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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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