Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Character Arcs: Why I Love Them

There's something fascinating about watching a character change through the course of a story.

In good fiction, this happens between the beginning and the end of a novel. However, I find that I'm especially intrigued by series transformations, so I'd like to talk about that. It's difficult to give one character an arc that extends through a series of books (I know; I'm still working on it here). But I believe that it's ultimately the most rewarding experience a writer can have.

Allow me to give you an example of one of my favorite character transformations. This may seem irrelevent, but trust me, it's not. This particular character exists in a Japanese anime series (graphic novel and television cartoon form). The series is called Dragonball Z, and the character's name is Vegeta.

If you're familiar with Dragonball Z, I'm sure you know where I'm going with this.

In the beginning of the series, Vegeta is a bad guy. Okay, he's a bastard. His number one goal (main stakes) is to basically rule the universe and prove that he's the most powerful warrior alive. He is a prince, after all, and must be the best. But his secondary goal is tailored uniquely to him (personal stakes): destroying Goku, who is the hero of the series and whose goal is to save the universe from people like Vegeta. Vegeta feels that Goku's very existence is an insult to him. Unfortunately, being the hero, Goku (who is not a prince; is, in fact, the lowest of commoners) is stronger than Vegeta. Much rankling of pride ensues.

(Bet you didn't think a cartoon series could have this much depth, huh?)

Anyway. Throughout the course of the series, a lot of horrible things happen to Vegeta - mostly as a result of his pride and stubborn refusal to let anyone help him. He dies at least three times (in Dragonball Z-world, people can be brought back to life . . . don't ask. It's a long story.). His death is more traumatic each time, because he is slowly learning to care about people other than himself.

By the time the series reaches Vegeta's third death, he has become something else. He dies by blowing himself up in order to kill an enemy who is stronger than him, in an effort to save the universe (main stakes) - especially his son (personal stakes). And in the final confrontation between Goku and the last big bad guy, (Vegeta's been resurrected again at this point) Vegeta makes it possible for the universe to be saved by letting the bad guy beat the crap out of him as a distraction, to give Goku time to gather enough energy to kill him once and for all.

This type of transformative character arc can move readers to tears (yes, I did cry when Vegeta died). It is among the most powerful tools in a writer's box.

I've attempted to create a series arc for two of my main characters, and have come to realize that I've borrowed elements from this series. One of them (Gabriel), like Goku, is slowly shedding the part of his innocence that allows other people to hurt him; the other (Jenner), like Vegeta, is slowly learning that pride does not have to prevent him from caring about other people. At least a little.

I still have two more installments to go. Hopefully, I can maintain my character arcs and make people cry at the end.


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

S.W. - what a delightful article. As you were describing the process of characters changing throughout a series, I kept thinking of your Jenner. I've read all of the books so far (my great honor), and have been hooked from day one, even though urban thrillers aren't "my" genre, by a long shot. But you hooked me big time with your characters and powerful writing. Not to mention the nail biting suspense. Surprising I have any fingernails left at all!

Jenner, the ultimate bad guy you love to hate and who is SO scary even I - a full grown man - couldn't stand to read about him just before bedtime... goes through such a transformation that in the end, I do love him, and care for him, and want him to succeed. You dragged me through gut clenching fear to heartfelt compassion with this character. And I realized, too, that the same happens to Angel (Gabriel), only his journey is quite different.

When is this series debut being released and can you tell us about the founding book in the series? How about an excerpt? It's time the world gets to know and love/hate your characters, and get as addicted to your writing as I am.

s.w. vaughn said...

Oh, thank you so much, Aaron! You're too good to me. I swear, every time I've wanted to give up this stupid writing game for good, you stop me just because you actually want to read my blathering. :-)

I don't think I've ever posted an excerpt from BA here, have I? Maybe I'll do that. I'll keep it clean, though. LOL

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

I know you've had times when you questioned your life's calling, but if you ever stopped writing those deliciously twisted tales, I would be heartbroken. You know what a superb mentor you've been to me, and I owe you so much I can't even begin to measure it.

Kim Smith said...

i want to pitch my two cents in here too SW... even though I have not read any of your current work, i am very excited about it :) and look forward to it. I am proud of your writing prowess (I read some of your early work) and even more proud to call you friend.

s.w. vaughn said...

Aww... shucks. Thank you, Kim! Ditto to everything you said. I'm so thrilled about the upcoming release of your latest!

Anyone have any thoughts about character arcs? :-)

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

A great article, S.W. Your timing is perfect, and so relevant. I'm working on a new manuscript and I'm imagining the changes my characters will go through. Changes, that are so important in any story.

I've had the pleasure of reading excerpts of your work on Deadly Prose, and though I've yet to add your books to my list, I'm doing it right this minute.