We who write fiction spend a lot of time plotting the events a character will go through. We may write to an outline, or we might keep it in our head, but most of the action is usually known before we write it.
Even if you don’t plot in the traditional sense of the word, you should give some advance consideration to character development.
The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character throughout a story. In narratives with a strong character arc, the protagonist begins as one sort of person. Through the events they experience, they are transformed. Often the change is for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.
Great writing contrasts the relative security of the characters’ lives as they were in the opening paragraphs against the hazards of their life when they are in the midst of change.
Give me the book that immerses me in the uncertainty, fear, and anger—let me experience the emotional journey as well as the events of the narrative.
The novels that have the most influence on me as a writer are those that allow the reader to experience the characters’ journey.
These authors introduced me to characters who were multi-dimensional. They were people with a past and a present, and who hoped to survive long enough to enjoy a future.
In the opening act, the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. A great story evolves when the antagonist and protagonist are strong but not omnipotent. Both must have character arcs that show either
- Personal growth over the length of the story
- Stagnation or the inability to grow
Stagnation is a kind of death. This is a creative ploy to use for an antagonist who is unable to see their fatal flaw.
Each scene is an opportunity to advance the events of the story. But every small arc of action is also an opportunity to illuminate the motives of the characters.
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 a reader to experience the sense of crisis that you believe your story deserves, you must
- Foreshadow or hint at knowledge the characters don’t have, information that affects the outcome of the plot.
Very few people are evil for no reason at all. Sometimes they are likable, people who appear innocuous, even loving. If this is the case in your story, you need to insert small clues for the reader early on about the negative aspect of their personality. This is so that their despicable behavior isn’t seen as unexpected and contrived.
Fleshing out the antagonist and making their motives realistic is essential. They are as central to the story as the protagonist because their actions force change.
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 in their life unless it affects the action at that moment.
Instead, they should be dealing with the consequences of the decisions they have just made and trying to make better plans.
Consequences are central to the forward momentum of the plot.
If consequences are to have meaning, motivations are crucial. What drives the characters to endure the results of their poor planning? What keeps them focused on achieving their goal?
Just as importantly, what will they NOT do? What is out of character for them? If you know that, you won’t muddy the narrative with look-alike and sound-alike characters.
The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story.
Sometimes, 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, and then in a later draft, I have to sort out why they have made that decision.
Agency is the power of an individual to act independently. When we give the characters agency, we allow them to make their own free choices.
Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency can make writing their story a joy. Remember, we write as much for ourselves as we do for a potential reader.
At times, I have a character I just can’t figure out. I make a character study, a personal history. Once I know their past, I understand what drives them and what triggers their emotions.
I then decide what personal revelations must come out about them in foreshadowing and figure out how to make it emerge organically.
In the character study, I ask the most important question of all: what does the character discover about herself?
When I have the answers about why, I look at the final event, the situation that ends the story to see if it passes the logic test. These people’s personal quirks and characteristics, their moral compass influenced the decisions that led them to that place.
Did I keep those clues distinct to each character, or was there a blurring of personalities within the group?
Most importantly, do my characters have recognizable motivations? Sure, we want to be subtle and not drop a ton of backstory on the reader. However, we can’t be too obscure in trying to keep the air of mystery.
Creating intrigue yet making it believable is a balancing act.
Reading is the key. Every novel that leaves a mark on my heart has unique, individual characters that I can relate to.
When I stumble upon a book that engrosses me, I study that author’s work even if I don’t like one of their characters. I want to see how they fit the backstory into the narrative, ensuring their characters’ motivations made sense.
Their good writing habits help me improve in my own work. In my next post, I’m going to discuss the influence of novels that I once loved, and how they shaped my writing for good and for ill.