What the heck is a character arc? Find out here.

I’ve realised that the Beverley Guardian website has disappeared, so I’m reposting my columns here.

Character arc

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The protagonist must by changed by their story.

People like to know about other people, that’s why we watch soaps and listen to gossip. Even news stories are more memorable if they have a human interest angle to them. All good stories are about people. The best stories involve people being changed by what happens to them.

The character arc is the description of what happens inside a character over the course of the story. The character’s emotional journey, if you like. This is what stops your story from being a list of events and gives it a purpose.

Do you need an emotional arc to a story? If you’re writing character driven fiction, then yes, it’s essential. If you’re writing action thrillers, then you might be able to get away without, but really, even then, having an inner journey still helps. Jurassic Park (the first movie, not the book) is an action film about rampaging dinosaurs, but the real story is Sam Neill’s character learning to care about those two kids.

So how do you get a character arc? Character arcs are all about change. The most common and arguably the most satisfying sort is the positive change, where the character has a flaw or a misapprehension around which they have formed their world view and, through the story, this changes so that they are a happier person at the end. It is possible to go the other way, of course. Breaking Bad is a fabulous negative arc.

First of all, get to know your character. Figure out what their story problem is. Perhaps your hero tries to do everything himself because he doesn’t trust other people not to let him down. Or has no self confidence. Or needs to prove he can see a project to completion. Find what their emotional problem is. This is how they are at the start. Now work out where they need to be, emotionally, by the end of the story.

People are naturally resistant to change. No one switches  from one state to another suddenly, so avoid having your character have a massive change of heart at the last minute. The character’s journey from one state to the other has to happen in stages; several small changes that eventually add up to a major change in outlook by the end.

The trick is to get the external conflict (the big events that happen in the plot) to mirror the internal conflict (the emotional change).  On the face of it, this sounds difficult to achieve, but it’s really not that hard. Firstly, if you’ve done your homework and got to know your characters, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how they will react to the major plot events. Even if your story is about a librarian fighting against invading Martians, every event will elicit a variety of emotional reactions in your Librarian. Focus on the reactions that are relevant to their emotional arc. Add some small reflection of their emotional state alongside the major plot points.

If you’re the sort of person who writes into the mist without planning, don’t worry. Just adjust the focus in the scenes when you come to edit the first draft.

Another approach is to use the emotional conflict to generate the smaller plot points. For instance, if we back to our example of the hero who needs to learn to trust others; He’ll start of trying to do things by himself because other people would only let him down. At some point he’ll have to trust someone with something small. They don’t let him down. He’s surprised – maybe there’s hope for other people yet!

The next time he needs to trust someone, he’s a little less reluctant. It works out again. He unbends a bit more. Then things go wrong (they always get worse before they get better) and someone lets him down. He thinks he was right all along. He can’t trust other people. Other people are unreliable. Except, he knows that’s not always true. Just before the end, he needs to take a leap of faith – which he takes because everything that’s happened to him so far in the story has changed who he is. By the end of the book, he’s got over the worst of his inability to trust people. He won’t have flipped over to being totally trusting, but he’ll be at least on his way there. Put in events to show all those points and suddenly your plot will start falling into place.

The better the internal and external conflicts mirror each other, the more satisfying the story is to read.

Not all of the characters in the book need to change, of course. In a lot of novels, the only person who really changes is the protagonist. Because I write romance, my books have emotional arcs from the two main characters. They must both change in order to be happy. Sometimes, a major secondary character will have an emotional arc too. Generally speaking, lesser characters can go through a book without changing significantly. If you find that one of your secondary characters is displaying a more interesting character arc than your protagonist, then perhaps it’s time to consider that character as the lead in a later book.

So how do you know the character has changed? Well, they can stop and think about it – but that’s not very believable. Far better to show the change through what they say and do. Was there are scene somewhere near the start that highlighted their problem? Write a scene towards the end that echoes the opening, but shows how different the character’s responses are.

Working out your characters’ internal struggles can really help pull a story together and makes for a more satisfying, emotionally resonant ending.

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