Tag Archives: characterization

The Character Arc #amwriting

The Discord channel for my region is a hub of activity these days. Our writers are a week into NaNoWriMo now and discovering aspects of their characters that they didn’t plan or expect.

Plot-exists-to-reveal-characterThe emergence of these traits is exciting, fueling the passion they have for their stories.

Over the next year, my own characters will be more fully formed, as they aren’t really who I envision them to be just yet. Even my protagonist is a bit hazy, as he is now five years older than he was in book 1. He now has children, and parenthood changes everything for most people.

You can’t just drop everything and hare off on some death-defying quest.

But he’s going to have to do just that.

At this point, I’m just trying to get the story written while it’s fresh in my mind. As I progress, the characters will all experience an arc of growth and change. After all, the characters are the story, and the events of the piece exist only to force growth upon them.

How people are changed by their experiences is what makes the story compelling. One of my favorite examples of this can be found in the book The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Bilbo Baggins is Tolkien’s protagonist. His story begins in a middle-class place of comfort, with few things to trouble him. He lives in his family’s home, a comfortable, well-kept place.

Bilbo has inherited a modest private income and has no need to work, so he devotes his time to writing and entertaining his close friends.

This is our hero in his comfort zone. He could have lived to the end of his days going along as he was and would have told you he was happy. But underneath it all, Bilbo is a little bored with his existence. Nevertheless, he’s a sensible, well-bred hobbit and refuses to admit to it.

If Gandalf had chosen a different hobbit that fateful day, Bilbo would never have developed any further as a person. He was stagnating and didn’t know it.

However, one sunny day, he’s just enjoying himself on the bench beside his front door, when along comes “the inciting incident”—Gandalf, a mysterious character who plays multiple roles within the Lord of the Rings story arc.

In his first guise, Gandalf has the archetypal role of Herald. He is the bringer of change and unwanted dinner guests.

I like the way that Bilbo is shown here. He resents the intrusion, but politeness forces him to become an unwilling host to a company of strangers. Bilbo also dislikes being made aware of how bored he is with his comfortable existence.

We all fear what we don’t know, and Bilbo fears going into the unknown with the dwarves despite Gandalf’s insistence. Also, he’s not too keen on being labeled an ‘expert burglar,’ as he’s never burgled anything in his life and has no idea how to go about such a thing.

However, at the last minute, Bilbo realizes that if he doesn’t go now, he will always wonder what would have happened if he had.

the hobbitBilbo’s sudden irrational decision to accept the task of Burglar sets him on a path that becomes a personal pilgrimage, a search for the courage he always possessed but had never needed.

Fear of stagnation has overcome Bilbo’s fear of the unknown.

This begins the journey and events that shape Bilbo’s character arc. By the end of the novel, he has recognized and embraced his nature’s romantic, fanciful, and adventurous aspects. In the process, he discovers that he is competent and capable of bravery, winning respect by applying his wits and common sense to every problem.

Events in themselves don’t change us. We are changed by what we learn as human beings, by experiencing how incidents and occurrences affect our emotions and challenge our values.

Each person grows and develops in a way that is distinctively them. Some people become hardened, world-weary. Others become more compassionate, forgiving.

A character arc should encompass several events that precipitate personal growth. Three common experiences that change a person are:

  • Profound Grief
  • Failure
  • Success against great odds

What the incentive for change will be is up to you and depends on the story you are telling.

The character arcIn one of my current works in progress, my protagonist is a soldier of the Bull God’s world of Serende, an enemy sworn to conquer the goddess’s world of Neveyah. He undergoes a religious conversion, and his story takes him on a physical and spiritual journey.

Whether we are writing fantasy, literary fiction, comedy, sci-fi, or romance for NaNoWriMo this year, our characters must be changed by their experiences.

How they are changed will be up to you because it is your story.

The works that we consider classics are those in which the events are the sparks that ignite personal growth for the reader as well as the protagonist. Those novels stay with us, and we find ourselves thinking about them long after reading the last page and closing the book.


Credits and Attributions:

Dustcover of the first edition of The Hobbit, taken from a design by the author, J.R.R. Tolkien.

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The Inferential Layer: Building Characters #amwriting

When a character pops into my head, it’s usually a brief glimpse at first. Sometimes the character arrives unannounced, and I must build a story around them. Other times, sometimes in the same story, the plot demands a character, and I must build them.

In the beginning stages, we see a large picture, and the details are not too clear. We have an overall idea of what the story could be.

Readers always pick up on mushy characterizations. Characters must be as individual as the people we know. Every now and then a manuscript comes to me for editing where the characters talk and sound the same. They ring false, and I know what happened.

The author became so involved with creating the plot and circumstances that characterizations were overlooked.

In your mind, you have the basics:

  • Sex and age
  • Physical description—coloring, clothes
  • Overall personality—light or dark, upbeat or a downer

You can tell me all these things, but unless I see it, I don’t believe it. Good characterization shows those things but also offers me hints of:

  • An individual’s speech habits.
  • An individual with history.
  • An individual’s personal style.
  • An individual with or without boundaries—things they will or will not do.
  • Someone with secrets they believe no one knows.
  • Someone with secrets they will admit to.
  • And someone with secrets they will deny to the grave.

This is a key component of the inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story. As the narrative progresses, we offer a few more clues about each character, maintaining the mystery, yet giving the reader a small reward.

We begin to see the details buried in the noise of the larger picture.

In real life, people who accost you and dump their whole life on you in a ten-minute monologue immediately lose your interest. In fact, you avoid them, fearing you will be subjected to more of their history.

Don’t make it too easy for the reader because the sense of reward is a ‘found’ thing. The ‘ah-hah!’ moment of discovery is what we readers want to experience. We enjoy the ‘oh, my god’ moment of shock when a deeply personal secret is hinted at, and only we, the reader, suspect the truth.

In the books I love and refer back to, great characters dominate. They behave and react to the inciting incident the way their established personality would. As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.

We want to read about characters with secrets because they are a mystery, and we love to work out puzzles.

Certain tricks of plotting work across all genres, from sci-fi to romance, no matter what the setting is:

  • One or more characters is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.
  • Every character projects an obvious surface persona.
  • Early on, the reader sees glimpses of weaknesses and fears; the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas.
  • Each character has emotions and thoughts they conceal from the others. Perhaps they are angry and afraid, or jealous, or any number of emotions we are embarrassed to acknowledge.
  • Maybe they hope to gain something on a personal level—if so, what?

Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ individual stories intersects seamlessly. In order to do that, motivations must be clearly defined.

  • You must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.
  • What need drives them?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal? Conversely, what will they NOT do?
  • What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?

Write nothing that seems out of character, unless there is a good, justified reason for that behavior or comment.

We know the obstacles our characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path. When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices, and they will take the narrative in new directions, surprising even you, the author.

When they have unique personalities, it becomes easy to give our characters an active role. And yet they still harbor secrets that surprise and shock me. We see the smallest details hiding in the background, nearly obscured by the distractions in the foreground.

We see what is hidden in the shadows.

When I am first writing any story, giving my characters agency is difficult to do. At this point in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me.

I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth, so I have to create a personnel file for them. I make each character known to me as an individual, down to their taste in clothing.

I am privy to what secrets they will consent to share with me. Those secrets propel their story-line. But they don’t tell me everything.

Within the plot outline, the individuality of the characters drives the story as a whole. Allowing them agency makes it unexpected. When characters are portrayed as truthfully as possible, they will feel real.

In real life, smart people reveal their secrets only at the right time, or they keep them forever. If they don’t, we will do anything to avoid those people, fearing they will spew too much information, stuff we don’t need or want to know. When they get on the bus, we avoid making eye contact and put our possessions on the seat beside us so they can’t sit there, pretending we don’t see them.

In a gripping story, characters keep their secrets close, revealing them only at the one moment when the protagonist and the reader must have the information.

Now, if only I can write this story that I woke up thinking about. If only I can pry loose who they are, learn their secrets. It’s easy to talk the talk, but walking the talk is the difficult part of writing. This is where writing become work.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341  (accessed December 14, 2017).

Details sections from Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341  (accessed December 14, 2017).

Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Accessed October 22, 2017).

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