Character Arc and Development

JENNY: There are a lot of different readers in the world.

Some of the read for story and want that story to start on the first page.

Some of them read for voice, for the way the words sound, and don’t care when the story starts.

Some of them read for comfort and just want more of what they’ve liked before (and that’s why series are like annuities for authors).

Some of them read for escape and some read to find different worlds and some to read to be made uncomfortable, and some read for a combination of the reasons above or for different reasons at different times.

But, I am willing to bet, the vast majority read fiction first and foremost for one thing: character, which is why character can make or break your story. And goal, motivation, and arc will make or break your character.

I was supposed to talk about goal and motivation last week, but I forgot, so Bob did that. This week, I’ll tell you that the old essays on goal and motivation are fine, but that the thing to remember is that the motivation is more important than the goal. The goal can be ridiculous and it won’t matter as long as two conditions are met:

  • The reader cares about the character, believes in the character, and
  • The reader believes the character desperately needs that goal and will do anything to get it.

So the big mistake to avoid is to give your protagonist an obvious goal and then think, “Well, it’s obvious why he or she wants that.” No, it’s not.

“Of course, she wants a million dollars.” Yes, but why? Was she poor all her life and this is her way of saying “As god is my witness, they’ll never turn the electricity off again”?  Does she need a million to save her grandpa’s farm? Is the million a ransom for somebody she loves? Does she need a million to get into a private poker game so she can humiliate an old enemy? Is the million what she needs to set up an animal rescue service in Bolivia? Start her own design company? Get a ticket to the moon? The possibilities in the abstract are endless but in the specific, in your story, they come down to one thing: your character. Who is this person? How do they see themselves? How will that self-image, their sense of self, their core identity, be damaged if they don’t get this goal? What are the concrete consequences of not getting the goal? Can the character’s life continue as usual if the goal isn’t met? The goal itself is irrelevant. It’s what the goal means, the motivation driving the character after it, that matters. And that motivation comes not from plot but from the character of the character.So now your character has a goal they are motivated to attain, and they’re going to pursue it relentlessly to the climax.

The questions to ask now are:

Who is this character at the beginning of the story?
Who is this character at the end?

It’s great if there’s a 180 turn there—in the beginning she runs from connection, at the end she’s committed; at the beginning he’s a sane, cold pragmatist, and the end, he’s madly in love; at the beginning they’re conservative, at the end they’re progressive—but all you really need is significant, meaningful change. Character arc.

Significant: It’s such a shift in character that it changes their life, so striking that other people can see the change.

Meaningful: It has an impact on the plot.

And of course, the plot has an impact on it. That is, the character changes (arcs) because of the events of the plot, and the plot changes (arcs) because the character changes and therefore their actions change. This character is one thing at the start, all shiny and smooth and convinced of their rightness, and the events of the plot hit it like asteroids leaving dents and craters in the surface, changing the character both externally and internally, and in doing so make the character much more interesting and, most important, more vulnerable. And therefore in the end, because of the events of the plot, the character is significantly changed.

Why do they have to change? Because if there’s no change, then the events of the plot didn’t matter. If the story has no impact on the character, then the story has no impact on the reader UNLESS the point of the story is that the character can’t change. That can be brilliant in a short story, but not so great in the long haul that’s a novel. (For a brilliant example of very little character change in a short story, one small moment of rebellion, see “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.“).  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1939/03/18/the-secret-life-of-walter-james-thurber

There are two easy ways to check for character change in your story.

One is to look at your character in their introductory scene and then skip to the end to their final scene. Is there clear evidence of character change in their situations, attitudes, futures?

The other is to look at the character at the beginning, end, and at each turning point along the way. The turning points are major events that change the course of the story. Those events should hit the protagonist like a truck, with so much force that they have to move and change. You should be able to get a five-sentence description of your character arc by just describing the character at those five points in the story. (We’ll do the whole turning point lecture next month, but it’s also available on the old blog, or will be if I ever get it sorted out.)

All of your characters do not have to arc, and in fact it’s probably better if the spear carriers in there don’t. But the protagonist, antagonist, and the minor characters who are hit by the turning points almost have to change under the impact (if they don’t, the fact that they don’t is as significant as change). The key to the different characters’ arcs is that they change in different ways, some become more cautious and other bolder, some becoming happier and other angrier, and so on, even though they’re responding to the same events.

For example, in a story I’m working on now, the turning point is when the main character, Liz, agrees to be maid of honor at a wedding.

  • Liz is fed up but she’ll do it because her employer has threatened to deep six the project they’re working on if she doesn’t.
  • The bride is pleased because she has a plan and Liz being maid of honor is crucial.
  • Liz’s mother is ecstatic because it means Liz will be in town another two days.
  • Liz’s aunt is enraged because she loathes Liz and thinks her daughter should have been asked.
  • The groom is staying out of it but annoyed because Liz is his ex and he hates the idea of gossip since he’s being groomed to run for senator. Also he’s having serious second thoughts about the bride.
  • The groom’s sister is thrilled because she’s trying to stop the wedding and she thinks Liz can do it.

That’s one plot event and six different character reactions that change the emotions and motivations of each character. If Liz had said no and left town, the story would have been over. Because of the way she acts, the story turns and moves in a new direction, and all those characters turn and move in new directions, too.

But they’re the same in one way: Their reactions are so strong that they break boundaries, each character does something that they wouldn’t have done at the beginning of the story, crosses a line they wouldn’t have crossed before because now they’re having stronger feelings and therefore stronger motivations. And once a person has crossed a line, they don’t go back and reset that boundary, and in fact, the next turning point will push them farther, across the new line they’ve set. They’re changing. That’s character arc.

There is one place where a major character refusing to change works: in the doppelganger protagonist and antagonist. That is, when at the beginning, the protagonist and antagonist are basically the same kind of person. Look at Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the beginning, Jones and Belloq are both stealing religious artifacts from indigenous tribes and treating it as a sort of game between the two of them. The difference between them becomes evident because of the events of the plot: Jones comes to understand the spiritual in the world, the concept that there are things that man cannot understand and cannot control, so at the end when Belloq opens the ark, Jones tells Miriam not go look and looks away himself, and Belloq opens the box and loses face. Jones has character arc—he learns and lives—and Belloq refuses to learn and dies. I love the doppelganger central conflict; it’s a very simplistic approach and won’t work everywhere, but where it does work, it grounds a plot beautifully because the doppelganger antagonist is such a great foil.

Character arc happens because of character actions that cause plot events.

Plot events have meaning and escalate because they cause characters arc.

Character arc through conflict is the fuel for story.

BOB: I approach Character Arc and Development very differently than I did over a dozen years ago. In fact, I start my books with character these days.

My Will Kane series is an example. Notice the series is named after a character, not a place like Area 51. I came up with him first. Mapped out his life story and then put him in a unique time and place. I figured the plot would come and it did. I’m currently working on the 5th book in the series, No Quarter, and the fourth, Hell of a Town, just came out.

Which brings me to the issue of character arc. Is it necessary? It depends. For a series, how much arc can you have? The main character in the Green Beret books before Will Kane was Horace Chase. His arc ended rather abruptly, but I think appropriately. For Kane, it’s more a case of being like real people who have large parts of their personality they aren’t really aware of. He has flashes of insight, especially from those around him. He also accepts some of his broken pieces. We’re all not at Maslow’s fifth level of self-actualization.

We recently re-watched The Magnificent Seven (1960 version). What’s interesting to examine about the Seven is motivation. Why does each sign up for a dangerous task for not much money ($20) for four to six weeks of potentially deadly work? You have seven distinct character types with different motivations. Some even have different goals. One, for example, is convinced there must be hidden treasure that Chris (Yul Brynner) is keeping secret. Because he simply can’t believe they’d do this for $20. Even though Chris, the others, and even the Mexicans in the village, tell him there is no gold or hidden treasure, he dies believing that there must be. Then you’ve got Charles Bronson. He’s chopping wood for a place to sleep when they come to recruit him. He points out he was paid $800 for his last job. Then agrees to come. Why? Times are changing. Gunslingers aren’t in much demand. But even that is superficial. Once he gets to the town, he bonds with the three young boys.

Which brings me back to the point that as writers we have to read and watch things differently. Analyzing. Realizing nothing is done by chance.

Since a lot of writers are following this blog, I’ll point out that one large flaw I see in manuscripts and workshops is not getting the reader involved in your characters, particularly your protagonist. As in real life, first impressions count. It took me a long time to understand a simple “rule” of thrillers: we should not meet the hero/heroine right as they are becoming aware of the big threat. We should first meet them in their regular life and doing something that shows a core character trait, even if only briefly. The example I use when teaching is a clip from Peacemaker. Since it’s a thriller, it starts with the problem: 10 nuclear warheads are stolen and one is detonated to cover up the theft. Big problem. Then we go from the nuclear blast to: Nicole Kidman, the President’s advisor on nuclear affairs, is swimming laps in a pool. Apparently on her lunch hour. We only get a few seconds of this before a Marine is standing there on the edge of the pool to tell her “We’ve got a problem.” First, good transition from flame to water. Second, what personality swims laps at lunch? Someone organized. Sometimes used to routine. Then we meet Special Forces officer George Clooney testifying in front of a Congressional panel quizzing him on why he had to buy a Russian general’s daughter an SUV? Because that was the only way he could stop an illegal transfer of chemical weapons. Who is he? A rogue who breaks rules to get the job done. Already we see conflict between Kidman and Clooney’s characters. And no throwaway—the last scene of the movie is Kidman in the pool and instead of a Marine standing there to warn of nuclear weapon threats, it’s Clooney waiting to ask her out for a beer. Also, the Russian general isn’t a throwaway. He plays a role.

EVERYTHING PLAYS A ROLE more than once. This makes the book tighter. It also is how you resolve “writers block”. Don’t edit your first draft. When you get stuck, go back and look at who and what you already have and can you use them again? In fact, you should use them again. As many times as possible

BOB: I’ve beaten Jenny to this post because I am more than punctual, West Point taught me to be EARLY. I just read her post and agree, Mostly. As noted in my post, there are characters who don’t have much arc. Especially when writing a series because after a couple of books they’d be a pretzel. She brings up a good test, if you want arc: take your heroine as she is in the first scene of the book, toss her in the climactic scene. Would she succeed as the same person? If she could, she has little arc. If she’d fail, but can succeed by the end, she’s arced.

JENNY: You did not beat me.  I was reading your essay.

BOB: I read more quicker.

JENNY: No, you don’t.  Ignoring the misused adverb.

BOB: Quickliest.

JENNY: Boy, you came ready to rumble, didn’t you?

I have a disagreement: I think series protagonists need character arc, too.

I think characters that don’t change aren’t interesting.

Plus not affected by their plots.

BOB: Random thought, but last night I watched the latest episode of Snowpiercer and got to a point where I didn’t like any of the characters any more. Because both sides were being stupid. But that’s for another day.

JENNY: [Zoom inserted a stupid emoji here so I have no idea what I said.  But it was brilliant.]

BOB: I think it was something about characters must have arc. And I don’t necessarily agree.

They have what I call moments of enlightenment.

JENNY: Well, if they’re enlightened, then they change, right?

BOB: A little. But change takes three steps: moment of enlightenment, decision and then sustained action.

JENNY: If they’re still the same person no matter what happens, they’re dumb and the plots have no weight, no meaning.

BOB: Which is what turned me off about Snowpiercer. Both sides became dumb.

Sort of like Game of Thrones was pretty much dumb the whole way because everyone ignored that big WALL up north while fighting each other.

JENNY: I can see series protagonists have an extended character arc, over the series of stories, but I think they have to change over the course of each book.

Haven’t watched either one of those, so I’ll take your word for it.

BOB: I guess my point is we don’t want Too Dumb To Live.

JENNY: I think character arc is crucial in any story because without it, the story has no impact.

I also think I’m repeating myself.

It’s been that kind of day.

BOB: But then again GOT pretty much ran on TDTL and it was pretty successful until all of it got TDTL.

JENNY: I’ll take your word for it.  I heard there was rape and they killed a dog and I never even watched the first episode.

BOB: There were lots of rapes, killings, guys who looked like each other and I never learned their names because they were dumb and got killed. I never could figure out who exactly the protagonist in that series was and neither could the showrunners. (edited)

JENNY: I don’t think “guys who liked each other” is on a par with rape and murder. (responding to Bob initially misspelling looked like as just liked).

BOB: Which, I guess, really proves there are no rules.

JENNY: I’m all for people who like each other, as long as they’re consenting adults.

BOB: But GRR Martin did great world building.

JENNY: Also, don’t kill the dog.  There’s a website called Does The Dog Die? that lets you know if the dog in the movie dies.  Great website.

BOB: My most recent book had two dogs die. But they were eating people, so perhaps there is an exception? But there are going to be bad consequences coming out of those killings.

JENNY: I think GOT was an ensemble/epic with no central protagonist.  Which is a mistake, but as you said, it was very popular.

BOB: But derailed at the end and perhaps not having a central protagonist was why?

JENNY: That kind of story is so hard to parse.

I mean, big, sweeping epics built on big sweeping ideas.

BOB: I also have a three-legged dog named Lucky in the Will Kane books. She hasn’t died.

JENNY: Go, Lucky.

BOB: Yeah, but LOTR– Frodo was definitely the protagonist. Definite ending. Even though Frodo failed.

JENNY: Plus it’s fantasy.

I was just thinking about LOTR and Frodo.  You really invested in that little band, you cared about the team.

LOTR still swept like an epic, but it knew that character mattered more than sweeping.

BOB: Definitely. And there was a hobbit in each main thread as the story went on. But only one ring, thus one protagonist.

Hmm– Tolkein was pretty smart.

JENNY: Only one ring, so only one goal.  One protagonist?

I’m thinking about Pratchett, too.  He did fantasy so well, but he always had a strong protagonist.  Lots of characters, great supporting characters, but one character to follow through.

BOB: Yeah. And GOT was about the throne, I guess, and at the end it was given to the guy who is part of a group project but doesn’t contribute. I never understood what-his-name’s role in the story. See. I don’t even remember his name.

JENNY: Bran?

BOB: Perhaps that’s the key– one protagonist. One person leading the way.

JENNY: The kid they threw out the window?

I think one protagonist is always the key.

BOB: Yeah– that kid. The LAST person I’d have picked to be on the throne.

And one antagonist. Again: Cersei totally wimped out the last season as an antagonist.

JENNY: As far as I could tell from reading about that show, there wasn’t anybody who should have been on the throne.

BOB: I voted for the smart guy who killed the first walker. Or the girl. I liked the girl and really it was set up for her as she saw everyone in her family’s mistakes. I’m bad with names. Okay– I had to look them up. Arya. Samwell Tarly. And here’s what’s really sad. When you google GOT images, you don’t get one of Samwell unless you get real specific.

imagesScreen Shot 2020-07-06 at 7.21.56 PM

Ultimately, I didn’t care. Which is the point. Once more.

JENNY: I’m re-reading a lot of Dick Francis right now–NOT fantasy–and his villains are always vile.  Same with Pratchett.  There’s such a great sense of outrage that these creeps have all the money and power, so at the end, when they’re defeated, the sense of justice and relief is overwhelming.

Same with the Murderbot books which I’m reading over and over again.  Excellent writing, excellent plotting, great characterization with character arc and villains who are vile.  SUCH GOOD BOOKS.

And the protagonist arcs, and it’s mostly bot.  Wells had a lovely way of describing that; Murderbot discovers he’s changing because the stresses of the different events have opened up new neural pathways.  It’s a techie/hardware description of an emotional thing, and I think it goes back to that crossing boundaries thing.  The “I’d never do that of the early scenes” becomes something the character can do.  Possibly not easily, but they can do it.  Example: Eddie in Venom gets dizzy looking out of the window in his boss’s skyscraper office at the beginning of the story and climbs a rocket at the end.  It’s a new pathway in his brain.

Murderbot

BOB: Good point about outrage. Some readers aren’t happy with ending of my last book because the head bad guy seems to have gotten away with it, even though all his killers got wiped out. But that’s the fun of a series.

JENNY: We got that on Agnes and the Hitman, too.  They wanted more than prison for Brenda.

Oh, and I got it on Welcome to Temptation, but I still think the antagonist there got what she deserved.

It’s tough, because you want your protagonist in a stable, sane place at the end, not screaming “Burn the witch!” at the antagonist.

BOB: There’s a fine line how far your protagonist should go in defeating the bad guy. Loved the ending of The Shield. Seems Vic Mackey got away with it, but that last scene is brutal where you see he’s lost everything he cared about.

JENNY: That’s the key in outrage plots, I think.  That the protagonist does the right thing, but the antagonist end up with everything he cares about stripped away.  Prison, maybe, but the loss of the life he was fighting for is better.

Crime never pays.   Unless your protagonist is the criminal and you want a happy ending.  Ocean’s Eleven, anybody (the new one, not the old).

So basically, you think that character arc isn’t as important in a series, and I think it’s still crucial.

Otherwise we agree?

Bob Mayer    Yepper.

JENNY: Well, that was easy.  And you’re wrong about series. But we knew that.

BOB: Perchance. Indubiously.

JENNY: Nevertheless.

God, we’re boring.

BOB: I fear so.

But brilliant nonetheless

JENNY  We are officially out of steam.

Goodnight, Bob.

BOB:  Good night, Gracie

 

8 thoughts on “Character Arc and Development

  1. (I’m making a point of commenting here, even though I feel a little lonely without my fellow Arghers ;-))
    Hmmm, this is a good one for me right now b/c in my current fanfic I’m thinking a lot about how I want my characters to arc. It’s a love story without a lot of external plot (just some forced proximity hijinks), so that really means the emotional journey has got to carry the story. I kind of fell in love with this idea that she worries she’s too “much” for relationships (she has a big, hotheaded personality) and he worries he’s too “not enough” (he has some issues with rejection, feeling insecure). Let me add these characters are teenagers before someone thinks, “wow, they sound immature.” 😉
    But loving the symmetry of this idea (and I think it does work for the characters as presented on the show) it actually being the right idea for a throughline are too different things. My last fic, I did one POV and really focused on her arc, while only hinted at a slight arc for her love interest since we never got into his head. Now 2 POVs and 2 big arcs feels like a lot to chew on. Plus, I’m in love with certain set pieces in this new fic that I’ve got to either make work for what they need to learn or just let go of and send off to the watery deep.
    (Yeah, I know I’ve probably got to let go of them. Boo.) So far as I can tell, the only thing that works for me is writing a lot, journaling about my characters a lot, and throwing away a lot I don’t use. C’est la vie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t let go of them. I’d look at them to see what’s underneath them, what they show about character change and plot development and, especially, what impact they have on other characters’ actions. Generally speaking if I’m really holding onto a scene, it’s not because I was really clever, it’s because there’s something there that’s important that I haven’t glommed onto yet. (The softball game in Welcome to Temptation was one of those. I kept thinking I should cut it, and I just couldn’t, and then finally I looked at it closely and realizing it was a huge turning point in the relationship. Duh.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, this is a monster of a post, and that means great value for readers. I for one have been falling short on character arcs, so I’m very thankful that you took the time to write this. Thanks for sharing and write on!

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  3. One thing I learned about character arcs and develop was from reading Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniel series. Ten books. Ten! And they (husband an wife team) set the series up in three acts of three books each, except the last act was four books. So each act had an arc. And each book had an arc. They discuss structure, particularly the structure of the series, in places on their blog. I am still so fascinated by the character arcs over such a long series. It works! It works within each book, within each set of books, within the entire series. That’s a hell of a lot of planning and very educational.

    Your discussion here is at a more granular level and a bit more particular, which is so very helpful. I know you do things a bit differently, especially in series (Bob) versus standalone (Jenny mostly, sometimes Bob), but I really hadn’t even considered there are also character arcs for the important secondary characters. Do you think about them ahead of time or figure it out as you go — and then once you’ve finished the first draft. Or do you consider figuring out arc akin to editing as you go, interfering with the creative process?

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    1. That really depends on the author. I think Bob may figure his out ahead of time although he’s a lot more into discovery these days. I don’t. I now vaguely where the characters will go, usually from isolation to commitment in some form, but I really don’t know where the story is going to go until I write it. It makes it a lot easier if I say “The protagonist starts here and then ends up here,” but most of the time I lose that along the way.

      Once the first draft is done, it’s analysis 24/7 and I definitely figure it out then.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Late to the party, but have to say that “moment of enlightenment, decision and then sustained action” explains to me why I had to quit watching MadMen. Damn main character would have moment of enlightenment, but never made it to sustained action – he’d just revert. SOOOOOOO frustrating, because for me, he never arced, just went up to the top of the rollercoaster steps, took a look, and then walked back down.

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