Still under the weather, so let's take a heavily updated look at creating character arcs. Enjoy!
A character arc is the internal struggle and progress a character goes through over the course of a novel that changes him in some way. It's usually connected to the internal conflict so that what he does (the plot) forces changes in who he is (the character arc). It can sometimes be confused with character motivations (a character worries over something so they act to prevent that something) but why a character acts is different from how he changes because of his actions. Motivation drives the actions. Growth is the result of the actions.
A reader asked...
"Is the writer suppose to know where the character is heading/motives before the first draft? In this particular ms I know where he's at in the beginning and what he wants, but I really don't know the progression yet. Is that a bad thing?"Heck no.
For a lot of writers, that journey is the reason they write the book in the first place. I may know my plot inside and out before I write a first draft, but that draft is when I find out who my characters really are. My second draft fills in the motivational gaps and fleshes out the character growth.
That said, it is a little easier if you have an inkling of where you want to go, because you'll have some direction and won't just write willy nilly. (There's nothing wrong with willy nilly, it's not for everyone). For example, your story theme might tell you your protagonist needs to learn the meaning of love, or that revenge is best served cold, or that puppies make life better, and this lets you know your character arc will somehow end with that lesson learned. You may not know the path of that journey, but you'll head in the right direction to get there.
I would recommend figuring out why the protagonist wants what he wants, because that will help you understand what's at stake. A story with no stakes is a pretty dull story, even if it's filled with exciting scenes. If there's nothing to lose, there's little fun in seeing if a character wins. If the only reason your protagonist is acting is because you told him to, there's a good chance you'll hit that wall around page 100 and not know what happens next.
Character arcs in general can take many forms. Some folks plot them out and know every step a character needs to take to reach the arc ending, others let their characters run and see where they go. Both are acceptable ways to do it.
Here are some things to consider when creating a character arc:
1. Where do you want the character to end up?
Most novels end with the protagonist undergoing some kind of growth, but not every protagonist needs to. Characters in a series often keep the protagonist as is, since the enjoyment is coming back to an old friend. Even in a series I still think it's a good idea to have some growth. Watching a character make the same mistakes all the time gets old fast and they lose all credibility. But if the whole point of the book is to show the protagonist changing, then knowing that change will help get you there.
2. How much does the character need to suffer to achieve this change?
Nobody changes just for the fun of it. Something made him reevaluate his behavior and he realized he needed to make a change or else. Sometimes the suffering is minor if the change is small, like realizing he could be a bit more polite when dealing with co-workers. But for real change you need real incentives. So if your protagonist is going to evolve in a major way, the events that forced that change are likely to be equally major.
(Here's more on why a character arc makes us care)
3. Who or what brings about that change?
This helps a lot in the plotting department. Character arcs often show the protagonist exhibiting the behavior that needs to change and it turns out badly for him. Eventually, he'll do the right thing and be rewarded. He doesn't do this on his own, though--someone or something forces that change and makes the character take a hard look at himself and his life.
(Here's more on the mechanics of how people change)
4. Change works both ways
Negative reinforcement might gain positive results, but bad things can also push your protagonist away from the change he needs to undergo. It's often the Dark Moment event, where he feels defeated and wondera if it's all worth it. There might be some bad times ahead before that change occurs.
(Here's more on guides to inner conflict that make sense)
5. Not all growth is good growth
The character usually exhibits the behavior that needs changing and it turns out badly for him early on in the novel. Eventually, he'll behave the right way and be rewarded. Typically, this takes many small steps in a longer process to make the character take a hard look at himself and his life. Identify the clear path (even if there are setbacks) between the beginning and the end of the novel.
6. How does the change reflect your premise or theme?
Odds are the arc is going to connect to the theme or premise, since character growth is a common vehicle for illustrating theme. Look at what the story is about on a more conceptual level, and if the character arc can help illustrate that idea. Pinpoint where the character arc illustrates the theme.
Once you understand these elements, you can spread them out over the novel so the arc, well, arcs. Look for the moments when:
The protagonist’s flaw is established: This is usually seen in the opening scene or first few chapters.
The protagonist makes his first mistake: This usually happens on or around the inciting event, and might even cause the event.
The attempt to grow fails: The first attempt to change usually doesn’t go well, and is often seen around the end of Act One when the plot problems start putting pressure on the protagonist.
The protagonist is blindsided by weakness: It’s common for the flaw or weakness to cause unexpected failure, often around the midpoint of the novel. It's a moment when the character is surprised or caught off guard because of his flaw.
The protagonist has a major screw-up or rejects the growth: This usually triggers the classic Dark Moment of the Soul just before the climax (Act Three) starts, and it’s the personal demon the protagonist must face in order to move forward.
The protagonist realizes he’s grown: This is the culmination of everything he’s learned and experienced over the course of the novel, and the result of the soul searching he did during his dark moment.
Nothing says you have to know all of these things going in. You don't even have to do all of them, but they should get you started thinking about how your character arcs can help you plot. These are the whys that make those whats happen.
Do you know your character arcs before you start writing?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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