Wordy Wednesday: Character Arcs

This past week has been insanely busy. Wednesday, a couple friends and I hit the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibit at the Morgan, then Hannah and I saw Finding Neverland on Broadway (and met Matthew Morrison whoo!). Thursday Hannah and I saw a show by the Upright Citizens Brigade. Then Friday morning we left for a weekend staying with Hannah’s extended family in the Hamptons, where we swam and ate good food and learned to play backgammon.

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Amagansett is officially gorgeous.

Back in New York City Monday, I spent the afternoon in Central Park, visiting the zoo and the Balto statue, then grabbed dinner and hung out with Ch1Con team member Ariel. Yesterday I wandered the Flatiron District for a while and spent the afternoon reading in Madison Square Park. Aaand today I hung out by Gramercy Park for a while, then made one last visit to the Strand and the High Line before finally hitting Laduree for the first time this summer.

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Five-year-old me is proud of this moment.

It’s funny, because looking at the past couple days, mostly what I’ve been doing is wandering and reading in pretty places. I had all these grand plans for my last week in New York City, involving hitting all the big touristy things I haven’t done yet this summer. But I’ve realized that all I really want to do is enjoy the little things I’ve loved about New York one last time, like the hum of the city around me while lying in the grass in Madison Square and the dry, warm scent of paper and glue filling my lungs while getting lost at the Strand.  


 It’s the little things, I’m realizing, that you fall in love with about places. And I am going to miss all these little things, so desperately, when I leave on Saturday.

But in the meantime: this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. And in honor of my last day of my internship being tomorrow (well, last day interning in person anyway), let’s talk about an issue I’ve noticed in quite a few of the manuscripts I’ve critiqued this summer: properly constructing character arcs.A “character arc” is how a character changes between the beginning and ending of a story. Usually it focuses on one trait that somehow comes to define your character, and it is due to resolving some sort of issue with that trait that the character manages to overcome whatever the plot throws at him/her in the climax.

This doesn’t mean only one of your character’s traits matters, or that other traits don’t come into play with the plot. But–in general–the overall focus will be on one, maybe two. (For a really obvious example of this sort of thing, look at Pride and Prejudice.)

The concept behind character arcs is simple enough, but they can be strangely hard to get right. So, here are a few of the defining characteristics of a character arc and how to write one.

Should Follow Dramatic Structure

A character arc is basically a subplot specific to your character. So, like all plots, it should at least loosely follow dramatic structure.

By gradually increasing the tension surrounding the character arc until you reach the climax (using stuff like the inciting incident and rising action), you draw your reader in and help make your character more relateable and interesting. (After all, no matter how cool your plot is, the reader won’t care unless s/he cares about the characters.) For some help with figuring this out, try plotting your character arcs on a dramatic structure chart.

Example: Let’s say your story is a romance about a girl who’s afraid of commitment. She’d start out dumping a good guy due to this fear, then a series of events would show us her meeting a new guy, him convincing her to give him a chance, them slowly falling for each other (but all the while her carrying her fear and it growing inside her, etc.)–until something happens where she ditches the boy out of this fear, only to find the strength within her to give him a second chance at the climax so they can ride off into the sunset together.

Your Story Begins When the Character Arc Does

This might sound like an obvious one, but if the growth your character experiences is him overcoming vanity, he should already be vain when the story begins. This isn’t something that should wait to present itself at the catalyst or the turning point at the end of act I or something. It needs to be there, on the page, from page one.

Obviously there’s a good chance your character existed before he became vain, but the story didn’t. Whatever trait you choose to focus your arc on, it needs to be something that defines your character from the very beginning, so it’ll matter more when the transformation of the trait defines the climax.

Should Both Influence and Be Influenced By Plot

As mentioned, a character arc is basically a one-person-centric subplot. Because of that, like all subplots, it should both influence (and be influenced by) your overarching plot. Except more so if you’re dealing with your chief protagonists, because their character arcs, in part, should be the plot.

For example, back to that romance about the girl afraid of commitment: Without that fear of commitment, we wouldn’t have a plot. The plot (her getting together with the boy) revolves around her getting over her fear in order to resolve itself. However, if it weren’t for the plot (the relationship with the boy and, in particular, whatever happens that leads her to temporarily ditch him), she never would get over her fear in the first place.

Plot and character arcs are a symbiotic relationship. They can’t survive without one another.

(Almost) Every Character Should Have an Arc

Obviously if someone’s in your MS for five seconds, an arc is unnecessary. But all your supporting characters–protagonist and antagonist alike–should have some semblance of arcs. Even if said semblance is subtle. Even if your MS is in first person POV and your narrator doesn’t notice some side character’s arc (and thus the reader doesn’t really see it).

The point is that every character should be thought out enough–be real enough–to have an arc.

And there you have it. A few of the elements that go into writing character arcs.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

P.S. Sorry this technically went up on Thursday! WordPress and I had a bit of a spat.

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3 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: Character Arcs

  1. Pingback: Wordy Wednesday: Character Flaws | Julia the Writer Girl

  2. Everything you shared about the character arc is so true. I’m currently working on a new MS and I’m still trying to figure out how I was my character arcs to progress. And your summer in NY sounds so lovely. I barely got any reading done this summer and now that I’m all moved back into school, I’m really going to have to try to find the time! Ahh! Are you going to be remote interning for the agency?

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