Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Character arcs - how characters change

Do you have character arcs in your story? Chances are you do, even if you aren't aware of them, or don't call them that. On the basic level, character arcs are the changes that your character goes through over the course of the story. This can include coming to a decision, learning to make particular kinds of decisions differently, learning something important about life, getting to the bottom of a mystery, or any kind of development within the character's mind or personality.

Keeping conscious control of character arcs is a really valuable tool in crafting a story, particularly when you're working with a novel. You can have whole-novel-long story arcs, or smaller arcs like the protagonist's relationship to a minor character, or the protagonist resolving a subplot about something (say, a key he found). These typically all happen concurrently. One nice way of thinking of the climax of the story is to imagine your character arcs bouncing across your story like rocks skipped across water, and then to imagine that several of them must all land at the same spot at the same time - for maximum effect!

At this point I'd like to think about character arcs from two major angles: the plot direction, and the character direction.

Approaching character arcs from the plot direction is something you can do without even having conscious awareness of your plot arcs. You know what needs to happen in the story events, and you know what does happen in the story events, and as the character goes along, he or she just changes with his/her natural reactions to the story events. This is good. It's important (in my view) to keep two things in mind.

  1. Story events will make your character react and learn. If they don't, you're missing an opportunity.
  2. Some actions by the character will require them to learn things/change before they can happen.

This is where it's helpful to be able to trace the arc backward. If your protagonist needs to be able to fly a helicopter, then it would be good to set that up - either he knows how to do it already (mention how), or he learns how to do it, or he learns different sub-components of the skills at different points (the arc approach). Take the example of Trinity in The Matrix. She very quickly learns to fly a helicopter in the midst of the action, without any time for explanation. But the preconditions that make that possible (she has a data port; people can learn through data loads) have been set up in her actions, and in the actions of others, previously in the story. So if you find your beta readers going "huh?" when your character pulls out his sword and starts swinging, you might want to check his arcs and make sure swordsmanship and/or its precursors, were included in there somewhere. Another possible arc example is if your character has to make a very bad decision that runs contrary to his/her morality - think about how to lead into that decision with smaller plot elements that show the character's non-reliability, or his/her doubts, the ability of another character to sway him/her, etc. so as to prime the possibility of that uncharacteristic decision.

Then there's approaching a character arc from the angle of character change. "Over the course of the story my protagonist has to go from being a bigot to learning to accept others." "My character believes in the status quo, but when he finds out about X, he has to accept that the status quo has always been a lie."

This is what I do a lot, because a lot of my stories are about people changing their minds, or learning what the key to understanding is, etc. I go very psychological in my stories. If you're doing something similar, take a look at that change that needs to happen, and try to break it down into smaller components. The bigger the change, the more different conditions will have to be in effect for it to happen. If my bigot must change his mind, then he probably needs to be put in an extreme situation where only a member of his despised group can help him, and that person becomes a friend/exception as a result. But there will be many things that need to happen in order to create an extreme situation like that - and many things that must happen thereafter, once the bigot has actually engaged with the despised person, to solidify his impression and expand his doubts about his previous views into a broader personal change.

I'll be a bit more specific with another example. My highly educated and informed character X isn't someone you could call a bigot, but has always been taught that people have different fundamental natures. He then meets character M who is in disguise as a member of the same group as X. What will it take for him to accept that M and he have enough in common to maintain a relationship when he finally discovers who M is? He will:
  • discover the history of how the different groups were formed out of the same population
  • discover that M's group was the victim of a terrible injustice
  • go through a series of interactions with M during which he will come to have a high opinion of her.
Only when all these things are operating at once does it seem plausible for X to have the reaction he does when he finds out the truth.

Before I leave the topic of arcs, I want to mention a couple more things. First, do you need character arcs if you're writing about real characters and events - say in a memoir or in historical fiction based around factual events - when you know "what really happened"?

My answer is emphatically, "Yes." Character arcs are patterns of systematic change that build on themselves and give a story the sense of being strongly coherent and tied together. If you're working with real events, those should work their way into the character arcs. Character arcs don't have to be predictable, and they don't have to be uniform, but they should be logical and readers should be able to see their plausibility in the context of events - whether those events are fixed by history or not.

Second, what happens when you end up with an arc that you weren't intending to create? I'll take an example from my super writer-buddy Janice Hardy (because I'm sure she'll forgive me!). When I was helping her with an early draft of her Book 3 of the Healing Wars trilogy, I noticed that her character had changed. Nya had gone through so much and experienced so much pain that she appeared to have become less hurt by it. So I asked Janice whether that was what she had intended, and she told me it wasn't. I felt helpful, because after that Janice was able to go through and consciously track how Nya reacted to pain - so that it still made sense in context, but so it didn't accidentally lose the poignancy that it had had through the first two books.

Thanks to the folks at Absolute Write forum for giving me the idea for this post.


  1. Very cool article. I also try to write very psychologically but I know that I have to work on my characters arcs to make sure they're still making sense.

  2. Thanks for coming by, Lydia! I appreciate it.

  3. Thank you--so helpful! :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse