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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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.”

  6. 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.

  7. 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

Tags: character, character arc, taking action, passivity, goals, sidekicks, hierarchy of needs, Maslow, show don't tell

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How writers can use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Some decades ago, a researcher named Abraham Maslow got this idea that people have priorities. Brilliant, eh? Well, no. The clever bit was when he realized that any priority you care to name, whether it’s “I should go put on a sweater because I feel cold” or “Gosh, I’d really like to publish a novel one day,” fits into a hierarchy with well-defined levels.

Maslow decided that this hierarchy of needs had five levels. On the bottom are your basic life-support needs, keeping yourself fed and whatnot. At the top are your most aspirational goals, getting that novel published. Maslow’s main point was this:

You can’t pursue your higher-level goals until your lower-level needs are met

For we novelists, that’s key. It makes a fundamental kind of sense, too: all else being equal, a person (or a character) will naturally focus on the lowest-level need in their life that is currently going unsatisfied. That is, the freedom to pursue higher-level goals is a luxury compared to keeping one’s lower-level needs met.

If you trap your hero in an underwater cave with a limited supply of air in his scuba tank, pretty much all of his attention is going to be focused on getting out of the cave. You’ve created a pressing low-level need for him, and until he’s got it sorted, higher level concerns can wait. That is, while he’s underwater he won’t be spending a lot of brain-cycles trying to figure out the most romantic possible way to ask his girlfriend to marry him.

Similarly, you can’t get a group of women to organize for Women’s Suffrage if they’re too busy working to put food on the dinner table. This is why Women’s Suffrage movements, both in the U.S. and in England, were driven by middle and upper-class women whose low-level needs were already well assured. The freedom to pursue noble ends such as social justice is a luxury.

Conflicted priorities

This philosophy leads to a point of leverage we writers have with our characters. People generally have a whole set of priorities in their lives, distributed across all levels of the hierarchy. These priorities are also dynamic, changing from moment to moment as circumstances change. This means you can pit a character’s priorities against one another—pit the character against himself—in order to create obstacles for the character to overcome. These types of obstacles will naturally be more compelling and believable than random, externally applied obstacles because every reader knows the frustration of having one’s priorities come into conflict.

Let’s imagine your protagonist’s central goal in the novel is a low-level life and safety goal. That is, the premise of the novel is one that threatens to prevent the character from being able to feed and house himself and maybe also his family. (Hey, raise the stakes, right?) Maybe, for example, your protagonist is an auto-worker who has been taking night classes in computer programming so as to provide a better life for his family. But, with the collapse of the U.S. automobile industry, he gets laid off. Now he has to figure out how to keep his family fed and his mortgage paid, something he previously had under control. If he has to go out and get a couple of lower-paying jobs, working days and nights in order to make ends meet, he’s going to have to give up on those computer classes. Or, maybe, he might take a chance and start applying for programming jobs anyway, even knowing that he’s not ready and might not succeed at that. Make him choose between the safe strategy of keeping his family’s low-level needs met at the expense of his high-level aspirations, and the risky strategy that might just get him both.

You can do it the other way around, too, pitting a character with high-level goals against unexpected low-level needs. Maybe your protagonist is a mid-level employee at some company, working hard to rise up through the ranks. Maybe he really needs a promotion and a raise in order to put his kids through college (a doubly aspirational goal). So he begs his boss for a chance to make a presentation at a meeting with an important client, and the boss says yes. Now create a conflicting priority: In the middle of this situation where he might realize his higher-level aspirations, confront him with a lower level need. Maybe he was nervous before the meeting (who wouldn’t be?) and drank too much coffee as a result. Well, we all know what happens when you drink too much coffee. Make him choose between relieving his low-level need, or soldiering on as best he can. Make him choose between appearing unprofessional by dashing out of the meeting to go potty, or holding his wee and delivering the presentation as best he can despite his physical discomfort.

Inverted priorities

Maslow’s hierarchy isn’t a rigid truth. People aren’t robots. The guy in the meeting actually does have a choice about whether to go deal with his immediate low-level need, or whether to ignore it in pursuit of a higher-level goal. It can be very dramatic to watch characters pursue high-level goals even at the expense of low-level needs. We usually call this “sacrifice,” and you can build wonderful drama with it.

It’s believable, because real life is full of examples. In a rigidly Maslowian world there would be no starving artists (or writers), but in the real world there are (as we well know). In Maslow’s world, there would be no over-achievers who pursue career or social goals to the exclusion of love-and-belonging. But in the real world, there are plenty.

In Maslow’s world, no one would ever dedicate themselves to a higher purpose, but of course some people do and they tend to be the people we most respect, admire, and follow.

Maslow’s hierarchy is just a tool

It’s a very useful tool, but it is only a tool. Much like the five stages of grief, which can come out of order or even skip over some stages, Maslow’s hierarchy is only a guideline for how people typically choose to focus their attention. To that extent, it makes a great framework for thinking about what a character’s goals can and should be in any given situation, and is a very useful strategy for brainstorming new conflicts and obstacles to throw at your characters.

May 05, 2010 19:32 UTC

Tags: character, hierarchy of needs, Maslow, priorities, conflict

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