How to establish your characters: endings
In this series, we’ve been working with some example characters: a frontier wife in the Old West on the run from her past, and a shrinking violent character who rarely gives anything his full effort. We’ll extend those examples further in this article, to show how to bring them to full fruition at the book’s climax.
Show your characters mastering situations
At earlier stages in the book, situations mastered them. But as the character struggles with his character arc, he ought to get better at it, right? Practice makes perfect, which is just as true when someone is practicing how to be a better person as it is when they’re practicing the piano. The way to show us a character’s improved self is to show how their internal change results in better outcomes for them.
Take our milquetoast character Charlie; for him, the character arc kicks off when the woman he wants flat-out rejects him because he doesn’t give his all. After some false starts and further failures while he works through his denial about his problem, he may turn over a new leaf and begin trying harder at his job. He may resolve not just to do enough to get by, but to produce truly excellent work. If he’s a graphic designer at an ad agency, his clients may start complimenting his work to his boss, and maybe he sees a benefit in terms of landing an assignment for a new high-prestige client. He’s not done yet—he still has to nail that assignment too—but it’s a start. And who knows, maybe the girl of his dreams will notice his new attitude.
Resolve earlier mysteries
In part 1 and 2 of this series, I encouraged you to establish some mysteries, and to partially solve them while using those solutions to heighten the reader’s curiosity about the unsolved portion. The book’s climax, or often immediately before the climax, is the place to finally satisfy that curiosity. Note, I don’t mean you need a lengthy infodump, backstory passage that answers every possible question a reader might have about the character. I mean this is the spot to answer the big, juicy mysteries. Chances are you know which ones these are, but if you’re not sure, here’s a litmus test: would the solution to the mystery help the reader understand, or believe, the character’s subsequent actions and behavior during the climax itself? If so, solve that mystery. If it’s not essential to the climax, and especially if the reader can well enough imagine a plausible solution on their own, don’t waste words on it.
A great time to resolve the mystery before the climax is when by doing so you can make the character’s situation “darkest before the storm.”
Remember our frontier woman? She escaped her domineering family by dressing as a man and joining up with a cattle outfit. Except, something happened and she ended up on the run from the Texas Rangers. She went back to her female identity, got married, and believed her past was behind her until the Rangers catch up with her later. But why is the law after her? This is the mystery you have withheld from the reader. We know something happened, but we don’t know what. We don’t even know if her husband and children know about it.
One can imagine the woman doing her best to hide in plain sight, struggling to keep her husband from finding out the Rangers are after her, until at last that becomes impossible. Perhaps the Rangers have enlisted the help of someone from her old cattle outfit, someone who recognizes her. The jig is up. She goes to her husband, frantic, and says they have to get out of Dodge. He demands to know why, so she has to tell him.
“I— Don’t hate me, Clemson, but back in Texas, I killed a man.” She goes on to explain about her past (part of which the reader may already know), and how the dead man found out she wasn’t really a man and tried to have his way with her. She defended herself, and he ended up dead. Bonus symbolism points if she killed the would-be rapist with a rope, thus turning what was a tool of life in the book’s beginning when she used her surprising rope skills to save her husband from drowning, into a tool of death as well.
“I’ve wanted to tell you, Clemson, I have,” she might say. “But I was afraid how you’d take it.” And sure enough, he doesn’t take it well. Not only is she a killer, but she used to live as a man; he takes that as an affront to morality and to his own manhood as well. He kicks her out. Now things are as dark for her as they’re going to get. She must face her pursuers with no support from anyone else.
But that’s ok. With the mystery solved, now we understand what she has been through. Now we know what she is truly capable of. So when we see her wipe the tears angrily away from her eyes and mutter “I’ve done fine on my own before, I can do it again,” we’ll believe her. The solution to the mystery helps the reader both understand and believe in whatever she’s about to do to in the book’s high-noon showdown.
And, as a little bonus character arc, having the husband react in this way sets the stage for a side-arc for him, too. You could go back to the book’s beginning and middle to establish him as a very black-and-white kind of person, who sees events and people as all-good or all-bad. Someone who, if you cross him once, writes you off forever. You might let that tendency cause the family some troubles along the way, giving him fodder for relaxing his own strictness. Then, in the denouement after his wife has cleared things up with the Rangers (I’ll leave you to imagine the many ways she might accomplish that), maybe he comes to her hat-in-hand to apologize, ask her back, and say how he can see that everything she did was necessary for her survival.
Show the character’s final breakthrough
Readers have to see what happens to finally allow the character to grow, to complete his or her arc. Surprisingly, sometimes authors forget to put this in. They take it as a given that the character is going to overcome whatever personality flaw has been dogging them the whole book, when in fact that’s not true. You might bring a character right up to the brink of meaningful, lasting, inner growth, but that’s not enough. You have to take it the rest of the way.
Let’s go back to Charlie. His job successes are fine, but they’re probably not enough to create a satisfying ending to the novel. Nor would mere professional success leading to him getting the girl. Charlie’s problem runs deeper than simply not trying hard enough. It’s a failure of commitment to what he does. Odds are, the middle of Charlie’s story is going to show him achieving some successes, but suffering a number of continuing failures as well. He needs something to give him that final breakthrough.
Odds are, the central conflict in this book is going to be about something other than Charlie’s job or love life. It’s going to be something that will require Charlie to make a deep commitment to achieving some result, even though achieving that result will demand from him a significant sacrifice. Maybe Charlie witnesses some terrible crime, and ends up involved in an organization devoted to eradicating the trafficking of underage girls for prostitution (which, yes, sadly does happen in this country). The organization asks Charlie to lend his graphic design skills to an edgy, provocative ad campaign that will run in major cities nationwide. His boss learns about this and tells Charlie to drop it because their up-scale, corporate ad firm “doesn’t do social causes". Charlie needs to make a commitment, even if it costs him his job.
But he can’t do that and follow through simply because he happens to be in the mood to be helpful on that particular day. That won’t be satisfying. The reader needs to see Charlie have a final breakthrough moment so we can be confident that his commitment, even at the sacrifice of his job, comes as the result of true inner growth instead of happenstance.
Maybe what he needs is something symbolic. Something he can hold onto like a totem, to remind himself of what he knows he needs to be doing. It could be anything, really. It could be a photo on the news from some catastrophe half a world away, where he sees bedraggled rescue workers struggling with bloodied fingers to dig survivors out of a collapsed building following an earthquake. Dramatic, yes, but kind of blunt in narrative terms. Anything that hits Charlie at a vulnerable moment (say, after a late-stage failure that give him his own “darkest before the storm” moment), when he’s receptive to growth. Since Charlie’s fortunes are tied up with this character flaw, let’s make it a fortune cookie. Use it to delivery to Charlie a pithy saying that he can hold onto. A mantra for a better Charlie. “If you’re going to do a job, do the job.”
Simple. Almost tautological. But if it hits Charlie in the right frame of mind, he can read all sorts of deep meaning into that. Be true to your word. Be the sort of person whose word people trust. Don’t say yes unless you’re willing to back that up with action. Whatever you think Charlie really needs to glean from the little scrap of paper hidden inside the cookie, there it is. He can tuck the slip of paper into his wallet, to carry around with him forever.
This is a small, quiet final breakthrough. Its power hinges on what has come before, on Charlie being in a bleak, desperate place when it the breakthrough happens. I use this as an example because I think too often writers feel like the breakthrough has to be something big and loud. Something with explosions and car chases, be they literary or literal. Not so. That can work, sure, depending on the nature of the book. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re struggling with creating a believable breakthrough moment because what you’ve got doesn’t feel right, maybe you’re reaching for big and loud when what you need to be reaching for is small and quiet.
Other strategies that work well
There are other some end-game strategies that are also useful, which you can use as necessary or if they fit your particular book.
Show a meaningful behavior change that affects the climax. This goes hand in hand with the breakthrough moment. The whole point of a character arc is to create a new person who is better than the old person. But what good does it to do be better on the inside if there’s no difference in your behavior on the outside? The breakthrough moment is the true crux of the character arc, but the arc itself doesn’t matter until we see it play out in meaningful behavior when the stakes are at their highest. So, when that climactic moment does come, we’d better see the character doing something he or she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, have done before.
Consider role reversals. Depending on the novel, a role reversal can be a wonderful way to signify growth. This gives us stories in which children become caregivers to their ailing parents, who had once taken care of them. It gives us heroes taking control from villains who have up to that point been in control of the situation. Look at the elements of your plot and especially your climax, and see if there’s some kind of duality along those lines you can work with. Some way you can have your character switch roles with someone else in the novel.
Leave it bittersweet. Nothing is all good, and fairy-tale endings aren’t believable. Well, except in fairy tales. The character did, after all, make a bunch of mistakes along the way. Some of those mistakes should have lasting effects, which take a bit of the sheen off of the character’s ultimate victory. Some genres love the pat, perfectly wrapped up happy ending. But I think you have a more powerful, more poignant, and more realistic ending if you leave the character with some regret over past mistakes, some level of “if only I’d done that differently.”
To sum up, your jobs at the end of the book boil down to just a few things. Bring the character’s arc to a simultaneous conclusion with the story arc. Satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the major mysteries enough to make the climax believable. And leave readers with the feeling that the book meant something. A plot that wraps up with characters who are no different than when they began may have been a fun adventure, but it lacks depth. An adventure which leaves the characters stronger and wiser than when they started gives the reader a final bit of payoff, a feeling that there was a purpose to the book.
And who knows, you might even just help the reader learn a little something too. After all, stories are often how we learn what life is.
February 28, 2011 23:43 UTC
How to establish your characters: middles
Last time I wrote about how to establish your characters during your book’s opening. Having done so, readers are poised to watch those characters evolve as the book progresses. How do you deliver on that in the 80% or so of your book that takes place between the opening and the climax?
Last time we worked with some example characters: a lost job applicant in Chicago who smooth-talks a local into escorting him to his interview, a frontier wife whose unexpected rope skills save her husband from drowning in a difficult river crossing, and a shrinking-violet character who holds back, never giving his all. We’ll extend those examples in this article.
Give the character an epiphany moment
You establish that a character needs to have an arc by showing us some flaws in them. The beginning, when you were illustrating key personality traits or creating mysteries about the character, was when you were showing us that this character has some room to grow. To change. That’s necessary for a character arc, but it isn’t sufficient.
That is, it’s not enough for readers to see this. The character needs to have an epiphany moment in which he or she realizes it too. Something has to happen which lets the character see the deficiency within themselves. The establishing stuff in your book’s beginning just sets the stage. You need the epiphany moment to kick off the character arc, to put it in motion.
For example, perhaps after our shrinking-violet character blows the game for his team by not giving 100%, he gets chewed out by his teammates and the girl on the team he was interested in—who had maybe just agreed to go out to dinner with him—decides she doesn’t want to see him socially after all. “Look, Charlie. You’re a nice guy, but you don’t come through. If the team can’t count on you to dive for a catch, how can I count on you if things get serious?” That could serve as a wake-up call to Charlie that, indeed, he could try harder.
Bear in mind, that’s not the beginning-and-end of his character arc; a character arc can’t flit by in a single moment. The epiphany moment is just the start, and in the beginning Charlie will likely rankle against this new-found and unwelcome insight into himself, rationalizing and retrenching his behavior before he actually begins to change.
Show signs of altered behavior
Still, the middle of your book is a pretty long stretch, and you’ve got plenty of space in there to move the character past that initial epiphany. To do it, you have seven ways to show character growth at your disposal. Since there’s already a whole article about that (c’mon, click the link; you know you wanna) I won’t rehash it all here except to say that here in the middle of your book is not the place for the character arc to come to its conclusion. Save something for the end, you know?
Reveal some backstory
Back in the beginning, when you were creating mysteries about your characters by showing surprising skills and abilities they have, what you were really doing was hooking the reader by eliciting the reader’s curiosity as to how the character came to have those skills and/or abilities. The middle of your book is a great place to give drips and dribbles of backstory which reward readers for their curiosity. Give us some payoff.
But, don’t simply answer the question. Give us part of the answer, in a way which is satisfying to some portion of your readers’ curiosity, but which also heightens their curiosity. In other words, let the answer raise its own, more significant questions.
Remember the smooth-talking job candidate? In the middle of the book you might reveal that he used to work for the FBI, studying con-men in order to help the bureau catch them, until he was kicked out for ... well, you hold that part back. Now the reader wonders why he was kicked out. Is our guy really a smooth-talker by nature, or is he just employing techniques he studied from real con-men?
Or take the frontier wife with the husband-saving rope skills. As the book’s middle progresses, you might slowly reveal that in her youth, she escaped her domineering, controlling parents by stealing a pair of her brother’s clothes, dressing like a man, and joining up with a Texas cattle outfit. But something happened, and while she is now living as a woman again, she’s also secretly on the run from the Texas Rangers. Why? What happened? Do her husband and children know about her past? Don’t tell us. Yet.
Give us a meaningful payoff for our initial curiosity for our characters, but do it in a way which makes us even more curious for later.
Struggle with the book’s underlying conflict
But perhaps more important than any of that, you establish your characters in the middle of the book by showing them struggling with the book’s underlying conflict. Whatever it is, it ought to represent a significant challenge or obstacle for your characters in pursuit of their goals. Maybe the smooth-talking ex-FBI man is actually a good person whose major problem is staying true to himself. Suppose the reason why he got kicked out of the FBI—not time to reveal that yet!—is making it such that he can’t pass a background check, and as thus can’t get a decent job. This threatens him at the bottom levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, which puts him in a bind: does he continue to struggle, to rebuild his life while being true to the kind of person he wants to be, even though he knows it would be a lot easier just be a con-man? He spent years at the FBI studying those very skills!
Think hard about what your character’s most deeply rooted conflict is within the story, and let the surface level conflicts bear on that deeper struggle. Think deeper than your mere plot. This example character’s surface level conflict is about getting a job, but the challenges he faces in doing that bear on the deeper, personal struggle he is going through.
To sum up, your book’s middle section needs to do these things:
Get your character arcs moving with appropriate epiphany moments.
Follow through on that by using the seven ways to show character growth as the bulk of the plot progresses.
Reveal enough backstory to satisfy part of your readers’ curiosity, while using what you’ve revealed to raise bigger questions.
Show your characters wrestling with—sometimes even being beaten by—the deep, personal conflict simmering underneath your plot.
The middle of a novel is a big, tricky balancing act for the novelist. You must balance the revelations and discoveries you present to readers with new mysteries, conflicts, and stakes. You must do both, because with no revelations at all, the book becomes difficult for readers to sustain. But if you don’t sustain any mysteries, readers will be left with little motivation to continue reading. The techniques in this article help you with this balancing act. Epiphany moments give the reader satisfying moments of drama (because they usually come out of some kind of confrontation), yet they presage the whole chain of the character’s arc. Answers to surface-level backstory can lead to questions that dig below the surface.
< Back to part 1, openings | Next time: part 3, what to do at the end of your book. >
January 25, 2011 22:23 UTC
How to establish your characters: openings
Among the many jobs a book’s opening needs to accomplish, one of the more important is to establish your book’s characters. You need to let your readers know who the players are, what their relationships are (at least initially), and enough about what kind of people they are that readers can develop a sensibility about how these people are likely to act.
It’s a tall order, but there are some core strategies you can use to help achieve these goals, while at the same time moving your story forward.
Show your characters in action
First, please, show your characters in action. Show them doing something. And I don’t mean walking down the street. Show them in the act of attempting to achieve a goal, prevent something bad from happening, et cetera. I don’t really care what it is, just show them trying. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, but readers need to see the effort and the reason for it is pretty simple. Seeing the effort reassures us that this is a character who will be worth watching for 300 pages.
When your book’s opening shows us a guy walking down the street, or a lady sitting at her kitchen table having tea as her day begins, that’s not very interesting. It doesn’t give us a lot of confidence in that character as being someone who can bear the heavy load of being a protagonist. Nobody wants to spend 300 pages with a character who doesn’t do anything.
This is not to say that you can’t put a guy walking down the street on page one. You can. But you need to show us why that’s interesting. You need to do something with that scene that allows the character to make a meaningful choice or take a meaningful action. Maybe the guy is in Chicago for a job interview, trying to make his way on foot from his hotel, only he isn’t quite sure which way to go. He’s going to have to choose whether to go left, right, or straight, and his choice is critical to arriving at the interview on time.
Show your characters in conflict
Within the action, look for ways to put your characters in conflict. Conflict, in novel-writing terms, is any situation in which a character’s goals are impeded by something. Could be an explicit antagonist trying to mess up the protagonist’s plans. Could be a physical obstacle, a raging river that was only marked as a stream on the map. It could be a situation, not enough dinner to feed the family and the surprise guest/business associate the thoughtless husband brought home. The obstacle could be internal, as in the interviewee’s lack of knowledge of how to get around the streets of Chicago.
Again, the reason why conflict is an effective characterization tool is simple: the conflict itself forces characters to respond. In watching their responses, we learn about them. Does the interview guy stop to ask directions, or does he wander around hoping for the best? Does he call to warn the prospective employer he might be late, or does he arrive tardy with some half-baked excuse about the hotel’s wake-up call being late? A character’s response to any conflict tells us a great deal about who that person is.
Conflict is also dramatic. Conflict carries with it the implicit threat of failure. The guy might actually be late for the interview, heightening the stress of an already stressful situation. The raging river might sweep away the frontier family’s horse and wagon, greatly increasing the danger that they won’t make it to California. Opening your book with a strong conflict for your character to face is a wonderful way to kick things off with a bang.
And speaking of the threat of failure, I would argue that in your book’s opening, the stronger choice is usually to let the character fail. Let him be late and lose the job. Don’t just give the family a moment of panic when the horse stumbles halfway across the river, but let the river win. The reason for this, too, is simple: failure throws the characters’ plans into disarray, and forces them to react. Just as with watching them respond, their reaction to failure teaches us a great deal about them.
Open your book by putting your characters in conflict situations, so we can watch their response, the outcome, and their subsequent reaction.
Create mysteries about your characters
So you’ve created a conflict situation, put your characters into a stance of action, the question then becomes how can you work the character’s choices and actions in order to deeply hook the reader? You can create mysteries.
The idea here is to show something unexpected about your character, something that is naturally applicable to the scene, without explaining it. Show us a skill, a talent, an attitude we’re not expecting. Maybe the interviewee stops a random person on the street, and smooth-talks that person not into giving him directions but in fact escorting him by cab to his destination and paying the cab fare for him. We’re likely to be surprised and intrigued to see such a display of charisma and persuasion. After the horse goes under, maybe the father also falls into the river and is only saved by his wife’s quick-thinking and dead-eye aim with a lasso. We’re likely to wonder how she came to have such impressive rope skills.
But don’t explain. Let us wonder. The reader’s curiosity is your most powerful asset, and if you can show us something we don’t quite understand, we become wildly curious to learn the backstory behind it. Don’t give it to us. This is the wrong time for a backstory infodump. Make us read onward into the story in order to learn why the character can do those things.
For instance, maybe the interviewee used to be a ... no. I’m not going to tell you now, here in the opening of this three-blog-post series. I’ll tell you in the next installment about what to do in the middle of the book, and ditto for frontier-woman and her rope-work. See? Now aren’t you at least a little bit curious how they came by those abilities?
I should warn, though, there is a danger to be aware of: if what you show the reader is so surprising and unusual that we can’t even imagine how it’s possible for the character to do that, then what you’ve created isn’t mystery but incongruity. Maybe it really does make sense in light of backstory you don’t want to give us yet, but you can’t let the reader think it’s just some weird, crazy thing you pulled out of your butt in order to concoct an exciting opening. That’s a sure way to lose the reader. So, if the thing you reveal is that surprising, what you can do is let other people in the scene wonder, too. That reassures readers that you know what you’re doing. That you understand how hard it is to believe what they just read, but that you have a plan and all will be revealed in good time.
Illustrate key personality traits
Again, readers want to know what kind of people they’re dealing with. Particularly helpful is when you can illustrate a personality trait that is at the heart of the arc you’ll be putting that character through. Perhaps your protagonist is a bit of a shrinking violet in the beginning, afraid to take risks and make sacrifices. Imagine you have in mind that by the end of the book he will be called upon to take a significant risk, and that his ability to do it stems from the personal growth he experiences during the story. While you could open your book with something like this:
Charlie was the kind of guy who held back, never giving his all.
you’ll do much better to illustrate that trait in the course of an early scene. Readers will believe it a lot more strongly if you make them understand that for themselves, rather than spoon-feeding it to them. So you’ll put Charlie in a position where he could take a risk, but doesn’t.
Maybe he has joined an Ultimate Frisbee team because the woman he’s interested in plays on it. Other players routinely make leaps and diving catches, but not Charlie. At a critical moment during a big game, Charlie doesn’t dive for a pass he could have caught, resulting in the other team taking possession, and Charlie’s team losing the game.
His teammates chew him out for it. “What’s the matter with you? You totally could have caught that if you’d tried!” Charlie, of course, will have a perfectly good rationalization for his behavior. “Why should I risk injuring myself diving to catch a frisbee? It’s just a game.”
Seeing those events transpire will be a hundred times more convincing than simply telling us that Charlie’s a milquetoast fellow. It does so through action and conflict, thus keeping our interest high. And it sets up his overall character arc, so that by the end of the story when he finally learns that sometimes risks and sacrifices are necessary, his eventual act of bravery will hit home much stronger.
To sum up, your book’s opening needs to do these things:
Show us who the character is.
Make us curious about that person.
Give us a reason to care about the person.
You do this because your opening scenes and chapters need to hook the reader. Part of your hook comes through the (hopefully) intriguing nature of the situation you show. But the other part, and I would argue the larger part, comes through your characters. Novels are ultimately about characters doing things. Trying to affect the course of events. Your opening needs a hook, but your characters are the bait.
Next: part 2, How to establish your characters: middles >.
December 17, 2010 19:02 UTC
Five steps to building a believable character arc
A commenter in my last article on crafting breakout stories asked for tips on how to demonstrate believable progress during the process of a character’s emotional growth.
It’s a fabulous question, because all too often I see writers take the all-at-once approach: a character has a problem, realizes it, decides to act differently, and is thenceforth cured. Like magic!
It’s exactly like magic, in as much as that’s not how life actually works.
In the real world, personal growth takes time and practice. We don’t usually just decide to be better in some way, and then presto, we’re better. For real people, it takes time. Fortunately, there’s a framework for personal growth you can use as a blueprint for how to show it in your novels.
The character’s internal shortcomings cause external problems. This makes sense. If some facet of his personality isn’t causing problems in his life, it’s probably not something he needs to change. The only things about which he needs to experience growth are the things that cause problems for him. So first of all, just to set the stage for your main character arc, you need to show the character failing at something because of his shortcomings.
The character experiences failure but doesn’t understand why. This is all about how the character reacts to his failures in step 1. It’s important to show the reaction, because not understanding why the failures are occurring sets the emotional conditions for growth. Not understanding why is bound to cause some negative emotions: anger, frustration, resentment, et cetera. These are what fuel a character’s growth; when he gets fed up with failing, he’ll do something to prevent it. Note, the character may not understand why he’s failing for a couple of different reasons. One, he may not be aware that the problem he has even exists. He may exist in a state of complete ignorance about the problem, and when confronted with it, his emotional reactions will include “gosh, I didn’t even know that was a thing, let alone a problem!” Two, he may recognize the existence of the problem, but is in denial that he has the problem. This latter is usually easier to defend in a novel.
The character still fails, but understands why. This is the natural next step after getting past denial. Like they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing it. Ok, we’re calling it step three, but you get the idea. The character is still blindsided by failures, but after they happen, can understand why. The character can reflect on the situation, and understand how his personal shortcoming led to the failure. Hindsight is 20/20.
The character sees failures coming, but still can’t avoid them. Next, the character gains enough experience that the failures don’t blindside him anymore. Now, he can see them coming but is still powerless to stop them. This is your alcoholic who knows he drinks too much, but can’t stop himself. Or your abusive spouse who knows his rage issues stem from how his father treated him, but can’t stop himself from using his fists to express his own displeasure. The character understands the dynamics of the situation, but hasn’t yet figured out how to act differently to produce a different result. Pro tip: Don’t shortchange stage four! There is enormous dramatic potential in this stage, because at heart it is a profoundly sad and distressing time for the character. This maps very closely to the depression stage of the five stages of grief, because just like in that situation, the character feels powerless against larger forces which seem to be controlling him. This stage can get ugly, and you shouldn’t be afraid to let it.
The character succeeds. Finally, after seeing enough failures coming, the character realizes how to act differently and thus can intervene with himself to make different choices. That’s emotional growth. That’s the culmination of the character arc. Pro tip: If you’re clever, you’ll time this moment to coincide with your plot’s climax, when the stakes are at their highest point. A chain of failures leading up to success at a critical moment can be a win-win-win: Believable, incredibly dramatic, and satisfying to read all at once. But only if you’ve supported it with a fully developed arc.
Emotional growth is nothing more than learning a new emotional skill.
It’s just like any other skill, such as surfing. Look at that kid in the picture. He’s gonna get dunked. You can tell just by looking at him. He’s got some failures ahead of him yet. But he’s up on the board and his hair is dry, so he must know something. He’s getting there. His first time out, he probably got dunked by even the tiniest waves. And he’s going to get dunked, time and time again, as he learns to read the water, feel the board—see failure coming—and adjust his actions. It’s going to take a lot of failures to teach him what he needs to know.
He’s lucky, though. He’s got his dad there in the background giving him helpful advice, helping him see the issues he didn’t even know he had. “Scoot back. You’re standing too far forward!” “Thanks, Dad, I didn’t know that was a problem!” But no matter what, it takes time. Neither this kid nor anybody else can immediately become an expert surfer just by listening to an expert explain how they do it, and yet novelists often try to turn a single moment of failure into an immediate and successful change of behavior. Doesn’t work that way.
Make it your own
You don’t have to follow this blueprint from end to end, just be aware that it exists. Plenty of great arc-driven novels have started at stage two or even stage three. Depending on the nature of the personal shortcoming facing your character, you may be able to skip some of the earlier steps. A character may make some progress but then slip back to an earlier stage.
However you do it, just remember that a single failure does not teach us everything we need to know to become an expert. At best, a single failure can teach us one little component of what we need to know. There’s a journey of many failures in going from being unaware that you have a shortcoming to having fully conquered the shortcoming so it doesn’t cause you problems anymore. Break that journey down into whatever smaller steps—and whatever sequence of failures—makes sense for your story, and use this framework to help you show a little bit of growth at each one.
Addendum: To give credit where credit is due, this post would not be what it is, nor would I be the person I am, if not for this poem. If anyone can point me towards the original source for this poem, I would be grateful. Thank you.
May 20, 2010 21:28 UTC
Three steps to a breakout story
Have you ever finished reading a novel only to find yourself standing in awe of the author’s ability to craft a story and portray the characters? Have you found yourself wondering how on earth the author ever managed to work so many great twists and turns, complications and subplots into the story, without having any of it feel extraneous? Have you ever despaired of ever being able to write that well yourself?
Yes? Good. That means you’re at least a savvy enough writer to recognize what you ought to be doing, even if you don’t quite know how to do it yet. That gives you a goal (hey, we need goals as much as our characters do). Speaking of characters and goals, I’m going to help you figure out how to do it by giving you three steps for choosing great goals for your characters that will in turn help you achieve your goals in crafting a stellar story.
1. Pick a compelling goal
Goals matter. And in choosing a goal, you have a bit of a Goldilocks problem in finding a story goal that’s “just right.” One that is significant enough to motivate your protagonist, but isn’t so high-stakes as to be implausible. A babysitter finding herself in a plot where it’s up to her to save the President’s life would challenge all but the most credulous readers. On the flip side, nobody’s going to care about your book if the babysitter’s goal is simply to choose what color nail polish goes best with her prom dress.
Where things go wrong: Most writers don’t err by setting the stakes too low. We hear some variant on “when in doubt, raise the stakes” so often that I think most people know not to do that. Where writers often fail is in picking a high-stakes goal that is only high-stakes externally to the character. The stakes matter to the world at large (i.e., it really is a big deal if someone’s gunning for the President), but the protagonist doesn’t matter to the stakes. The key pitfall is failing to answer the question “why this protagonist?” If you want to have a babysitter save the President’s life, that’s fine, but make sure you have a damn good answer to the question of why it’s her job to do it.
2. Show that the goal is worthy
It isn’t enough for the protagonist to be the only one who can achieve the goal. You may have convinced your protagonist that she’s the only one who can save the cat (or the President), but you still need to prove to the reader that this goal is worth an entire novel.
Where things go wrong: Even the most compelling of external goals can fall flat if you don’t show that the goal matters to the protagonist. At the point where the protagonist is contemplating the goal and whether she should do anything about it, you need to portray and contrast two possible views of the world: one in which the goal is accomplished, and one in which it is not. The babysitter has to see (and we have to see her seeing) how her life would be better in one scenario and worse in the other. Not only must the babysitter matter to the goal of saving the President, it has to matter to her that the President is saved.
3. Go after the goal
Steps 1 and 2 are critical, but only because they set the stage. Step 3 is where all the fun is, where the majority of your storyline takes place, as the protagonist pursues her goal. Here, you want to make use of every piece of advice you’ve ever read about keeping conflict in every scene, using every scene to advance the story, and so forth. But that’s not enough. If your goal is to write a breakout novel at the level of the novels that have knocked your socks off, just following that kind of advice isn’t going to do it.
To knock your readers’ socks off, you have to follow all that advice while keeping everything focused on the protagonist. That doesn’t mean keeping her in every scene. It means giving the protagonist a set of increasingly difficult challenges on the path towards the goal. The moment the Babysitter decides it’s up to her to save the President, the next thing on her mind had better be “ok, what’s the first thing I have to do?” Maybe she needs information. Maybe she needs access to some kind of tools (Babysitter with a sniper rifle!) or resources. Maybe she needs to go somewhere else. The specifics don’t matter, so long as you can find an immediate goal that is in service to her ultimate goal. Then you need another challenge, and another and another.
Where things go wrong: Even the most carefully crafted sequence of challenges and obstacles can end up feeling as boring and downright formulaic as National Treasure if they are all fundamentally external to the protagonist. To really elevate your novel to breakout status (or at least to take some steps in that direction) you need to relate the protagonist’s progress towards the goal to her own character arc.
That is, she must experience some failures along the way, failures caused by her own shortcomings. But let her grow as a person through those experiences, and let that growth give her the keys to achieving her ultimate goal. It’s all well and good for a character to need to acquire some sort of MacGuffin as well, but to be really satisfying, you need personal growth to play a part too. Just like the Harry Potter from Philosopher’s Stone could never have defeated Voldemort while the Harry Potter from Deathly Hallows could, your babysitter needs to experience personal growth that in some manner enables her to save the President.
Make it personal
If you were savvy enough to answer “yes” to the question at the beginning of this article, chances are you’ve noticed the theme behind all three of these steps. At every opportunity, make it personal, in goals, in stakes, and in growth. Don’t just pick compelling goals, make them compelling personal goals. Show us why the babysitter has to be the one to save the President, and also why saving the President matters to her. Then, whenever possible, make the turning points in the story relate to the babysitter’s growth as a person.
That’s it. Three steps to a breakout story, all boiled down to one piece of advice: make it personal. We stand in awe of writers better than ourselves, but there’s no impenetrable magic about what they do. When it comes to writing a breakout story, you can conquer your personal goals by helping your protagonists conquer theirs.
May 17, 2010 22:54 UTC
Seven ways to show character growth
The best novels offer a strong storyline coupled with a strong character arc. A character arc is nothing more than the inner process by which a character becomes a better person. When the events in a storyline, coupled with how a character reacts to them, cause the character to become in some way a more mature person, that’s a character arc.
Readers love character arcs because when the storyline is over, the character’s final moments of personal growth leave the reader with the feeling that the story had a higher purpose to it. That it wasn’t just a fun adventure romp, spy thriller, or whatever. You leave the reader with the feeling that the book meant something.
Writers love them, too, because threading a strong character arc into your storyline is a wonderful way to add a layer of complexity and interest to a story. A strong character arc can be the difference between rejections that say “good, but not right for me” and “I would like to represent this book.”
Seven strategies to create a strong character arc
Gain direction, motivation, drive, or ambition. Take a character from being a boring lump with an unfocused, undirected life, and fix that. Give the character a goal, a raison d’etre, something to get him out of bed in the morning.
Get active. Take a character who from being a passive pushover, and let her start taking charge of her own life. Show her making decisions, making plans, and by all means, taking actions.
Shake up the old, boring routine. Show the character working free of a familiar and confining—if comfortable—routine life. Show him trying new things and embracing the world. Let him travel, see the world, and make new friends. Hint: if your storyline already involves travel, build the arc the other way around by saddling the character with a hum-drum routine of a life at the beginning of the book.
Expand your mind. Let the character learn something. Show her finding a new interest, pursuing it with joyful zeal. Should she self-study or go back to school? Stay in her garage and experiment, inventing something? Who knows, but if you can tie her chosen interest to the rest of your storyline, you’re golden.
Lose the ego. Start with a very me-focused character, and let him start to think about other people. Make him shut up about himself for a change. This can be a very effective arc strategy for stories that involve the “haves” getting involved in the lives of the “have-nots.”
Limber up. Mentally speaking, that is. Take a character who is rigid in her viewpoints and force her to loosen up. Let her begin to consider new evidence, to challenge her own assumptions. Let her fail a few times early on because she assumed she was right when she wasn’t, and from that, learn a lesson in humility: after all, you’re not always as right as you think you are. Don’t forget to let this new-found self-skepticism save her from a critical mistake or lead her towards a critical victory later, when the stakes are highest.
Refocus on the basics. A well-worn technique (well-worn because it’s effective) is to show a character’s disorganized, chaotic inner life by means of a slovenly, unkempt, unhealthy outer life. These are characters who are overweight, who drink and smoke, whose apartments haven’t been vacuumed since the Reagan administration, and who are failing to take decent care of themselves. They’re ignoring their responsibilities at the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. For them, you can reflect inner growth by showing them taking a new-found interest in their physical needs. Let them start to eat right, exercise, and occasionally even iron their laundry.
Every one of these strategies involves meaningful change somewhere in the character’s life. Some are changes in attitude, some in behavior, some in outlook or priorities. These are all inner changes, substantive ones that affect a character’s personality. It’s more than just changing your wardrobe. Character arcs are always deep changes that must be reflected in the surface levels of a character’s actions.
Note, this is another application of the famous Show, don’t Tell rule: The surface actions you tell the reader about are what show the character’s underlying growth.
Oh, and one final note. Are you planning a series and wondering how to manage a multi-book character arc? Why not start with a deeply flawed but loveable character, and in each volume let the storyline lead the character to growth in one of the above areas. There’s your seven-book saga, right there.
May 14, 2010 21:31 UTC
So, your protagonist is a first-rate jerk
You’d be hard pressed to find a protagonist on any successful show who’s a bigger jerk than Dr. Gregory House. He hates everybody, except for hot chicks he lusts after. He has no bedside manner. He’s cranky, argumentative, abusive, dismissive, manipulative, and a raging egomaniac. In short, he’s an utter bastard, and no one in their right mind would want him coming anywhere near them with that thermometer.
But for some reason, viewers can’t stop watching.
Readers are the same way. They really enjoy books with protagonists who are jerks. They’ll even go for books with characters who, like Dr. House, are mean as hell so long as the writer manages one key trick. The bastard has to be a loveable bastard. How does that work?
Being an outright jerk isn’t exactly normal. There is a lot of social pressure on people to conform to the accepted standards of polite behavior. Resisting that pressure is hard, so the first question in a reader’s mind is going to be why is this character such a jerk? I think most of us, under the skin, are jerks to some degree—we all think badly of others at times, and wish we could say out loud what we’re really thinking about them—but we hold back. We know that’ s not ok, so we hold it in.
House doesn’t. He’s utterly uninhibited in his jerkism. Readers will wonder why, and you have to give the reader a good answer here in order to create some sympathy. In House’s case, it is because he has suffered great personal loss. He needed surgery on his leg to save his life, but it left him permanently debilitated and with chronic pain. Oh, and his wife left him. That’s enough to put anybody in a cranky mood, so when we see why House is a jerk, we’re able to sympathize with him.
House, in five stages terms, is stuck in a mixture of anger and depression. Intellectually, he recognizes the reality of his injuries and his wife’s departure, but emotionally he’s stuck. He hasn’t fully moved on to acceptance. Anger makes him want to lash out at the world and everyone in it through jerk behaviors. The depths of his depression—coupled with his over-sized ego—mean that he simply does not care what anybody else thinks of him. At all. Together, those factors remove the normal inhibitions that keep the rest of us in line.
So maybe your jerk had something bad happen to him in the past, and he’s only acting that way because he hasn’t truly gotten over it yet. But there are other reasons. One reason that can work very well in middle-grade and young-adult literature, is simple immaturity. A character can be a jerk simply because he or she hasn’t yet learned that it’s a losing strategy for life.
As well as informing the reader why your protagonist is a jerk, to be loveable the jerk must also have some kind of redeeming qualities. A jerk with no redeeming qualities whatsoever is just a psychopath. If there’s no good in the character at all, then you’re in Hannibal Lecter territory rather than Dr. House territory. And true to form, Dr. House does have a number of significant redeeming qualities.
First, he’s incredibly good at what he does. The whole show is premised on his being the best diagnostic medical practitioner around, bar none. Patients come to him when nobody else can figure out what’s wrong, and he always figures it out.
Second, he’s relentlessly passionate about his work. He will go to any length to figure out what the patient’s problem is, and in fact often turns his jerkish uninhibitneness to good use in that pursuit. He’s not above stealing a blood sample from an unconscious patient, faking insurance forms so he can get a MRI scan for an uninsured patient, lying to his boss, breaking into patients’ houses to search for environmental factors behind their disease, et cetera.
Third, sometimes we see him make an effort not to be a jerk. He knows he’s a jerk. He knows that’s not the best thing to be. So sometimes we see him do a good deed or offer someone a kindness. Not often, but sometimes. Rarity makes those moments extra powerful.
And fourth, there seems to be hope for him. As the show dribbles out his backstory, little by little, we see that he wasn’t always like this. Or at least, not so much so. We understand that he’s caught in the grip of anger and depression. His hurt is deep, so his healing will take a long time. We all anticipate the day when he will at last reach emotional acceptance, although it will not likely come before the show’s final episode.
That’s House. Whatever redeeming qualities you give your characters, they should be ones that motivate the character to take morally right actions, even amid all the jerk things they do.
Show redeeming qualities in action
I’d be remiss not to warn of a danger with redeeming qualities in novels. TV writers, in a certain sense, have the luxury of images. A TV show doesn’t typically have a narrator, babbling over the quiet spaces of a show, explaining what’s going on. TV writers, thus, have no choice but to find ways of showing House’s redeeming qualities in action. They have no way of telling us that House is relentless when on the trail of an elusive disease microbe, except to show him acting that way.
Novelists—and I see this a lot from clients who are still working on their first or second manuscripts—do have the opportunity of using outright narration to convey information to the reader. The written word, as opposed to the filmed image, gives you the option to do that. But I caution you strongly: explaining to the reader in a paragraph that your protagonist will go to any lengths to get the job done—that is, telling them, is not as effective as showing the character taking those actions.
This is at the heart of what the “show, don’t tell” rule of creative writing means. TV writers have no choice. They have to show, rather than tell. You do have a choice, so make the right one.
Finally, consider your character’s overall arc. In a TV show like House, the whole show is predicated on House being a jerk. They can’t really change that without drastically altering the reason why people watch the show in the first place. This is why we know that Dr. House will never reach emotional acceptance until the show’s final episode. That’s the soonest point where it makes sense for a recurring TV show to change something fundamental about their premise.
In a novel, you have more options. Your book is going to end—and unless you’re working on a series that is already sold to a publisher—it needs to end in a way that provides emotional closure for the reader. Most often, that means allowing a jerk character to move beyond being a jerk, at least in some small way. Most often, it means creating some kind of overall character arc within the larger plot, through which your jerk protagonist ends up a better person by the end.
This doesn’t mean the character has to do a one-eighty and become the nicest guy in the whole world. Far from it. You can provide the emotional closure even with minor changes in a character’s behavior. Maybe your protagonist ends up only slightly less of a jerk than when the book started out. That’s ok. (And if you’re hoping to turn the book into a series, preserving as many jerk qualities as you can will help you.) But showing at least one moment of the character doing something that isn’t a jerk move, that he couldn’t or wouldn’t have been able to do at the start of the book, can still provide the emotional closure readers seek.
I said most often you can satisfy the reader by allowing the character some personal growth, but not always. You might have a story in which the character actually does need to be a jerk. Maybe your character is a repo-man, who makes a living repossessing cars from people delinquent on their car payments. It’s not a fun job. People get mad when you take their car away, no matter how much they might deserve it. Just to get by, your character might need to be a jerk. Or maybe your character is an police officer in a vice unit, deep undercover within a dangerous gang. Being a jerk is the only way to fit in, get the job done, and survive.
Stories like those require that the character be a jerk, and don’t permit you to change it. But even in those stories, you can provide the reader with emotional closure through a character arc. You’ll just use a different kind of arc. Rather than an arc of personal growth by the character, you’ll use an arc structured around revealing to the reader a difference between the jerk behavior the character is forced to engage in, versus a less jerkish inner self that the character would rather be, but can’t. The emotional point of the story is for the reader to understand the character, rather than for the character to change.
Why it all works
Loveable jerks make great protagonists because we all wish we could act that way. We wish we could be so dis-inhibited and free as to act on every impulse we have, whether kindly or mean-spirited. In real life, we can’t. The social costs are too high. Jerks get punished by having few, if any, friends. Jerks are the first ones to get fired when their employers face a choice of who to lay off. Jerks, if they are so disinhibited as to flaunt the law, can easily jerk their way right into prison.
Thus we love our loveable jerks because through them we can indulge our own jerkish fantasies. As writers, we can do a lot worse than giving our readers the chance to live vicariously through the characters in our novels.
April 12, 2010 19:38 UTC
Great characters are like origami
At the start of a book, readers face the book’s characters in much the same way as the writer faces the book itself: as a blank page. The characters are flat and featureless. Readers don’t know who these people are, what they can do, what they care about, what pisses them off. We don’t know any of that stuff, until you show us.
Certain broad strokes—and fairly irrelevant ones—such as name, age, gender, height, weight, and socio-economic class can be established quickly, and I would argue that you should do so. While these are surface features that don’t relate to the substance of your characters, surface features do help the reader to picture the characters and keep straight who’s who. So do that first, and do it quickly.
But once you’re into the substance of a character, once you’re showing us features of a person that really matter to how they think and act, complications arise.
Static personality features
A person may have many substantive qualities. Positive ones, like bravery, intelligence, chivalry, kindness, generosity, as well as negatives like cowardice, selfishness, arrogance, and cruelty. These are essentially fixed for the character, and we don’t expect them to change.
But you can’t show them all at once. Let’s say you have a protagonist who is smart, well off without being filthy rich, generous towards his friends and family, but with very little tolerance for idiots and people who make poor choices. As characters go, that’s a pretty well-rounded description. There’s a lot there for you to work with in the course of your novel. But you can’t show us all this stuff at once. It’s just too much.
I suppose you could create some kind of bizarre, tortured scene in which all of these come into play, but I doubt it would feel natural. You have to spread it out over several scenes, letting each scene touch on one or maybe two personality features, until we have the whole picture. Further, let these scenes be natural to the story, ones that arise in clear relationship to the plot, so they don’t stick out like sore thumbs. The last thing you want is readers thinking to themselves “Ah, this seemingly irrelevant scene must exist in order to show the guy’s generosity.”
Dynamic personality features
The other category of personality features are the ones that do change. These are the ones that constitute your novel’s character arc, in which your protagonist undergoes some kind of personal growth. Often this growth relates to those negative personality attributes, and by addressing them through the novel’s character arc, the protagonist becomes a better person by the end of the story.
For example, maybe that character described above learns to have some tolerance for “idiots and people who make poor choices.” You could involve him in the lives of people who are not well off at all, or you could attack his own financial situation. In the end he could come to see that not everyone has it as easy as he does (or did), and would learn that what he thought was evidence of bad choices by people he perceived as idiots, wasn’t. What he was actually seeing were reasonable and sensible people making the best choices they could under very difficult circumstances. Sometimes life deals you a bad hand, and your best options still suck.
You can’t show character arcs all at once either. You can’t have your protagonist be short tempered with the downtrodden for the first 20 chapters, then suddenly have him switch in chapter 21. Ask anyone who has had to change their eating habits to fend off heart disease, or who has had to overcome a substance abuse problem, and they’ll tell you: these things don’t happen overnight. Neither can we expect people’s substantive personality traits to change overnight. You need to craft a sequence of scenes which sets the stage for the change, creates an epiphany moment for the character, and then shows the new thinking taking hold as the plot progresses.
Many steps make a path
Why are great characters like origami? Because origami models and characters in novels both start from blank paper, and both take many steps to get where they’re going.
In origami, you don’t go from flat square to crane in one step. Every step, every fold, adds complexity and refines the model’s shape. Some steps are simple mountain and valley folds. Some steps are tricky petal folds, squash folds, or outside reverse folds, but in the end, you have a beautiful crane.
In writing, you don’t go from blank page to fully realized character in one step. Every experience you subject the character to adds complexity and interest. Every realization a character makes about his life, the world, or other people is another scene—another fold or crease. Some scenes will be simple and straightforward to construct, others will bedevil you, but take the time to get them right. In the end, you have a beautifully realized character who is a joy to write for and a joy to read.
March 12, 2010 17:42 UTC
Do you know the difference between an epiphany and a character arc?
When plotting out or revising your novel, it’s important to understand the difference between an epiphany and a character arc. Both are useful and important, but they serve very different roles in the narrative. Think of them like salt and sugar: They’re both dry, granular materials, both are very important in cooking, but the two are hardly interchangeable.
This is an epiphany. It’s a moment of revelation, when a character comes to understand something he couldn’t grasp before. I’m not talking about realizations that relate to the plot, as when someone comes to understand the key to a puzzle or finally figures out what missing thing they need in order to overcome some challenge. Those are great story moments, but they don’t have much to do with characterization.
I’m talking about moments when a character suddenly realizes something about himself. Those are moments of deep significance in your book because they foreshadow that the character will begin to think and act differently.
A lot of modern fiction trades in making protagonists into their own worst enemies. This has been true for some time in literary novels, which tend to be deeply driven by characters rather than plot. However, it is becoming increasingly true in mainstream and “plot monster” books too, as writers learn the power of characterization and character growth to more deeply involve the reader in the book.
Regardless of genre, many books have a setup in which a character flaw is the one thing that most prevents the protagonist from getting the job done. Only when he recognizes this—like when an alcoholic finally admits that his drinking is in fact a problem—can he begin to get out of his own way.
This is a character arc. Well, ok, that’s not strictly true. But graduation is a nice representation of a character arc: It’s where a character ends up after a series of epiphanies.
In school, students are faced with many challenges—classes, term papers, and exams—to overcome. They must experience many epiphanies—moments when they finally grasp their course material—in order to overcome these challenges. When they do, they finally succeed—they get an emotionally fulfilling moment of celebration, complete with cap, gown, and diploma.
It’s the same in a novel. Your character starts with some flaws. Throughout the plot, he’ll encounter many challenges, some of which he’ll fail at because of those flaws. After enough failures or after a failure with dire consequences, the he’ll have an epiphany and realize how he must change in order to succeed. After additional challenges, some inevitable setbacks, more epiphanies, and a lot of hard work, the character really does grow as a person. Finally, at the novel’s climax he can then tackle a problem that would surely have defeated him before.
The key difference
An epiphany is nothing more than a realization in the thread of your character’s personal growth. It is a plot point along the inner plot of the character’s personal journey. A character arc, then, is the whole journey.
The journey is not the destination
While graduation is a great metaphor for a character arc, don’t confuse the two. Graduation is not school, it is only the destination of a student’s journey through school. It’s an emotional, symbolic moment. Likewise, a character arc is not an emotional moment, but is the process leading up to a moment when the changes a character has undergone are finally recognized.
For the novelist, this means that while your book should work towards a “graduation moment” for your character, to provide an emotional payoff to the difficult journey of personal growth, you can’t skip the growth itself.
Here’s what doesn’t work: I’ve seen manuscripts from clients where they tried to add a character arc by inserting an epiphany scene into the beginning of the book, and a graduation moment at the end, but without touching anything in between. That’s like character sleeping through the entire four years of college but still receiving a diploma anyway. It falls flat.
To be meaningful, a character arc must affect the plot. It must affect the choices a character makes in the novel’s scenes. To be effective, a character arc must convince readers that the plot would have turned out differently without it because the character would have made different (worse) choices.
You need an epiphany moment to kick things off near the beginning, several smaller epiphany moments along the way as the character’s understanding grows, and the graduation moment at the end. This is why it is so difficult to paste a character arc on top of an existing story structure: Because to make it work, you have to go back and re-consider every choice the character makes in light of what the character learns in the epiphany moments.
February 01, 2010 22:38 UTC
Villains are heroes too
Look at it from their perspective: The villain is the hero of his or her own story. Take Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Alex Forrest didn’t consider herself to be a bad person. She was a person who felt she had been wronged, and wasn’t going to take it lying down.
Just like a heroine, she had a goal in mind: Exact justice on Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas). We’d call it revenge, but to her, it was justice. She had motivation driving her toward that goal, and obstacles to overcome in pursuit of it. So why shouldn’t she get a character arc too?
She should, and here are four good reasons why giving your villain a character arc helps your novel:
Believability and drama A villain who feels like a one-dimensional stereotype isn’t particularly believable. Real people are rarely so simple. If you’re doing a serial-killer thriller, say, but the whole of your villain’s development is contained in the two word phrase “serial-killer,” nobody’s going to put much faith in him as a real person. His actions and motivations will be all too predictable, and consequently, there is no drama.
A believable person is unpredictable. Unpredictability equals threat, which generates fear (both for the book’s hero and for the reader), which increases the whole book’s sense of drama.
Depth If adding one character arc for your hero gives your novel more depth, then surely adding a second arc for the villain will give your novel even greater depth, right? In fact, yes, and that’s really all there is to say about that.
Message and meaning Giving the villain an arc, with its attendant set of credible, carefully considered beliefs and motivations, gives you an opportunity to play with the similarities and differences between your hero and your villain. That, in turn, creates a perfect opportunity to give your book a deeper message and meaning beyond what’s in the plot. Sure, giving your villain any random character arc at all will still help your novel. But why be random when you can be smart?
If you’re clever about what arc you give the villain, you can a wonderful possibility for playing the two arcs off of each other. By relating both the hero’s and villain’s arcs to the same underlying facet of the human condition, you can examine that facet from multiple points of view. You allow the novel to present a nuanced consideration of tolerance or responsibility or suffering or whatever common element you choose.
Take suffering: perhaps both hero and villain are being driven by suffering from a previous emotional wound. But the hero works to overcome it, while the villain allows the suffering to drag him down into the darkness. This technique is great for giving your book a message and showing the complex, not black-and-white but gray nature of the world, without you ever having to point it out to the reader.
In this example, readers are likely to begin the book with a default attitude that suffering is bad. After all, nobody likes to suffer. We try to avoid it if we can. But by showing your hero emerge from suffering as a stronger person, while the villain succumbs to it and is ultimately defeated, you can show a more complex picture: Suffering itself is neither good nor bad, it’s all in how we choose to react to it. The best part is you never have to explain the message to the reader. It’s shown, right there in the two arcs.
Hope Boiled down to the barest essence, a character arc represents hope. It is a signal that some kind of change is coming, and if there can be change, there can be improvement. If your serial-killer villain has a character arc going on, then the reader can have hope that he may change and not, in fact, kill the victim he is presently stalking. A character arc offers the tantalizing possibility of redemption for even the blackest-hearted of villains.
Now, you don’t have to redeem the villain just because you gave him or her an arc. Absolutely not. But take care: If you’re doing it right, the arc will come with a pivotal moment somewhere in the plot, where the villain chooses the redemptive path or the path of condemnation. The serial-killer either chooses not to kill, or gives in to the bloodlust and does the victim in anyway.
Whichever you choose, that pivotal moment for the villain is also a pivotal moment for your book because the villain’s choice must be absolutely believable to the reader. You can’t just write up to that point then flip a coin to see what happens. Everything that has led up to that moment must, in the reader’s hindsight, support the choice the villain makes. Obviously you don’t want to telegraph the choice ahead of time and give away the ending, but the ending must fit what has come before like a glove.
Well, I guess you could flip a coin about it, as long as you’re willing to go back in revision to add support for the result. As novelist Michael Snyder said in an interview on Author Culture:
As a novelist, you want the reader to experience two conflicting yet simultaneous reactions [to your endings]. They should be saying “Wow, I never saw that coming” and “Of course, sure, yeah, it had to work that way, didn’t it?”
December 18, 2009 19:31 UTC
How to revise your character arcs
This is the final installment, part 6, in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. This is the big one. Today, we talk about character arcs.
The goal of a character arc is to present believable personal growth for your main characters, and to provide a feeling of emotional closure. Yes, successful books can and have been written without any meaningful growth in the character, or with no emotional closure at the end. Thrillers are the typical example of this type of book.
But to omit the character arc, even in a gripping, page-turning thriller, is a lost opportunity. As I’ve said before, a character arc is a way to elevate your novel to another level above and beyond run-of-the-mill books in your genre. The emotional closure provided by leaving your characters wiser at the end of the book than the beginning also leaves the reader wiser. It leaves the reader with the feeling that reading the book was a valuable use of their time, above and beyond the simple enjoyment they were expecting when they bought it.
Have you got any character arc already?
If you do, great. If the arc was intentional, even better. Skip ahead to the next section.
But what if you don’t? If you haven’t considered your protagonist’s personal growth before, where do you look for inspiration? You look to the plot, and look to yourself.
In the plot, look for obstacles of a similar nature that the protagonist faces at various points. For example, let’s say the protagonist gets in a lot of arguments in the course of the book, which is a problem because she’s constantly turning people into minor enemies who no longer want to be helpful to her. Possibilities for character arc include learning some better negotiation and conflict resolution skills, or some introspection. Maybe she could ponder, since arguments always seem to be happening to her, whether she’s the problem. Maybe she can figure out what she’s saying or thinking that tends to trigger these arguments. Revise the early dialogue scenes to more clearly portray her problematic interaction style. Likewise, revise dialogue scenes that take place later in the book to show her practicing not getting in arguments and having better outcomes with people. If she can learn that she was her own worst enemy, even in that one small aspect of her whole life, then you can leave her a better person at the end of the book.
If your plot doesn’t offer any obvious character arc material, then look to yourself. Ask yourself what you know now that you didn’t know when you were younger. What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time to give your younger-self one piece of advice? Or, as literary agent Donald Maass put it in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:
I do not believe you have no opinions. It is simply not possible that you have never observed a fact of human nature or uncovered a social irony. You are an aware, observant and discerning person. You are a novelist.
So take your observations of human nature, and find a way to show them through your protagonist’s experiences. Take care, though. It’s easy to be very clumsy in adding a message of this type to a book, which only leaves the reader feeling like you’ve hit them over the head with it. You don’t want to do that. To be subtle about it, you never want to tell the message. You want to show it so the reader sees it for themselves. Show it so the reader leaves the book feeling like the message is their own observation about life, not yours. Consider what your message is, then find a series of events that create a character arc which conveys that message without you ever having to spell it out explicitly.
Is your character arc well portrayed?
Remember, being believable is an important part of a character arc. You can’t just toss one into the mix and expect it to magically integrate with everything else in the novel. You want to look at a couple of things with respect to believability.
One is whether the character’s other attributes, the ones the rest of this revision series has talked about, track the character arc. Use the character’s visible attributes, everything the rest of this revision series has talked about, to show the otherwise invisible process of personal growth.
So ask yourself, is the arc reflected appropriately in the character’s dialogue? In their mannerisms? In their attitudes? Depending on the arc, it may even be reflected in the character’s body. For example, if your book starts out with an out-of-shape protagonist having a heart attack, then you can use physical health, strength, and stamina as external reflections of the character’s inner growth.
The other is whether the arc is too clean, too neat-and-tidy, to be believable. Real people, much as they strive to better themselves in earnest, have setbacks. People who are trying to quit smoking sometimes sneak a cigarette in a moment of stress, knowing they really shouldn’t. Recovering alcoholics sometimes fall off the wagon. Parents who are doing their best to raise their kids with love and compassion sometimes get pushed too far and yell anyway.
To be believable, a character arc needs to show believable progress, which usually means including the occasional setback. Certainly it includes initial stages where the character is trying to change but still isn’t doing very well with it. There’s nothing worse than a character arc that is really more of a stair-step: when the character goes from realizing they have a problem to immediately being cured of it. People are creatures of habit , and habits are hard to change. Don’t forget to show the struggle to change along with the change itself.
Although writers can spend a lifetime refining the techniques of portraying believable characters, in everything from dialogue to character arcs, that’s going to do it for this character revision series. If you’ve read the whole thing, thank you! I hope it has helped trigger some new ideas, give you some new tools to work with, and expose you to some strategies for thinking about character portrayal that will help elevate your novels above the run-of-the-mill.
After all, the only way out of the slushpile is up.
December 09, 2009 19:26 UTC
Don't forget to revise your characters too
To everyone who completed NaNoWriMo, and to everyone who has finished a manuscript in any timeframe, congratulations!
Now begins revision, strengthening the parts of your book you weren’t happy with when you wrote them, or that readers have told you don’t work very well. But as you revise your story’s weak plot points, as you iron out geographic inconsistencies in street names, historical details of clothing and social customs, don’t forget to revise your characters, too.
Plots are important, sure, but the heart of any story is its characters. They deserve to be every bit as polished and well-crafted as your plot. There are plenty of great writing blogs with advice on fixing plot issues, building tension, raising the stakes, and all of that. I won’t cover any of that.
Instead, this article is the first in series on techniques for strengthening your characters during revision. Over the next several days, I’ll cover these areas where revision can greatly improve your characters:
I’ve said it before on this blog, but dialogue is a marvelously powerful tool for exhibiting your characters’ inner workings to the reader. But with that power comes danger: get the dialogue wrong, and the characters fall flat. In revision, your goal is to create consistent, distinctive voices for each character. Each character should be immediately recognizable through the way they speak. What they say and how they say it should reveal a lot about them. Click here to read how to revise your dialogue
I touched on these a little bit in an earlier article about habits. Much as with dialogue, mannerisms are also wonderful windows into your characters’ souls. In revision, your goal is to display consistent patterns of mannerisms, but also to find ways to use those behaviors to display your characters’ mental states. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ mannerisms
This isn’t an area I have covered in much depth on this blog—not yet, anyway—except possibly for this article about stealing a character’s shoes. I apologize for that; it would be helpful to have some good background reading to point you at before talking about revision techniques, but it’ll have to wait. Suffice it to say that a character’s mind and body come in a single package, and I’ll be talking about ways to link physical traits to the attitudes you need the character to have as well as to the personal growth they may undergo. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ physical attributes
Attitudes—our complete sets of opinions, beliefs, prejudices, and values—govern how we interact with others and guide the choices we make in any given situation. The same is true for your characters. In this installment, I’ll be covering ways to ensure that your characters’ attitudes are as complex as a real person’s (not cardboard-cutout characters), as well as strategies for using the attitudes of individual characters and your whole cast to enhance the drama in your story. Click here to read how to revise your characters’ attitudes
Last of all is the big one: character arc. Mainstream thrillers can, and often do, get away with plots in which the protagonists don’t learn and grow at all over the course of the book. They leave the final chapter no wiser about life or about themselves than they were on page one. That’s an enormous missed opportunity to elevate a book from merely entertaining to moving and meaningful. You may still elect to have a laser-straight character arc in your book, but I at least aim to give you some tools you can use to put some juicy bends in that arc. Click here to read how to revise your character arcs
Don’t think of these as four discrete items to add to your must-fix-in-editing list. They don’t work in pure isolation from each other. Physical attributes, for example, can have a bearing on a character’s mannerisms and attitudes. Rather, treat these areas and the techniques I’ll be covering as a mental framework for evaluating your characters, for teaching yourself how to see what needs to be fixed. Expect to go back and forth with them, moving from one area to another as you see opportunities where they can build on one another.
I hope you’ll stay tuned to the rest of this series, in which I’ll give you practical, in-depth and hands-on tips for addressing those four areas. If you apply them diligently, then when you are done revising you will have characters who are every bit the equal of your plot.
December 02, 2009 19:14 UTC
Drive a stake through your character's heart--but in a good way!
I suspect most writers would agree with what literary super-agent Donald Maass wrote in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:
If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.
And while my name doesn’t quite carry the authoritative weight of Mr. Maass (not yet, anyway!), I hope you would equally agree with one of my recent articles on the value of intertwining plot and character arc.
Today we’ll look at how to do both—raise the stakes and intertwine the plot with the character arc—in one shot:
Give your character an identity crisis: An identity crisis is an immediate ticket to character arc. An identity crisis forces a character to question who he really is, and ultimately to grow, mature, and become wiser. An identity crisis can also destroy your character, so readers can watch him rebuild into a newer, stronger, better version of himself.
The cool part is that there is a practically limitless array of potential identity crises you can draw from to find a close connection to your plot. Linking the resolution of the plot to the character’s resolution of the identity crisis immediately raises the stakes, because it adds the character’s need for self-understanding to whatever the outer stakes of the plot happen to be.
First, let’s take a quick look under the covers to see exactly what an identity crisis is, so we can then figure out how to create one that raises the stakes. An identity crisis stems from undermining something a character feels to be deeply true about himself. It can be anything:
Belief: I am my mother and father’s biological child. Undermining: Surprise! You were adopted.
That particular example has been done a lot (in fact, I’m set to do it again next month during NaNoWriMo) but you get the idea. Find something that is an utter rock-bottom, totally taken for granted part of the character’s set of beliefs, and change it.
When you do that, you force the character to start wondering “Well, if that was a lie, what else should I stop believing in?”
Undermining beliefs about relationships creates drama because relationships are so important in people’s lives. This is why the adoption one is so common, because parental relationships are among the most important in anyone’s life. But you can make it be about anything:
Belief: When I was four I fell down on a glass bottle and it broke and that’s how I got this scar on my side. Undermining: Surprise! When you were four, one of your kidneys was removed and donated to someone else.
Suddenly you have the character wondering how he could fail to remember something like that, why his parents had made up a different story, whether it was morally acceptable for them to do that to him when he was too young to really understand or consent, whether he can ever trust them again, and even whether (since he’s missing an organ) he’s still fully human.
Plot-centric Identity Crises: Now we’re in a good place to figure out how to use our plot—or even more generally, our genre—to pick a good crisis. The trick is to think about the character’s most deeply held beliefs of self, and look for one that naturally lends itself to a dependency on your plot. Everyone believes a great many things about themselves, so this shouldn’t be too hard. Find that natural connection, then destroy the belief that relies on it.
And just to show that a seemingly random core belief can relate to many different kinds of plots, let’s take some ideas from different genres and see how we could tie that missing kidney crisis to it. For all of these, we’ll assume the unknowing child donor has already become an adult.
Romance: Maybe the unwilling donor’s parents sold the kidney because they were in some sort of severe financial hardship. When he discovers that his parents ended up wasting the money on high living—new car, new TV, imported beer in the fridge—ending up right back where they started from a couple of years later, he comes to feel that something has been stolen from him. He finds he cannot feel whole without knowing where his other kidney ended up. He can’t accept that his unwilling sacrifice didn’t buy something more important than beer. So he searches and finds the recipient. Although he becomes attracted to her, he doesn’t tell her she’s got his kidney. Their flirtations grow more serious, and he falls in love with her. Saving her life, he decides, was a worthy trade. When at last she reciprocates his love, he becomes able to forgive his parents; had they not sold his kidney, he never would have met her. Only on their wedding night does he finally tell her about their deeper connection.
Legal Thriller: The kidney donor has become a District Attorney who is building a case against a black-market organ donor ring. At his annual physical, he is examined by a new resident-in-training, who asks about his scar. He tells the broken bottle story, but she doesn’t believe it. She whips out the portable ultrasound machine, takes a look, and tells him “sorry, you’re down a kidney, pal.” This completely upsets the relationship he thought he had with his parents, who are now deceased. Yet, everything he knows about morality and respect for the law, everything that led him to become a D.A., he learned from those same parents. He begins questioning his own commitment to those ideals. Still, when he recovers from the shock of this news, he digs into what happened. In going through his parents’ old papers, he discovers that the same black market organ ring he’s after performed his operation, and that the kidney went to a twin brother he never knew he had. (Bonus identity crisis: Surprise! You weren’t an only child, either.) But, being a chop-shop affair, his brother got sepsis from the operation and died. The papers contain enough clues about the organ ring that he can bring an indictment both for illegal organ sales and negligent homicide. In putting the case together, he comes to understand his parents’ difficult moral-vs.-emotional choice and comes to a more tempered view of the law itself. After handing off the case to a prosecutor, he resigns his job to pursue a seat as a judge.
Literary: Sometimes it can work well for the identity crisis to drive the plot, and again we’ll use the deceased-twin-brother: Suppose the character has always known he was missing a kidney, but thought it was removed when he was young because of renal cancer. As an adult, he has become a well-known cancer activist who is prominent in cancer-survivor support groups. His whole life unravels when he discovers that, again, his kidney was donated to a sick brother, and worse, it was his brother who had cancer, not him. Having subsumed “cancer survivor” so deeply into his own identity, the revelation that he never had it undermines his whole life and career. Should he keep quiet, or tell everyone the truth about himself? What about all the other survivors who have drawn inspiration from his supposed example of recovery and long-term health? Does he have a moral right to deny them that hope, when for many of them hope is a critical part of why they’re clinging to life at all? How can he maintain the same passion for his work when it’s not personal for him anymore? In the end, he resolves his identity crisis—and the outer plot issues—by shifting that part of his self-identity to “sibling of cancer victim” and establishing a new personal connection to what has become his life’s work.
Conclusion: I derived all of these examples by thinking about the character’s most deeply held beliefs of self, then looking at the premise and genre to find the specific belief to upend that best serves the story. However you manage it in your own story, whether the plot determines the crisis or vice versa, raise the stakes by driving a stake through your character’s heart.
October 06, 2009 21:14 UTC
Character development tips from K.M. Weiland, author of Behold the Dawn
Ms. Weiland is in the middle of a “blog tour” to promote her book, and has made time in her busy schedule to share with us some of her tips and experiences with creating the kind of lively characters this blog is all about.
Tell us about your favorite character from one of your books, a character that you particularly enjoyed writing. Why does that one stand out for you?
Marcus Annan, the hero of my recently released medieval novel Behold the Dawn, is easily one of my all-time favorites. He was one of those special characters who leapt off the page and took on a life of his own. He was inspired, largely, by the real-life knight William Marshall, who was considered the “greatest knight who ever lived.” I read a children’s book about this son of a lord, who, because of his lack of inheritance as a second-born child, sought his fortune in the tourneys. I was instantly fascinated by these huge mock battles, which were repeatedly banned by the popes and yet remained wildly popular, and I began wondering how the lives of the competitors would have been shaped by their brutal and dangerous exploits. In Marcus Annan, I got to explore at least one answer to that question.
What’s your take on backstory? How much do you create for your characters, and how much of it ends up in the book?
I’m actually a tremendous fan of backstory. I have to laugh sometimes when I look at my stories, because their backstories are often twice the size of the stories themselves! Ernest Hemingway once spoke about how a good story is like an iceberg: nine-tenths of it is underwater and out of sight. That’s pretty much how I approach backstory. I want to know everything I possibly can about my characters, and I often fill up whole notepads with my character sketches and interviews. The information I uncover during these exercises is invaluable. It gives me depth, character motivation, and sometimes entirely unforeseen plot twists—as in the case of Behold the Dawn. As far as I’m concerned, backstory is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.
However, it’s vital to keep all this intoxicating information in perspective. The best backstories are those that carry the story proper, instead of weighing it down. As with research, it can be tempting to share everything with the reader, either because you’re mistakenly convinced they’ll find it just as interesting as you do—or as a way of patting yourself on the back for all your hard work. Backstory, for the most part, needs to remain invisible. Its proper place, after all, is in back of the story.
Tell us about a character who pushed your story in an unexpected direction.
Characters always push stories in unexpected directions. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be much point, would there? If a character fails to pop off the page, then he isn’t worth my time. That isn’t to say, of course, that I haven’t struggled with certain characters, trying to figure them out and find the magic button that will bring them to life. But every character in every one of my completed novels has taken on a life of his own. And, to one extent or another, they’ve all manipulated their stories to suit themselves.
How important are character arcs to your novels? What’s your strategy for relating the outer plot events to the characters’ inner personal journeys?
My stories are plot-driven, but they start and end with characters and the thematic depth they bring to the table. The stories that move me most are those that exhibit great depth and, inevitably, growth in the life of the main characters. I am inspired and I am challenged by these stories. That same reaction is what I’m seeking from my own readers.
Character arcs and themes are inseparable; to have strength in one area, you must also have strength in the other. So I usually start my search for a character arc by searching out a character’s core needs and motivations. Buried somewhere within one of those, I usually find the pulse of the theme. I would say I look for the lesson the character needs to learn, but that sounds too moralistic. The key to strong themes is that they flow organically from the heart of the characters. Subtlety is vital. I’m a novelist, an entertainer. It’s not my job to bash people over the head with lessons. But I do strive, through the growth of my characters, to give readers something deeper than just entertainment. I want my stories to have take-away value; I want them to be remembered, not just for dialogue or action scenes, but for some truth that connected with the reader on a primal level.
Whose books should we be reading for great examples of well drawn, fully three-dimensional characters? What do those authors do particularly well in their characterization?
Patrick O’Brian. His historical Aubrey/Maturin series is mind-blowing. I’ve never read an author who made it look so effortless, so seamless. In fact, he’s one of the few authors who almost entirely disguises himself working behind the scenes. He wrote, not as though he was creating these characters from scratch, but as if he were simply recording the lives of people who really lived and breathed. You put down one of his books and almost forget it’s not real.
I’m also a big fan of Orson Scott Card. His body of work is uneven, but when he’s on, he’s on. I remain particularly impressed with how skillfully he revealed his main character through the actions of other characters in Speaker for the Dead.
What character building tip would you like to share with my readers?
Interviews. As an in-depth outliner, I’m very comfortable spending months on “pre-production” work, and one of the most important steps in that work is my character sketches. Over the years, I’ve created an extensive list of “interview” questions, which I use as a guideline when crafting characters. It’s important to me to know my characters backwards and forwards, so my questions cover even such seemingly inconsequential details as favorite foods, birthdays, and collections. I answer the questions longhand because, for some reason, my semi-illegible handwriting gives me the permission to eschew perfectionism and really tap into the vagaries of my subconscious. I interview different characters at varying depths. POV characters get the full interview, while minor characters and antagonists often get only a sketch of their personal histories. Anyone interested in my list of interview questions can find them on my blog, Wordplay.
Thank you, K.M. Weiland, for appearing as the first guest interview on Show Some Character! There’s some great advice in there that I’m sure readers will appreciate; I know I can’t wait to interview the heroine in my work-in-progress. May you have every success with Behold the Dawn!
About the Author: K.M. Weiland ( www.KMWeiland.com ) writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She is the author of A Man Called Outlaw and the recently released Behold the Dawn. She blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture.
October 04, 2009 06:17 UTC
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