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
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