I struggle with characters. Generally speaking, I’m a plot driven writer. I love coming up with twists and turns, trials and tribulations. Maybe I have a God-complex, I dunno. J Anyway, characters are difficult for me and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because I don’t really understand people in real life. I have no idea why people do the things they do or act the way they do. That’s part of the reason I write – in my books, the people always do exactly what I expect them to!
I took a class taught by Linnea Sinclair awhile back and I got a lot out of it. One thing that really stuck with me is something she said right at the beginning of the class – “Readers pay 6.99 to care about a character.” Awesome. I totally buy that. Where does that leave someone like me who can’t figure out characters? Studying things like Myers-Briggs and reading books like 45 Master Characters, that’s where.
So I’m going to spend the next few posts talking about the stuff that I’m trying to figure out in regard to characters. One of the things I’ve come to understand is that plot and character are intertwined, or at least they should be if you want to create any kind of a story readers are going to care about. In genre fiction, the thing we strive for is character arc – the character must change in some positive way by the end of the book. In romance, usually both the heroine and the hero have their own separate arc which is tied together in some way. I’ve heard you’re supposed to pick one to have the larger arc, but so far, that hasn’t worked out. My characters are usually both pretty messed up…
To create a character arc, you have to start with a character who has an internal flaw or issue they need to overcome. The character probably doesn’t even know it’s a problem. Or maybe they do, I’m not sure it matters either way. In order for the story to resonate (IE for the reader to care about the character), the flaw or issue has to be something the reader can identify with. A lot of readers can’t identify with stuff that I automatically think of – selfishness, vices, vendettas, etc.
Here’s my problem. If the character has to grow and change in a positive way, don’t they have to start out in a place that’s negative? Perhaps I’m just drawn to darker themes and people. I just don’t find it interesting to write about someone whose problem is more in the opposite vein, like they’re so loving and giving, they’re bleeding themselves dry for others and need to take care of themselves. Or something along those lines. I don’t actually know anyone like that in real life. Do you?
Let me circle back around and say I have an issue with readers not liking my characters or identifying with them. I’ve heard that they’re grating, cold, too calculating, or that the reader doesn’t like the way he or she talks to other characters. But that’s the reality I live in. We say stuff to others that hurts them. We mess up. We’re inherently selfish. That’s the arc I like to explore. What would it take for these characters (and in turn, the people I’m surrounded with) to become better? To act selflessly? To rephrase something so it doesn’t hurt? To love someone so much, they are willing to change for fear of losing that person?
One thing I’ve heard is that it’s okay to have characters with flaws, as long as there is one aspect about them which is redeemable or shows they have a softer side or something that the reader can identify as the acceptable reason for the character acting the way they do. But what is that magical thing? I’ve seen it described as stuff like undeserved misfortune, or that they love animals, but so far, I’ve been unsuccessful in incorporating the correct mix of these elements to create what I would consider a meaningful and interesting character arc. At the end of the day, understanding the character’s arc is critical because until you know where the character starts from and where they’re going to end up, the story is impossible to create. The plot has to be chock full of the exact tests required to bring about the arc.
Sort of like what happens in real life.
What are your thoughts on the elements necessary to create a good arc?