The Character Arc: Agency and Consequences #amwriting

My favorite novels are literary fantasy, a genre which has a character-driven plot set in a fantasy world. I love books where the prose has been carefully crafted, the growth of the characters is the central theme, the events are  the means to enable that growth, and the fantasy setting frames the story.

Thus, I am a great fan of Tad William’s work, in all its many incarnations. When not writing, I am currently finishing reading The Witchwood Crown, and I must say, his work never fails to move me. On Friday, I will post my review here.

Tad Williams’ work is brilliant because he understands the character arc, and the importance of agency and consequences. No character is allowed to stagnate,  a lesson I have taken to heart.

Because I love character driven work, some of what I write is literary fantasy. I have found that, for me, the first half of the book is easy to write, but beginning at the midpoint of my first draft, I begin to struggle.

For many authors, the rough draft is challenging because we are pulling the story out of the ether. The good news is that once the first draft is finished, we can get down to actually writing the book.

The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment and give it form on paper. When it is finished, the rough draft is basically made of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalogue of events: who did what, where they did it, and why.  We are beginning to know our characters, but in the original version, we may not have a handle on how to portray their reactions. The character arc is uneven and making the story seem real becomes a challenge.

The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character/protagonist over the course of a story. Stories that interest me have a strong character arc:  the protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events he/she experiences, they are transformed, frequently changing for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.

The third quarter section of your story begins with the midpoint crisis. It is crucial because the seeds planted by the events of the first half must bear fruit here, forcing a visible change (usually a positive change) in the behavior and outlook of the protagonist and his/her friends. Sadly, some books fail to live up to their promise when they arrive at this point, and the reader gives up.

In a book where the storyline follows the hero’s journey, at some point in this third section, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. This is your opportunity to learn who they really are as human beings. The events leading to this place have combined to break the character down to their lowest emotional state.

The protagonist must emerge from this section remade as a stronger person, ready to meet whatever awaits them at the final showdown. And you must make it believable, done in such a way that it feels natural to the reader.

If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

The way to avoid predictability in a plot is to introduce a sense of danger, an unavoidable threat. How our characters react to that event should feel unpredictable because they have agency.

In many ways, agency is the ability your character has to surprise you when you are writing them and their reactions. They seem to drive the keyboard, making their own choices.

When we give our characters agency, an unavoidable threat removes the option of going about life as normal but leaves characters with several consequential choices, the final one of which will be made in a stressful situation.

I used the word consequential relating to the choices your characters must make. I chose that word intentionally. If there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?

Why would a random trip to a convenience store interest a reader if something out of the ordinary does not occur? After all—we go out for bread every day, and it’s not too exciting. Frankly, I’m not interested in reading about Nadine buying a loaf of bread. But make her the witness to a robbery and things begin to get interesting. Better yet, give her options:

  1. She can hide and wait for the intruders to leave.
  2. She can decide to be a hero.
  3. What other options does Nadine have? What does she see when she looks around the store?

Whatever Nadine chooses to do, there will be consequences. If things go awry, she could become a hostage. If she goes unnoticed but tells the police what she knows, she and her family could be in danger.

Once she is in the middle of these consequences, Nadine will have more crisis points to face, and a lack of bread will only be one of them. She will have many decisions to make, and each choice will drive the plot.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what drives a great, absorbing story.

At the outset, giving my characters agency is difficult to write. This is because, in the rough draft, the protagonist and her motives are still somewhat unformed. What I keep in mind is faithfulness in following the hero’s journey and allowing her choices to force her personal growth.

In one of my current works-in progress, my main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. Her world has been shaken to the foundations, and she no longer has faith in herself or the people she once looked up to. To write this story, I must discover the answers to these questions:

  • How is she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes her pull herself together and just keep on going?
  • How has she evolved after this personal death and rebirth event?

In all my favorite novels, this low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey. It is the place during which she is taken down to her component parts emotionally, and rebuilds herself to be more than she ever believed she could be.

By the time you finish writing this part, you should have come to know your character and how they will react in any given situation.

Paying close attention to making this section emotionally powerful in your first draft will pay off when you begin the second draft. In the first draft, use all the adverbs and modifiers you need because you must get the idea down before you forget it.

In the rewrite, these words will be the guide you need to make the prose evolve into a greater, more polished version of the original.


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4 responses to “The Character Arc: Agency and Consequences #amwriting

  1. Stephen Swartz

    More good advice
    That I’ve heard twice:
    The need to grow
    To reap what you sow
    In a couple hundred pages
    Of episodes with sages,
    Or battles with dragons
    Or runaway wagons,
    The end of the same
    Agency they gain!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A really good review, you make it seem enticing to one who ordinarily doesn’t read that genre. Question: What female author/novel would you recommend who writes great fantasy of this sort with really memorable characters?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I especially enjoyed Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea.” I also really enjoyed Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon.” They are far different from Tad’s work but they are classic fantasy, written with great prose and deep storylines. Truthfully, as a young woman I would have walked barefoot across broken glass to get to ANY book written by Anne McCaffrey, especially her “Dragonriders of Pern” series.