Great characters can make or break a novel. That is why authors work hard to develop these players. Big time authors get a lot of mileage out of one good character. Rowling certainly did that with Harry Potter, Nelson DeMille created John Corey and has had long string of bestselling books. One of my favorites is Doc Ford in the Randy Wayne White series set in Sanibel Island, Florida.
Back in April, JD Mader posted an article on character development and descriptions. He did a great job of breaking down character development of both physical and psychological traits. Today, I want to take his post a step further and discuss character arc. Character arc is essential to story success.
So what is character arc?
It’s the growth of your character whether through a single novel or an entire series. It’s how the character learns as a result of their experiences. In my opinion, it’s HOW your character APPLIES that learning to the future conflicts and experiences that they must overcome.
When you’ve created a great character arc, the story doesn’t just end, it stays with you.
How do we go about creating a character arc? Should this be an intentional process? Well, you can decide if you are a pantser or planner, but in order to achieve an impactful character arc, you might want to know where they started and where they are going.
What kind of inner demons does your character hide, what are their shortcomings and faults? What does the character need to learn throughout the evolution of the story? If you are writing a series, does your character figure everything out in one book? No way. Each book in the series should be an open and shut story, but, the overall character arc keeps the series growing from book to book.
This doesn’t mean that the character arc is your main theme of the story, although sometimes it is. An effective character arc can serve as a sub-plot to your overall theme. Will they fall in love, will find the gold, will they live or die, win the game or any dramatic question—that’s what defines the sub-plot.
Combine character arc with a great sub-plot and BAM, you’ve got yourself a winner. If your main character has inadequacies and weaknesses that prevent them from achieving their ultimate goal, that leads to the backstory. The backstory is where you can share those ugly inner demons that give your hero their chinks in their armor.
It doesn’t always have to be inner demons, it could be a coming of age story. In a general sense, sub-plot may concern the ability of your hero to engage in a mission in a life or death situation. It could be a love interest. It could be how your hero handles an addiction while running for a national election. If your main plot is a love story, maybe your sub-plot may concern how the hero handles a Ponzi scheme dealing brother-in-law.
In my debut novel, The Card, the plot centers on the main character, Van Stone, and the mystery behind a baseball card. However, the sub-plot surrounds the growth of Van as he handles some very adult situations. Van evolves throughout the story, as does his character arc.
The culminating scene where Van is fighting for his life is a part of the main plot. It could be one of hundreds of scenes in hundreds of books. If you picked it up at that point and started reading, you might just write it off as another action scene. You don’t have any skin in the game. You have no reason to care for the hero—heck, you might even be rooting for the bad guy?
However, if you’ve uncovered Van’s inner demons and the obstacles he’s had to surmount—now you’ve got something. There’s a reason for wanting to see him win. You want to cheer on the hero. You want to find out if he solves the mystery or gets the girl. When the main plot and sub-plot come together, you have magic. When the character arc intertwines each of these—you have meaning and soul.
It important to know the differences between main plot, sub-plot and character arc and then become expert in them all. A strong character arc intertwined into the plot components of your story will help your reader identify and ultimately root for your hero. It will give meaning to the mission. It will turn readers into raving fans.
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Jim Devitt is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and the author of the #1 Kindle Bestselling novel, THE CARD, and can be found out here. For more information, please see the IU bio page or his blog: http://jimdevitt.blogspot.com/
20 thoughts on “Character Arc & Stories That Stay With You”
"It will give meaning to the mission." !! Thanks for making this clear and compelling.
Thanks for the comment, Gloria. I appreciate the feedback.
Yay! Bookmarking! Will use again and again and again…you get the drift, right?
I'm sorry, where are my manners? I should not be allowed to type the first thing that pops in my head. Thank you for the great post, on a topic I've needed a bit of clarification on for quite a while.
Actually, I liked it when you typed the first thing that came to your mind! Thanks for the props.
In film discussion, "character arc" usually refers to "personal development", the changes in character or outlook that occur in a character as a result of the events of the plot.
It's often contrived: you see it "grafted on"–little "dramatic flaw" tags stuck on that get ironed out as the character learns to be wonderful and get rid of crappy attitudes.
I mention this in order to disambiguate the term: what you're discussing here is more useful and "real".
Harry Potter is a good example. He doesn't really "grow" much (how could he really?) but his internal "story" is definitely as important as the events of the book plots.
You see this in really good TV serials. "House", for instance, where our understanding of the character gets updated as time goes on.
Two excellent and kind of startling examples I can think of are Urkel on "Family Ties" and Jennifer on "WKRP Cincinnati"
Urkel was originally just the spaz next door, but grew into a major character, and even pushed several family members completely out of the series. He became the whole show, to an extent.
Jennifer, the blonde secretary (played by Loni Anderson) was orignally a ditzy gold-digger. At some point she morphed into a sort of Goddess: not just beautiful, but wise, religious and sharper than anybody else.
In a novel, it's hard to do that sort of reinvention of a character, but you can have revelations and changes that are just a startling, and powerfully multi-dimensional.
Lovely to see another WKRP afficionado! That series had brilliant characters and I still miss them. Damn good writing and funny as hell.
I agree with Bev, great series WKRP. Thanks Lin, I do agree that many times character arc can be a bit contrived. That is the challenge as a writer, to blend it into not only the plot but the sub-plot where it will make the story stronger.
I’m familiar with the concept of course, in regards to depth and growth, but not with the term. Clearly outlined and an insightful post! Thanks Jim.
So I guess I get to live another week …
Good stuff, Jim. As you point out, the trick is to make the reader care more and more about the main character(s) by making them more and more real.
Right on and definitely harder to do when the same character has the lead in a series of books. They can't remain stagnant or we lose interest.
I agree, Yvonne. That's why character arc and story arc across the series needs to be solid. Thanks for the comment.
Helpful post, Jim. I have often thought about the character Garp when thinking of a full character arc; but your insight around the character growing doesn't apply to him. Garp's obsessive personality, thoughts and actions, don't change much throughout his life and he doesn't seem to learn how to change his lot in life. Now that I've read your post, I realize I probably had the wrong definition running through my head!
Always appreciate your posts!
Thanks for the kind words!
Great post. My characters have mostly formed themselves, including backstory and a continuing arc as you describe, but I'm on a quest to create a very strong nemesis for the current project, Power of the Dance (3rd in a series). Thinking it out will be an interesting exercise in using different approaches.
Good luck with your nemesis, that is the beauty of character arc, it doesn't have to be just the good guy.
If you look at the DeMille series I referred to in the post, you'll see that he has brought back the "bad guy" and that adds a whole new concept to character arc.
Great post, Jim. One of the most common comments on Joe Cafe is that it is not so much about action as it is about the growth and demise of the characters…which is where the action is. 😉
That is so true about Joe Cafe. I think one of the strongest parts of the story is the demise of Michael. Great characters make great stories and you have a knack for putting of bunch of those together.
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