Monday, May 25, 2009

The Power of the Character Arc

© Joe Bright 2009 all rights reserved

As in life, the characters in a story often change as a result of the struggles they endure. This change is referred to as a character arc. We get satisfaction from seeing a greedy banker open his heart and wallet after being visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Or watching Edmond Dantès lose his naïveté after being framed by his best friend and cast into prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Character arcs keep story people from becoming flat and stagnate, and add an extra dimension to the story. They give characters a place to go, something to learn. Not all characters have an arc. James Bond comes to mind, as well as Robert Langdon, the hero of the The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. However, when critics speak of a dynamic character, they generally refer to one with an arc.

To create a good arc, you first need to expose your characters’ flaws. If they are already perfect, they have no room for growth. Psychologists point out that we not only love people for their strengths, but also for their weaknesses. This is also true of fictional people. Their imperfects make them more human and make us more sympathetic to their plight.

Flaws are easy to find. We need only look at ourselves and associates. When writing THE BLACK GARDEN, I utilized many of my own flaws to bring Mitchell Sanders to life. He runs away from his problems and doesn’t stand up for the things he believes in. Identifying his weaknesses immediately highlighted several scenes I had to write. First, I needed to illustrate his weaknesses. Second, I needed to show him attempting to overcome his flaws but failing. Third, I needed to show him succeed.

Transcending limitations takes time. We need to see the cause and effect, how the conflict changes the character’s beliefs and attitudes. Skipping from weakness to strength without illustrating the growth leaves the reader feeling cheated. To make it believable, we need to see the slow progress. It takes Mitchell Sanders several months to shed a degree of his selfishness. Because we see his growth, we believe it when he goes against his own ethics to help George O’Brien.

Not all growth is positive. Sometimes a character may start out with a bright and cheery outlook on the world and slowly become disillusioned or bitter. The hatred inside Edmond Dantès festers to the point that he can only find peace by destroying the man who was once his friend. Often, negative growth leads to tragedy, unless some positive growth can overpower it at the end.

The payoff for a well defined arc is emotion, which is what all of us seek in a good novel. The transformation draws the readers into the lives of the characters, allowing them to experience the fear or sadness or joy. It humanizes the characters and helps the writer plot out a course of action. Most important, it makes the characters and the narrative come alive.

About the author:

Joe Bright, author of THE BLACK GARDEN was raised in Wyoming and received his BA in English from Utah State University. Bright began his career as a technical writer for Thiokol, the manufacturer of space shuttle rocket boosters. He later taught English in Honolulu, Hawaii and Berkeley, California. He currently lives in Studio City , California , and works as a graphic designer.


Marta Stephens said...

Great information! This isn't as easy as it sounds. I'm working on this very thing right now with my next book. Thanks Joe!


Very useful article, I hope lots of writers read this.

s.w. vaughn said...

Oh, good stuff here! I love character arcs. I've got a six-book series with three main characters who have definite arcs spanning all six books - it's a challenge, but I think it's worth the struggle. :-)

Sheila Deeth said...

Great advice, thanks. I need to work on this with my WIP.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Super article, Joe. And what a challenge. SW is doing it with three characters, and doing it beautifully, I think it's tough in a series when you have constant heroes who go through a dozen books or more (like James Bond, etc.) Fascinating subject. Thanks!

Marie Pinschmidt said...

Excellent article, Joe. We're taught that all characters need flaws; the number and severity of the flaws determine the gendre, I suppose. On the other hand, we like to find an occasional hero.