Today in our focus on writing, we’re talking about circumstances (situations) our characters find themselves in and how they are shaped by them. We’re delving a little deeper into our discussion of the Character Arc, which was begun last week.
What does Dave want more than anything? He wants the Agents who kidnapped him to let him go home.
After the inciting incident, Dave must want nothing more than to achieve that objective.
So how do his circumstances reshape his personality? After all, we have a character arc here, not a flat line.
Let’s look at the plot outline:
On page one, Dave-the-accountant is shown in his ordinary world. He likes who he is and sees nothing wrong with his existence. We see a man who is only sure of himself when numbers are involved and see him in his office where he is working his way up the corporate ladder. The only thing Dave does well is straightening out tangled financial reports, and he is brilliant at that.
People like Dave, as he’s a good listener. However, he rarely volunteers anything conversationally because he has nothing of interest to contribute unless they are discussing accounting. He receives an unexpected bonus for having done well in getting one of their high-profile clients off the hook with the IRS.
Usually, Dave buys a sandwich from the machine in the employee lounge and eats at his desk while he works. But receiving the bonus calls for a little celebration. He tells the receptionist he’s going out for lunch and walks down the street to a café he has passed every day but never entered.
On page three, Dave does a random act of kindness that does not go unpunished. After he’s seated, Dave notices a striking woman. He imagines what it would be like to be a suave man of the world, wishing he were bold enough to introduce himself to her. He pictures her inviting him to dine with her.
Even though he is sure the woman wouldn’t give him the time of day, Dave suddenly chooses to “pay it forward” by purchasing her lunch when he pays for his.
He leaves the café before she finds out what he’s done, mentally berating himself for being such a coward.
5,000 words into the story, Dave-the-accountant has become Dave-the-kidnap-victim. Unbeknownst to Dave, the woman he was so taken with is a well-known double agent. Because he acted on the wild notion to pay for her lunch, he has drawn the attention of the people who were following her.
Two days later, as he walks to work, a white limousine pulls up alongside him. Four men in dark suits hustle him into the backseat. Here, the story can go in several directions, but in all of them, Dave must make choices that will change his life.
The next event happens 10,000 words into the story. Dave’s kidnappers realize he is not a double agent, but decide he is useful anyway. He’s an unremarkable person, a man who doesn’t stand out in a crowd. His ability to see the patterns in financial numbers is just the skill they need to nail a criminal they’ve been trying to get evidence on for years.
What does Dave fear? At first, he fears he’s going to die, but as time goes on, he fears he will lose his job.
15,000 words into the story, Dave agrees to do what the Secret Service wants, on the promise he will be allowed to go home and won’t lose his job over it.
Getting back to the security of his comfortable middle-class life becomes Dave’s primary goal. Every scene and conversation will push him closer to either attaining that goal or discovering a new purpose.
25,000 words into the story, Dave learns that, despite their glib assurances, the government was not “there to help” him. He has lost his job and barely manages to keep his apartment. The agents have one more task for him, and he’s desperate to not have to dig into his retirement funds, so he agrees to it.
45,000 words into the story, Dave is in a tough situation, trying to get evidence on an extremely dangerous person. He has lost faith in himself and the people he trusted but can’t turn back now, as he is in a situation that will get him killed if he’s discovered.
60,000 words to the end – In completing that last task and going back to his old world, Dave finds he is no longer happy as an unassuming accountant. He’s seen what is out there in the world, and no longer fits in his old corporate life.
Each event pushes Dave a little further out of his comfort zone. He has to become an actor, but in doing so, he realizes he’s been acting all his life. How does this new awareness change him?
No one can go through these sometimes traumatic and terrifying events and not be changed by them.
Many different endings are possible, some of which could lead to another book.
This was the scenario for a mystery/thriller of sorts. Still, the principle of events forcing change on the protagonist’s character arc is universal across all genres.
That longing for a time that no longer exists, and which may never have been as wonderful as we recall, is a good theme that fits well into any genre. Trying to achieve the unobtainable opens the story up to myriad possibilities, all of which should force growth or change upon the characters.
When I look back at the books that moved me, the catalyst for my emotional attachment was the characters, way more than the events, the setting, or the genre. What drew me to these imaginary people was the way they were affected by the events they lived through.
I remained invested in them to the very end of the book. That, to me, is the mark of good writing.