiary character helps or appears is important. Something motivated them to commit an action that added to the story.
Every character has an arc.
The reader just might be discovering the character when she is at the end of her arc, lending a helping hand due to prior lessons learned such as an old woman who hides the hero because he reminds her of the son she lost. Or the character is an obstacle because he is at the very beginning of his arc like a jaded bartender who reports the group of friends and lands them in the dungeon because he thinks keeping the peace means following the rules of a dictator. Or anywhere in between, because the in between is where the tension lies.
The thing is, I’ve been with some of these characters for over seven years. I know them. I don’t need to develop arcs, right?
If only it were so easy. Some characters change over the course of a novel, some take a few books, others only a chapter. In general, the main character(s) of a novel complete their arc for that novel. Because their arc is part of the plot.
So what happens in the next book?
Well, they’ve changed, right? Are they done adapting? Um, no. They aren’t dead yet (and in a few of my worlds that isn’t an excuse either!). So they need a new arc. They have new wants, unknown obstacles, and fresh challenges to face. When they aren’t the focus of the show, the arc might be longer or not as BIG as the focus character. But it exists.
Think of life as a set of challenges and you’ll see how your character will grow, reach a new point, and then find out they face a whole new set of rules and lessons to learn.
This is taking the farm girl and making her a warrior in book 1. In book 2, she needs to figure out how to be a leader. In book 3, she has won the interest of a prince (who so totally has to prove he is worthy of her, but that is his arc) and has to figure out love. Same character, three arcs.
And that is where I was as I wrote book 5. A dozen characters who the reader knows from the series, all of them having been THE main character at some point. They’ve grown, changed, fallen (not all arcs work out), and are friends. But where in this novel were they especially in relation to helping the plot? Didn’t have a clue. So I broke down and wrote very simple character arcs.
I use a four question outline:
- Outer Motivation – What does the character want?
- Inner Motivation – What does the character need?
- Outer Conflict – What stands in the character’s way?
- Inner Conflict – What character flaws and fears hold her back?
The tension comes in the conflict between the outer motivation and the inner. The character spends chapters going after what they want, not realizing it isn’t what they need. When they figure it out, that is the climax of the arc. The outer conflict as well as the inner create the obstacles meant to reveal the difference, or defeat the character for not realizing the difference.
So a writing session later, I had a dozen mini character arcs written down. And I won’t say they were all easy. I had to really think about where some characters were in life and what they were hoping to achieve versus what they really needed to learn. Which was the core of what was holding up the novel in the first place. But the questions helped put me in their head and life. I figured it out and when I did … ZOOM! I’m on chapter 22 now, approaching the climax and the only thing slowing me down is not having enough time to write.
Anyone have a time machine? 😉
How about you? Have you used character arcs before either written out or just sketched in your mind?