As writers, we’ve been told over and over that our characters must undergo some kind of change by the end of the story. But is this rule set in stone? “It’s all in the character arc,” as Noah most definitely didn’t say.
by Shirley Holder Platt
Back in biblical days, as Noah closed the door and the first raindrop fell, he might have turned to his wife and said, “It’s all in the ark.” Or maybe not. After all, he did leave the unicorns behind.
But seriously, for building great characters, it is all in the arc: the character arc, that is. The story is really about the big something that changes the ordinary world and sets the main character on a new course. That change, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, is that character’s arc. While the plot is what happens, the arc is how your character is affected by those happenings.
There are three types of arcs: positive, static, and negative. At the beginning, your main character will believe he understands his world. Your job is to show him the falsehood underlying that belief—The Great Lie, as some call it. Once his eyes are opened, he will be forced to change his belief system.
Think of Cinderella: she believes she’ll never get out of a life of hard labor and servitude, partly because there’s nothing in the story that would lead her to believe otherwise. But although she experiences many obstacles along the way, she eventually becomes co-ruler of her country. The “truth” she believed at the start was exposed for the lie it had always been, and the result was a changed woman.
Think of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining descending further and further into insanity. This is a negative arc—and makes for a nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat read.
The protagonist of most stories will have the largest character arc. When you build your story, you’ll be coming up with obstacles to put in the path of your main character. Choose obstacles that will play into the arc you want for your character. For a positive arc, you’ll have a character start out one way and end up being a changed person—for the better. Do you want a criminal to reform? Give him plenty of temptation and room to fall back into old ways. Would you like to see a shy young adult, like Cinderella, learn that she has the power within her to succeed? Push her into the limelight and let her grow before your readers’ eyes. When the tension is at its highest, and your character makes a decision that would have been unheard of for her at the beginning of the story—a decision that changes her life for the better—she’s traveled the positive arc.
If you’re writing a series of books, you may have a fully developed hero who doesn’t change. You might present opportunities for growth and have him resist change. Your readers will sympathize; we’ve all got areas where we know improvement would be wise, but we can’t seem to change. That’s called a static arc. It works, but you might need to have secondary characters change around him to keep the story interesting. For example, you could have all of his alcoholic buddies reform, just not him.
Or maybe you start out with someone innocent, a person without a mean bone in his body. Life comes along and many bad things occur. The changes your character goes through turn him into a gang boss intent upon revenge, or a wicked wizard wreaking havoc upon those who have wronged him. This is a negative arc, and it can make for a nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat read—think Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining as he descends further and further into insanity.
Whether you choose a static arc or one with that brings about significant positive or negative changes in your main character, use obstacles to fuel the resistance to change, anticipated growth, or descent. Your readers will not only relate, they’ll love you for it.
Shirley Holder Platt is the author of five romance novels and one chick lit novel. Her book-in-progress, Mama Needs New Shoes, won the October 2018 Most Buzz Award, and several of her now-published novels appeared first on ChapterBuzz.
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