Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Do your characters arc?

Character arcs, a character's journey of internal change and growth, are an important part of making any story satisfying. It helps readers to relate to your story and root for your character. The external plot, the action and events of the story, affects every character, but do your characters grow and change on an emotional level?

Every character, and every character, has to start somewhere. We know that in the "ordinary world," at the beginning of the story, something is amiss—something is missing from the protagonist's life. That doesn't just mean a love interest or a murderer that needs to be brought to justice—there's something deeper, on an emotional level, that the character needs.

That could be love or justice—or it could be forgiveness, healing, resolve, courage, wisdom, etc. (Editor/author Alicia Rasley has a great list in her article "The Internal Journey.") This is what they gain in the end— what the story events mean to the character.

This is another instance where knowing the end from the beginning really pays off—if you know what the character will end up with, you know set them up in the opposite place: if they need love, they start off lonely. If they need healing, they start off damaged; resolve, dissolute; courage, afraid; wisdom, naive.

This also works the other way around—if you have the flaw at the beginning, you can look for ways to "fix" it throughout the story events.

You can also find your character's arc by by focusing on your character's strengths to find their weaknesses. This principle creates well-rounded, realistic characters without throwing in disparate and extraneous characteristics or fake weaknesses.

Sounds contradictory, doesn't it? The concept is actually centuries old, as Alicia Rasley explains in a blog post:
The heroic flaw is what opens the protagonist up to real trouble-- what causes him (and it generally WAS a him in the past :) to seek out trouble or fail to resolve it expeditiously. But here's the clever part-- the heroic flaw was often the other side of the heroic strength: "That which makes him great brings him down." (I'm paraphrasing, maybe bowdlerizing, Aristotle here!) This is so elegant, so classy, so inspiring, that even today novels can be transformed by that equation.
To do this, we take the character's strength to a logical extreme. So if her strength is that she's a self-starter, maybe her weakness is a logical extension of that: she can't ask anyone for help. If his strength is that he's naturally a very generous and loving person—but his weakness is that he tries to hard to please others and becomes a doormat.

Finding this flaw sets up the character's emotional journey. Their growth throughout the story is prompted by the external events of the plot. The external events may be what keep the reader turning the pages, but this internal journey is what makes the book have real resonance with the reader. Seeing people grow and change is a major appeal of fiction, and gives us the hope that we can all become better people. This internal journey is what makes a book truly compelling, and something that we continue to contemplate beyond the basic events of the plot.

There's a lot more to be said about character arcs—enough to fill a book, actually! So I did: Character Arcs: founding, forming and finishing your character's journey helps you to find the perfect arc for your character, make sure their change is prompted by external events and revise your character arcs for maximum impact.

What do you think? How have you crafted your characters' arcs? What are your favorite character arcs to read?

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