Fiction writers often talk about a “character arc”. What is a character arc and how do you create one for your character?
Rob posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
How do you handle character “arc” in a novel? This seems, for me, the toughest part about writing any story. A character is supposed to change, but how can you do that believably? Not only that, how do you know your character is making the *right* change? What kind of change or arc provides a Powerful Emotional Experience? How do you fuse this change to the actual plot?
I have 1001 questions about character arc, so I’ll stop there. But really, I just don’t know how to make this work in a story. Help!!
Randy sez: I should apologize here for being off blogging lately. I work part time for a biotech company in San Diego. In August we started a new software project and it was my baby. It began consuming a lot of time in October. By November, I was working on it pretty much full time, which meant that almost everything else in my life had to give. I hate when that happens, but in that kind of situation, the only way through the swamp is to grit your teeth and plow forward. The project is now done and I’m back to normal hours. This happens to me about once every three years, so I’m hoping I won’t get swamped again for a good long time. Such as, for example, never.
In any event, I’m reading a book this week that contains the perfect answer to Rob’s question. The book is PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER, by my good friend Jeff Gerke, published by Writer’s Digest Books.
More about Jeff: Jeff Gerke has published about half a dozen novels and has worked as an editor at three different publishing houses. He now works as a freelance editor and also runs a small independent publishing company, Marcher Lord Press.
PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER came out just recently and Jeff sent me a copy. I’ve been slow getting into it (that darned biotech project has slowed me down a lot), but I’ve been making good progress in the past week and it’s fantastic on the issue of character arcs.
Writing characters comes easy for me, whereas writing plot comes hard. So I’ve spent much more time studying how plot works. Writing plot comes easy for Jeff, and so he’s spent a lot more time studying how characters work.
Jeff identifies five different parts of the character arc:
- Initial Condition (“including the “Knot”)
- Inciting Incident
- Moment of Truth
- Final State
The Initial Condition is the state of the character when he begins the story. The “Knot” is whatever problem the character has that is going to be worked out by the story’s end (or which will do in the character, if it’s an unhappy ending).
The Inciting Incident is whatever happens to get the character’s life moving in a new direction. It’s the event that takes the character out of her ordinary world into the actual story.
The Escalation is the long series of events that try to move the character to resolve her Knot, along with her reactions to those events.
The Moment of Truth is the point at which the character is forced to make a decision to change or not change. Change means a happy ending. Not changing means an unhappy ending.
The Final State is the state of the character as the story concludes.
The above parts of the character arc are tied in to the plot of the story, but generally they are not the actual plot. A fully character-oriented novel can get by with no plot if the character arc is interesting enough. Likewise, a fully plot-oriented story can get by with no character arc if the plot is good enough.
Mystery series or certain adventure series are examples of novels in which there is minimal character arc. Sherlock Holmes never changes. Neither does James Bond or Jack Reacher. Novels with these heroes are about the plot.
It’s of course possible to have a “reverse character arc” in which the character starts out without a real problem and then over the course of the novel gains one. THE GODFATHER is a good example. The protagonist of THE GODFATHER is not Vito Corleone, the “godfather.” The protagonist is Vito’s youngest son, Michael, the only kid in the family with a stitch of morality in him.
Michael begins the novel as an amused onlooker (his initial condition), trying to convince his fiancee Kay that his father and brothers are criminals. When Vito is shot and nearly killed by another gangster (the inciting incident), the family has a council to decide how to avenge the attempted murder. Michael surprises everyone by volunteering to make the hit himself. But once he’s killed the rival gangster (along with a crooked cop), Michael is committed. As the novel progresses, Michael gets further and further enmeshed in the family business (the escalation phase) until he becomes the new godfather. But is he as tough as his father? Is he ruthless enough to kill his own brother-in-law after telling his sister that he’d never think of doing such a thing? (His moment of truth.) In Michael’s final state, his wife Kay has become a Catholic and she prays for his soul every day — like Michael’s mother did for her husband.
There’s a lot more to say about character arcs, but I’d have to type a whole book to say it all, and there’s really no point because Jeff Gerke has said it all extremely well in his book PLOT VERSUS CHARACTER. If you’re looking for a good book on fiction writing to start out the new year, this is one I can highly recommend.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.