Characters: The Arc

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?

9 thoughts on “Characters: The Arc

  1. Hi Kat,

    A character that jumps in my head when I read your post is Sue Sylvester on Glee. I don’t know if you watch the show, but she’s petty, manipulative, cold and calculating. Her one redeeming quality is her devotion to her sister, who has Down’s Syndrome. It humanizes her, and her love for her sister has made her give money to the school to support special needs children. The show hasn’t taken it this far, but if a plot point were added where something were to happen to her sister, how would that change Sue’s behavior and her growth as a person/character? If you can identify the one thing that humanizes your character, then you can work your magic with plot. Personally, I am the opposite. My characters come to me easily. The plot, not so much :).

    • Hi Traci! Maybe we should write a book together. 🙂 I don’t watch Glee but I can totally picture the character as you’ve described her. That’s a great point about the sister and exactly the thing I’ve been told, but I have SUCH a hard time thinking of stuff like that! I must go back to the drawing board…thanks for stopping by.

  2. Hey Kat,

    Hun…you should be talking to me about stuff like this. I sometimes actually HAVE answers. So here’s the deal with this. The arc happens when you GIVE them what they really want/need but in order to get it they have to give up whatever it is that they’ve been doing. They have to give up their LIE in order to get what they really need want.

    So let me give you a couple of examples. I read my first SEP recently, you like her, I’ll use that. It’s Match Me If You Can. So the primary story arc belongs to the hero, Heath (at least I thought his was the more interesting). So you have Heath on the hunt for a wife with a crazy list of criteria on what she has to be like, but in the subtext or maybe SEP says it straight out one of the major criteria he’s looking for is a woman who will “stick” even when he’s not in love with her. This ties into his deep wound/core event that as he was growing up none of his father’s women that he tried to attach himself to “stuck” around and he kept getting his young heart broke. So he decided the only way to make sure he was okay emotionally was to find the one that would “stick” before he made the investment of his heart. THAT is his lie. So the universe presented him with the woman he really needed, Annabelle. But until he was willing to give up his Lie he couldn’t have her. Now to balance that out that lie, he was handsome, rich, driven, charming (when he wanted to be). He could also be some bad things, arrogant, quick-tempered, mean…

    So the arc has less to do with how flawed and assholeesque the character is but how they need to give up their lie.

    Let me give you another example. Rose from Titanic. She longs for freedom and adventure. But her LIE is that she needs to take her place in society. That she needs to be responsible for her mother and their finances by marrying Cal Hockley. All stuff she’s doing to be okay, to be “safe.” So the Universe throws her the embodiment of what she really wants and needs, Jack. But she can’t HAVE Jack or the life she really wants until she gives up the LIE of what she’s supposed to do with her life.

    But if Rose were a class snob like Hockley 1) there would be no story and 2) no one would give a hoot.

    Is it possible that you are trying to give your characters too much flaw to overcome?

    • Thanks for all this great stuff! I do talk to you about my issues – this post came straight out of our discussions about Ashley, but I still struggle with making her likeable when she starts out so self-destructive and spoiled. I might be confusing character arc with general personality and backstory, and this post is just me trying to work it all out. I’m still thinking about it all…letting it gel and such. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by. Your advice is awesome, as always.

  3. I think another thing that can make a character more likable is showing their vulnerabilities early on. The sooner the better. You don’t have to show everything or explain everything.

    Like the character from the TV show Bones Temprence Brennan is smart and pretty and rude and pushy and single minded. She ought to be unlikable. But she’s so socially awkward, totally clueless in her dealings with other people. That makes the audience root for her even when she says and does things that are sort of awful.

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