If I ask you who your favorite character is in a book or movie, who pops into your head? And why? Heather Webb tells us about character arcs and making YOUR characters as unforgettable as your favorites.
I’ve been talking a lot about characters here at Romance University lately: (how our inner critics shape character voices) and (discerning character motivations through actions & goals). But what could be more important to a story? When you look back and think about your favorite books and favorite movies, what stands out in your memory? The plot points or the characters? For me, 95% of the time it’s the characters. So what is the magic ingredient to making them so endearing, believable, and alive?
The answer, in two words, is CHARACTER ARC–the way in which our protagonists struggles against their humanity to grow and change over time. Facing their demons, their failings, their past, endears us to our characters—whether they manage to overcome them or not. It’s their courage, fears, and strife, their broken hearts that we relate to; all of those emotions WE feel ourselves and wish we could overcome.
So how do you get started with this all important character arc? You’ll need to first choose the path your protagonist will take.
FOUR TYPES OF CHARACTER ARCS
REVOLUTIONARY, or THE HERO’S JOURNEY: In this arc, our story opens with a protagonist that is the farthest thing possible from a hero or savior. Yet he/she typically possesses an inner drive or strength that the character has never been forced to access—until now. By the end of the novel, this character will undergo a complete metamorphosis of spirit, mind, and sometimes, body.
Example: Peter Parker, an average teen and science nerd, becomes superhero Spiderman
INTERNAL GROWTH: In this type of arc our protagonist overcomes internal conflict—fear, anger, weakness, loss—all the while, facing down an external conflict. By the end of this arc, the character becomes a better version of himself (or herself), happier and more complete. Note the difference between the revolutionary arc and the internal growth arc. With internal growth, the character basically remains the same person, just a more developed and improved self.
Example: Harry Potter overcomes fear of his own power and his fate, as well as the loss of his parents, in order to become his true, fulfilled self.
PERSPECTIVE SHIFT: In this arc, our protagonist moves sideways, so to speak. This may result from leaning something new, a different world view, or accepting a new role, but ultimately the character ends the story just “different”, not necessarily “better”. This doesn’t mean the character hasn’t arced or doesn’t possess good qualities. This arc is typical of stories with high levels of external conflict.
Example: Katniss Everdeen, though heroic ultimately, doesn’t change who she is and doesn’t become a better person. She simply makes a choice to accept her new world and Peeta’s love. She shifts to a new role with a new perspective of what holds meaning in her life.
TRAGIC FALL This arc follows the character’s unraveling. He/she devolves because of a series of faults and character flaws that dooms the protagonist and often others. Classic endings for these stories are illness, imprisonment, insanity, or death.
Example: Hamlet’s desire for power leads him to lie and murder, ultimately resulting in his haunted conscience and his own eventual death by poisoned sword.
Once you’ve chosen your protagonist’s path, choose which obstacles will ensure the protagonist’s renewal or change. Each story will have MANY obstacles, MUCH conflict. In fact, a scene without conflict is a dull one. Let’s look at examples of creating conflict.
Example: Peter Parker gains his powers from a radioactive spider, but ignores a victim being robbed. It’s not his problem. But the same robber goes on to shoot and kill his uncle. BAM. Peter Parker has a solid reason to use his powers, if for no other reason, to avenge his uncle’s death. Through the pain of loss, Peter makes the choice to change.
Example: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta are surviving in the cover of the woods and have had a quiet moment when Peeta shows his wound from a previous battle. The gash is severely infected. Now, Katniss must choose between leaving him alone, unable to fend for himself, or risking her life to venture back to the supply station. In the moment she realizes he will die, she knows how important he is to her. Her feelings change.
Be HARD on your characters. The moment they are comfortable, give them something to worry about, a YEARNING, something to strive for. Challenge them. Without challenge, your character will not arc, regardless of the trajectory you’ve chosen. Without challenge, WE don’t arc and grow.
Growth and renewal is painful, sometimes even brutal, but there’s nothing more beautiful. THIS is what makes unforgettable characters.
As a writer, what types of character arcs do you gravitate towards? And as a reader?
Join us on Friday for How to Use Social Media to Your Advantage as a Writer with Carrie Smith
Bio: As a freelance editor, Heather spends oodles of time helping writers find their voice and hone their skills–something she adores. She may often be found twittering helpful links, sharing writing advice and author interviews on her blog Between the Sheets, or teaching novel writing in her community. Her favorite haunts are right here at the fabulous Romance University.org and the award-winning WriterUnboxed.com.
Her first women’s historical, BECOMING JOSEPHINE released to much acclaim in Jan 2014 and her second, RODIN’S LOVER, releases from Plume/Penguin as a lead title in 2015.
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- Character Motivation Part Two—Discerning Motivation, Actions, Goals with Heather Webb
- It’s All in the Voice (Part 2) by Heather Webb