Tag Archives: circumstances and the character arc

The Character Arc part 4 #amwritng

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.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

We met Dave, a hapless accountant whose moment of madness in “paying it forward” and purchasing a stranger’s lunch has led to his being taken hostage and forced to become a spy.

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.

Dave’s character arc is driven by the desire to go back to the comfort of his old life. Nothing evokes such longing in a person as the memory of home, a place where they were happy and secure.

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.

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The Character Arc, part 3 #amwriting

Today in our focus on writing, we’re continuing our discussion of the Character Arc, which was begun last week.

Part 1 Posted on Monday July 13, 2020

Part 2 Posted on Wednesday July 15, 2020

Today we’re talking about circumstances (situations) our characters find themselves in, and how their view of “self” is shaped by them.

But first, maybe you’re a writer like me, one who needs a few notes and a loose outline help me get the manuscript started.

Many writers work at a day job, and using the note-taking app on the cellphone during work hours is frowned on. If you are in that category and you are not working from home, you can go old-school with a pocket-sized notebook, and write those ideas down.

That way, you can unobtrusively make notes whenever you have an idea that would work well in your story, and you won’t appear distracted or off-task.

Once you have assembled your random ideas, and maybe even written a chapter or two, it’s time to think about who the characters are and how they react to their circumstances.

At the outset of the story, we meet our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings.

Once we have met them and seen them in their comfort zone, an event occurs, which is the inciting incident. This is an occurrence that falls in the first chapters of the story, forcing the protagonist out of their usual circumstances. It hooks the reader and is the first point of no return.

The protagonist, in those opening paragraphs, has been shaped by the situation and lifestyle in which they are accustomed to living.

We’re going to plot a mystery with an eye toward how the protagonist is changed by their circumstances. If it seems familiar, it’s because this is a scenario I’ve used before:

The story opens when Dave, an unmarried accountant, has received an unexpected bonus and splurges on lunch in a restaurant. He sees a woman from across the café and develops a small, instant infatuation. He wishes he were brave enough to walk up and introduce himself.

What is the action he would do that falls within his comfort zone? What would he spontaneously do that is unusually bold for him?

Perhaps he chooses to secretly “pay-it-forward,” buying her lunch when he pays for his own on his way out. You must show him as a shy person not given to speaking to women he doesn’t know, much less buying their lunch.

So, this act is a bold one for Dave, and it must change his life.

Because he acted on the wild notion to pay for her lunch, he draws the attention of the people who were following her. These people operate on a level a mere accountant wouldn’t know exists.

To them, that act of buying her lunch was a secret code. They decide that Dave is a spy posing as an accountant. Unbeknownst to Dave, who goes about his life as he always does, regretting only that he didn’t dare to say hello to the woman, his every move is now on their radar.

His habitual routine is now interpreted according to a very different set of rules, by people who live and breathe conspiracy theories.

Buying a stranger lunch was the inciting incident. Everything that happens from here on occurs because of that innocent act.

This is where Dave is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation that is the core idea of our plot. For the rest of the novel, his circumstances will transform his way of thinking.

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. He is forced at gunpoint onto a plane bound for Oslo, Norway, handcuffed to a suitcase. The only other key that can remove the handcuffs is at the American Embassy in the custody of a mysterious woman, Lisa Desmond.

This is the new circumstance in which our protagonist finds himself as a result of the inciting incident.

How does Dave react to his kidnapping and what is his physical condition at the moment he is kidnapped?

How does Dave change his situation for better or worse?

How do the antagonistic forces react when they discover he is not a spy but is just an accountant who is now in danger of losing his job?

This is where we discover who the woman in the café really is and what role she will play in Dave’s new life as an unwilling spy.

Everything you will write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail Dave’s quest and how the circumstances he finds himself in as each scene progresses shape his view of himself.

For a writer, winging it in short bursts can be exhilarating. Still, my years of experience with NaNoWriMo has taught me that writing by the seat of my pants for extended lengths of time only works until I run out of ideas for what to do next.

With a simple outline, I don’t become desperate and start writing random bunny trails to nowhere into the plot.

DISCLAIMER: This does NOT apply to anything written during November and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). By day ten, I will have written an incredible number of events-to-nowhere into the manuscript. These are things that have nothing at all in common with the original story. However, I volunteer as a Municipal Liaison, so during NaNoWriMo, I must get my word-count. I write some crazy things during NaNoWriMo.

But I won’t trash them.

In December, I cut them and paste them into a separate document. I save those outtakes in my ‘idea file.’

Some of the prose will be good, and with a few minor changes (names, places), these outtakes are the seeds from which other stories grow.

I will post the fourth and final installment in The Character Arc series on Wednesday. Through the events that form the arc of the plot, Dave’s character arc becomes more defined. He becomes more decisive and able to act in the open as opposed to remaining hidden.

At first, Dave just wants to get rid of the suitcase and go back to his job. He wants that desperately and believes that somehow it will happen. On Wednesday, we will delve more deeply into Dave’s objectives.

We will explore how setting goals and working to achieve them gives Dave more control over his circumstances and forces him to become a bolder person.


Credits and Attributions

Eye on Flat Panel Monitor,  Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis © 2013

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