Character arcs and plot are like chocolate and peanut butter. Separately they're both good, but together, they're magical. (If you don't like chocolate and/or peanut butter, please substitute your own delicious pairing) When one is missing, readers notice. A book without a plot is boring. A story without a character arc is forgettable.
This was made wonderfully clear when the hubby and I watched So Undercover. It’s basically Miss Congeniality with sorority girls, and the concept was so similar the weaknesses of one (and why) stood out like a palm tree at the North Pole.
So Undercover is about...
Molly, a tough-as-nails, street-smart private investigator who is drafted by the FBI to go undercover in a college sorority, where she quickly discovers she's way out of her element amongst a sisterhood of snooty, high maintenance, materialistic college girls. But Molly accepts the top-secret mission in order to protect the daughter of a key witness in a case against the mob.Compare this to Miss Congeniality...
FBI Agent Gracie Hart goes undercover as a hopeful eager contestant to be the next Miss United States in order to ferret out a terrorist targeting the event. But Gracie doesn't have a beauty-pageant bone in her body, and it's up to a team of consultants to turn the FBI's Dirty Harriet into a poised beauty.Two tomboys of the law enforcement vein (FBI vs investigator) enter a world of stereotypically feminine women to prevent a dangerous crime. While undercover, they struggle to fit in. Essentially the same basic fish out of water movie.
So why do I still watch Miss Congeniality and will never watch So Undercover again?
I cared about Sandra Bullock's character, Gracie, in Miss Congeniality.
I didn't care about Miley Cyrus's character, Molly, in So Undercover.
On the surface, they're both decent movies. Good acting, fun writing, good setups. But one movie had a solid character arc (Miss Congeniality), and the other did not (So Undercover) and that made a huge difference in my care factor.
So why did the character arc make such a difference?
If you just look at the characters, you'd think Molly would be more sympathetic:
- She has a touching backstory--a father with gambling issues, so it's up to her to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
- She's pulled into this case against her will because she needs the money the consulting fee will get her.
- She's very good at her job.
- She's funny with a snarky sense of humor.
- She's a young gal struggling to make something of her life.
As for Gracie...
- She' a bit of a mess, pushing the whole "non-girly girl" thing a bit far. She doesn't even comb her hair.
- She's all alone, and doesn't have anyone depending on her.
- She's socially awkward.
- She's a little reckless.
Molly is the girl you'd probably want to hang out with, while Gracie is the one you'd likely slip away from at a party.
Which is one of the reasons you care about Gracie. She has a lot less going for her and lot more to learn. Molly is already solid as a person, even though she has a few rough edges. Gracie has flaws. Big ones.
And that's where the character arc comes in.
(More on creating character arcs here)
Gracie is trying too hard to be one of the boys, and she's forgotten what it's like to be a girl. To her, girls are frilly and weak and lacking in the traits a good FBI agent needs to be successful. So she's handicapping herself by rejecting her own natural talents. To her, women can't be strong. She's denying a part of herself and she's not happy. She's trying to be what she's not.
Molly is strong and capable, but she isn't trying to avoid being a girl. She's tough for sure, rides a motorcycle, is into weapons, but there's never a moment where you feel she's trying to be like the guys around her just to fit in and be taken seriously. Her age is more of a problem for her than her gender. To her, the girly girls are stupid and easily ignored. Her life has problems, but they're aren't of her making.
Tip #1: Flawed characters with something to learn are more sympathetic and have more room for growth
Gracie has to work hard to fit in with the pageant contestants. It takes a lot of effort to get her to look the part, and even more to get her to act it. The more she tries to be what she's always been (the tough FBI agent) the less she fits in and the less capable she is. She has to learn to use her untapped strengths as a woman to do her job well.
Molly gets some new clothes and a makeover and fits right in. She smiles and offers some easy fake quips to hide her tough exterior, but she never becomes anything more than the tough chick in a dress acting like a sorority girl. She uses her investigator skills and is successful without having to change her ways or learn from her experience.
Tip #2: The struggle to change helps endear a character to the reader
(More things to think about when creating character arcs here)
When Gracie decides to stick up for the women in the pageant, she does so because she sees they aren't what she thought they were. They've changed her viewpoint by their actions.
When Molly decides to stick up for the sorority sisters, she does because...I don't know why. They decided to let her stay there after they wrongly accused her of stealing from them. They never win her over by changing her view, she just gets used to their girly ways.
Tip #3: A change of heart or viewpoint must come from a real change made from a struggle and an experience, not just because plot says so
By the end of the movie, Gracie has learned to embrace her femininity and use it to empower her. She no longer has disdain for the pageant contestants, but respect for what they do and who they are. She's found a new source of strength and her life is better because of this transformation. Including her love life, as she ends up with one of her fellow agents. (Though in a way, this is a bad thing as he didn't notice her until she became beautiful. Shallow dudes do not make good boyfriends. But Gracie is happy and no longer alone, so it's a win in her book)
Molly is pretty much the same person she was when the movie started. She's found a guy, but not because she grew as a person. He liked her for her the whole time, and her pretending to be someone else even came close to driving him away. Had she run into him on the street while doing a PI job, they could have wound up together anyway. She's decided to go to school, but there's never a sense that she's doing it to become a better person or has learned from her experience going undercover. She's just in a position where she no longer has to worry about Dad and this looks like fun. (And Dad is miraculously no longer a problem, which doesn't really make sense. Last week she worried about him, this week she's decided she has to live her own life and can't take care of him anymore, and that's okay.)
Two movies, two women, two similar journeys. One I cared about, one I didn't. Gracie's story left me smiling and happy, cheering for her and thinking what a cute and fun movie it was. Molly's story left me thinking that could have been better. It had all the right pieces but it fell flat.
Tip #4: A character arc that forces a character to face their faults and come out stronger for it is a character readers can root for
(More on creating character, story, and plot arcs here)
Don't let your novels fall flat with weak character arcs. Make sure your protagonist has something to learn from the experiences they go through, and they'll be better off in the end for having done it.And readers will care more that they did.
What's your characters arc? What does he or she learn from their story experience?