Tag Archives: the character arc

Character Growth/Arc #amwriting

When we think of epic fantasy, the first books that come to mind are J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien’s work was compelling not only for the quality of his prose and the events, but for the characters and how they grew and changed in the course of their adventures.

Genre authors spend a lot of time plotting the events a character will go through. Equal time must be given to character development.

A great story evolves when the antagonist and protagonist are strong but not omnipotent. Both the antagonist and protagonist must have character arcs that show personal growth or inability to grow.

Sometimes, an antagonist’s weakness is their inability to accept change and adapt to it. Other times, events cause them to devolve, sending them into a downward spiral. Either way, for the antagonist to be realistic, this must be clearly shown.

Once we meet the hero, small hindrances must occur between the larger events, frustrating their path to success. As each hindrance is overcome, the reader feels a small sense of satisfaction. Following the protagonist as he/she is negotiating these detours is what makes the story captivating, in my opinion.

  1. The story begins with the opening act, where the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. It then kicks into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” that first plot point at the ¼ mark that triggers the rest of the story. It is “the problem,” the core conflict of the story. This is where the protagonist is thrown into the action and is where they first find themselves blocked from achieving the desired object.

At this point, the protagonist is not fully formed—they must grow as a result of their experiences. They may make mistakes, cause themselves more trouble because they are untried and don’t know what they are doing.

Also, at this point, the protagonist may be confused as to what is really going on. This is a good place to introduce a mentor, someone who can offer a little wisdom or set the hero on the right path.

  1. Following the inciting incident is the second act: more action occurs which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling.

Each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters do not know that will affect the plot.

Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.

The characters begin to be changed by the events they experience. How you show their emotional state is critical at this point because emotions engage readers. If you want your readers to feel the crisis, your characters must feel it and show their reactions to the reader.

We must contrast the relative security of the characters’ lives as they were in the opening paragraphs with the hazards of where they are now. We show the uncertainty, fear, anger, sense of loss they are experiencing.

  1. At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act and setting them back even further.

Now they are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.

The midpoint is also where we really get to know the antagonist and learn what the enemy knows that the protagonists do not. We discover his/her motives and what they may be capable of.

First, we need to remember that very few people are evil for no reason at all. Sometimes they are likeable, people who appear innocuous, even loving. If this is the case in your story, you need to insert small clues for the reader about their personality into the narrative in the beginning pages.

Fleshing out the antagonist and making their motives realistic is important. He/she is as central to the story as the protagonist because their actions force the protagonist to grow as a human being.

  1. By the end of the third act, the protagonists are finding ways to resolve the conflict and are ready to commence the final, fourth act, where they will embark on the final battle. They will face their enemy and either win or lose.

By the end of the narrative, the protagonist has been through life changing events. They are no longer naïve but have knowledge and wisdom of their own. They are fit to be the mentors of the next generation.

It’s important to remember that at no point in the narrative can people be sitting around idly chit-chatting about the changes they have been through. The reader knows and doesn’t want to read a rehashing of events at the end of each chapter.

Many authors who are new to the craft say their characters just evolve with no thought ahead of time. As this lack of planning is clear in their muddy work, perhaps it’s a good idea to give a little thought to plotting the personal growth of the characters, how the experiences will change them. Readers become invested in the characters and want to see what happens next. Reward the reader by making the journey about the characters as much as you do about the events.


Credits and Attributions:

The Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001 theatrical poster, Copyright 2001, New Line Cinema, Fair Use

Wikipedia contributors, “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Lord_of_the_Rings:_The_Fellowship_of_the_Ring&oldid=853509330 (accessed August 5, 2018)

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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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#amwriting: the third quarter of the novel and the character arc

Lately, I’ve had many discussions on the hero’s journey and how we structure a story that follows that most traditional of story arcs.

Usually, the first half of the book is easy for me to write, but beginning at the midpoint of my first, very rough draft, I begin to struggle.

The rough draft is challenging because we are pulling the story out of the ether. 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 so they are organic and true. 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. From there we are barreling toward the final showdown that begins the final scenes, and from there we are racing toward the conclusion. The third quarter of the story 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. They 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?

As I said, for me this part of the rough draft is often difficult to write because often in the first attempt to just write the story down, the protagonist and his motives are still somewhat unformed. But if you are following the hero’s journey, by the end of this section, your main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. Their world has been shaken to the foundations, and they no longer have faith in themselves or the people they once looked up to.

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

This low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey, the place during which he is taken down to his component parts emotionally, and rebuilds himself to be more than he ever believed he 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 rewrite, the story always evolves into a greater, more polished version of the original.

Taking the rough draft and rewriting it is absolutely the most important thing you can do.  It is when you are deep into the second draft that you realize some plot twists don’t work as you devised them, and they must be reworked. Also, you begin to find and smooth out grammatical errors and awkward prose.

I write my work in four drafts. The first, rough draft rarely is seen by other eyes than mine. It is me thinking out loud through my keyboard and is not ready to be seen by anyone else but me, so if I ask you to look at a section and tell me if I have gone off the rails or not, feel honored! Few are ever offered that privilege.

The second draft is what goes to my beta readers.

The third draft is what emerges after the first readers’ comments have been taken into consideration.

The fourth draft is what goes to my editor.

While your story will have serious issues in the rough draft stage, at least by time you are finished with it you will know your characters. They and their motives will be clear, offering up the ideas you will need to shape the second draft of your manuscript, making it into the believable story of a real person’s journey through life-changing events.


Attributions:

Image: the Hero’s Journey, by scan from an unknown publication by an anonymous poster, in a thread, gave permission to use it. Re-drawn by User:Slashme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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