Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?
We’ve all heard about how a novel’s plot should relate to the main character’s inner journey. About how our characters should grow and change and become wiser, better people by the end of the story. Heck, I’ve written about that plenty right here on this blog. Those are your garden variety inner character arcs.
Less well known is what I call an outer character arc, which doesn’t resort to changing the character’s inner self.
Sometimes this is just what you need. Maybe there’s something about the character that might cause conflict and drama in the novel, but which doesn’t need to change. It may even be that you shouldn’t change them. So how, with a character trait that you want to leave entirely alone, can you make an arc out of it?
Create conflict between her sense of self and how others see her
For example, let’s say my main character is an introvert. Maybe she’s so introverted that it causes her problems in her life. She can’t get much respect at work, because she’s so quiet in meetings. The guy she thinks is cute isn’t interested in her because he can’t see past her quiet exterior. At dinner parties, she has trouble participating in the conversation, because by the time she has worked out how to phrase her opinions and thoughts, the subject of the conversation has inevitably changed.
The problems her introversion causes are real, but I’m not about to change her. No way. Yeah, she has trouble in social situations, but there is nothing inherently wrong with being an introvert. About half the population is one, including me and a lot of my readers. Writing a book where the heroine reaches a better place in her life by changing something that isn’t wrong to begin with doesn’t strike me as emotionally truthful, and wouldn’t resonate well with readers either.
So what to do? The character arc here doesn’t involve a conflict between what kind of person she is and what kind of person she ought to be. Rather, it stems from those conflicting perceptions. Let’s look deeper.
Outer character arc
An “outer character arc” is different from the typical “inner character arc” in that it does not involve personal growth and change. Not in the same way, anyhow. To continue the example, the issue for this protagonist is that the other people mistake her quiet, reserved, thoughtful nature for something else: shyness, insecurity, stupidity, timidity, et cetera.
The central conflict in this outer character arc is this difference between the character’s true self and how others perceive her.
For an introverted character struggling with being heard and recognized in social situations, the obstacle arising from that conflict is changing people’s perceptions. She must help her boss understand that when she’s quiet in a meeting, it’s because she’s listening intently and processing everything. She needs to find a way to show the cute guy more of who she really is than he can see on the surface.
I’m not sure what she’s ought to do about the dinner party problem; I haven’t figured that one out in real life myself. If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments, ok?
Regardless, by the end of the novel I can still bring her to a better situation in her life by confronting this difference in perception—by resolving the outer character arc—rather than by changing her introverted nature.
Nobody is ever exactly how they seem
That’s the key to unlocking an outer character arc. No person on earth is ever perceived by others as they truly are, way deep down inside. Other people don’t see you as you see yourself. The clever writer turns this fact into an outer character arc by making the character see this difference. Give the character a moment of epiphany that reveals to her the underlying nature of the central conflict that has been dogging her all along. The epiphany can generate three different outer character arcs, depending on how you want to resolve the conflict and whether you want to add any inner character arc techniques as well.
Don’t change the character, change how she presents herself.
This is the pure outer character arc example I gave above, although obviously you can do it with any trait, not just introversion. This is where the character concludes that she does not need to change, that she is already comfortable with who she is, but that she needs teach the people around her a couple of things. One, that there’s nothing wrong with her, thankyouverymuch, and two, what her actual capabilities, skills, and interests are. Her goal is staying true to herself while changing others’ perceptions, and her life will improve when she achieves it.
Don’t change the character, and that’s ok.
This is where the character may start out thinking she needs to change her inner self, but in the end realizes that she’s ok with who she is and she’s also ok with it if other people don’t really get her. It’s a hybrid model that starts out looking like an inner character arc, but then turns out to be an outer one. To continue the example, maybe she circumvents her problems at work by quitting her job to start her own freelance book editing business where she can work from home and be her own boss. Hypothetically, you understand. Ahem.
Do change the character after all.
This is where a character considers the difference in self-perception versus how other see her, and concludes that in fact they’re right. She does in fact have a flaw that should be addressed. This is a hybrid too, but is the opposite of the previous one. It’s an outer character arc that turns into an inner character arc. If you have the skill to pull it off, this one can work particularly well in first person narratives where the character really is clueless about something. Use the character’s behavior to show the flaw, and use the first person style to show the character’s self-perception contrasting with the flaw.
An outer character arc isn’t always appropriate to add to a novel. But if you’re starting from a character that you like, that you don’t think needs to change at his or her core, consider it. It’s another tool to put in your toolbox, as Stephen King would put it. If you do decide to give it a try, kick things off by putting the character in a situation where she wants to shout at the world, “You don’t know me,” and where the world responds by saying “yeah, but maybe you don’t know yourself all that well, either.” Then see what happens!
October 23, 2009 18:43 UTC
Posted by Carolyn Cordon on November 01, 2009 23:53 UTC
Oh I love you so much!! I just had a ka-ching moment reading the penultimate paragraph of this blog, and I now know what to do with my main character!!!
Thank you so much.
Posted by Jason Black on November 02, 2009 00:34 UTC
Excellent! Glad to have helped.
Posted by mo on January 09, 2010 13:04 UTC
Dinner party solution: just open your mouth and start talking. No sarcasm here; I speak from experience. People used to need pliers to get a word out of me during meetings and parties.
As an introvert, I used to feel the need to map conversations so that nobody surprised me with any sudden twists. Nobody likes to be misunderstood or embarrassed during a discussion, but it’s all the worse when you already have a hard time in social settings. I tackled social situations like a Boy Scout, trying to go in prepared, but by the time I sketched the territory, everyone else was back in the canoe and on their way.
It’s an attempt to control the conversation, no different from the way everyone else attempts to control conversations—with interruptions, me-me-me! statements, partial attention while they think of what to say next, or even plain old participation.
But once you let go and jump in, stop trying to phrase it just so and just start talking, the words usually do work themselves out.
Posted by KO on January 08, 2011 03:11 UTC
Dean Koontz’s “Odd Thomas” immediately comes to mind.
Posted by Tam Linsey on December 06, 2011 01:09 UTC
Looks like this article has longevity. :) Thanks for the ideas. This is exactly what my protagonist needs, I think. As for the dinner party, try putting on a sticker that says, “I’m shy. Please say hello.” It works at conferences. The hardest part is putting it on and forgetting about it. But people will respond!