In case you missed it, two weeks ago I talked about three different ways to plan your novel. The two most common ways are plotting/outlining and seat-of-the-pants writing, but neither of those have ever worked for me because I love characters. That led me to discover the joy of character-led writing. I wanted to explain that before I jumped into part three of this character study because character-led writing is essentially creating your character arcs.
What is a character arc?
Your character’s arc is his growth or evolution – it’s the difference between where he started the story and where he ends up (not physically, though that can be part of his arc). It’s the change in Luke Skywalker from moisture farmer on a remote planet to Jedi master and hero of the rebellion. It’s what moves Elizabeth Bennett from being a proud, prejudice young woman to falling in love with the man she once despised.
Why do characters need arcs?
No one goes through life without having circumstances and relationships affect him. Whether the influences are good or bad, the truth is that we all change. Because of that, readers relate to characters who change. They understand how characters’ struggles and successes can impact them because readers lived through similar experiences. Character arcs help readers empathize with the characters, and when they empathize with the characters they care about what happens to them.
Do all characters need arcs?
No. Character arcs are essential in character-driven stories, but not necessary in plot-driven fiction.
Consider Indiana Jones. That man knows who he is and what he’s doing. He doesn’t change much throughout each movie. His stories are plot-driven. The focus is on the situations – how does he address and overcome each obstacle. It’s not necessary for him to experience personal growth because that’s not his challenge. That’s why I waited to discuss character arc until after talking about the three ways to write a novel, because not all novels will need to worry about character arc.
Are all character arcs the same?
Absolutely not – characters don’t change in the same ways. Some will have positive growth and others will have negative growth. Your protagonist should grow positively, but your antagonist can have a negative arc.
You can see examples of both arcs in the book Where the Heart Is. Novalee Nation is a young, unwed, pregnant woman who’s traveling from Tennessee to California with her boyfriend Willy Jack Picken. When they’re driving through Oklahoma, Novalee makes Willy Jack stop at a Wal-mart so she can use the bathroom. When she comes back out of the store, he’s gone. From that point on, their story arcs head in different directions.
Novalee meets Sister Husband, the woman who gives her and her baby a home. She also meets Lexi, the nurse who becomes her best friend; Moses Whitecotton, a photographer who becomes her friend and mentor; and Forney Hull, the man she eventually marries. Through many hard times, Novalee changes from an uncertain, unskilled woman with no one but her unborn baby to a confident, professional woman surrounded by loving family and friends.
Willy Jack’s arc, however, goes the other way. After abandoning his girlfriend and child, he picks up a female hitchhiker who’s actually an underage thief; he ends up in jail. While there, he writes a hit song and tries to start a music career, but selfish decision-making destroys that chance. He ends up abusing drugs and alcohol, and eventually losing both legs in a tragic accident. The man who once had a family and friends ends up alone, sick (from his addictions), and crippled.
Positive and negative arcs.
Does every character in character-driven fiction need an arc?
No, you don’t need to give every character an arc. Similarly to creating backstory and GMCs for your characters, you only need to do that for your main characters.
There’s no set rule regarding who needs an arc, you’ll have to decide that for yourself, but here are a few things to consider:
- Is this character important to the story?
- Does this character appear frequently in the story?
- If you give this character an arc, will it strengthen the story?
- Will this character appear in any other stories?
If you answered ‘yes’ to those questions, then give your character an arc.
What do you need to include in a character arc?
Character arcs need distinctly different beginning and ending points, but there also needs to be catalysts that force the change.
Those catalysts are not only important, they’re necessary because people don’t change for the fun of it – something needs to force them to decide to change.
Look at Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. On the surface, he’s a self-centered pirate who’s only interested in getting what he wants. His life, however, entwines with Elizabeth Swan’s and William Turner’s.
Sparrow doesn’t mind helping Swan and Turner as long as the end result ultimately benefits him. Throughout the course of three movies, the trio develop a strange camaraderie. They face Captain Barbossa, Admiral Norrington, Davy Jones, and Lord Beckett together. Each confrontation forces Sparrow, Swan, and Turner to decide who they will stand with and what they will stand for.
By the end of the third movie, Sparrow fights alongside Swan and Turner, but his own personal gain is still his focus – he wants immortality by stabbing Davy Jones’s heart so he can captain the Flying Dutchman.
Then the unthinkable happens: Davy Jones stabs Turner.
Sparrow can kill Davy Jones for his own immortality but Turner and Swan were just married. Will Sparrow let Turner stab the heart (letting Turner live and sparing Swan the loss of her new husband) or will he take immortality for himself?
Without the catalysts in Sparrow’s life (meeting Swan and Turner, fighting with them and alongside them), he never would have sacrificed his desire to save someone else. That is his character arc.
When you create arcs for your characters, there are three questions you need to answer:
- Where will my character start?
- Where will my character end up?
- What will push my character from point A to point B?
When you answer these questions, you’ll create believable, relatable characters that people will want to read about.
And now that you have the tools you need to create those characters, it’s time to look at what your characters will do in your book – the plot! Stop back in two weeks when we’ll look at the three-act structure.
Until then, what are some of your favorite character arcs? Which character arcs have you read that you didn’t agree with?