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.

Wordy Wednesday: Clothing Your Characters

So, I’ve been semi-putting off writing this post all day. Which is why, once again, it is now practically too late to still count as Wednesday. But so much is going on right now, and I’m getting worried about getting everything done in time, and all I want to do with my life is lose myself in cheesy YA beach reads and have time to watch a movie without having to work during it. (I know. I have shallow, shallow wants.)

No more putting off the Wordy Wednesday in favor of things that don’t need to get done until tomorrow night anyway, though. The winning option for this week was writing process, so today I’m going to talk about clothing your characters, or using fashion in your fiction.

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I don’t know about you, but I am quite possiblyaddicted to ModCloth. Their stuff increasingly composes my wardrobe. On top of this, my critique group likes to play this game in which we try to outdo each other by finding the ugliest clothes on the site, I have an ongoing wishlist of items I’d love to purchase if I ever have the money, and I spend a kind of crazy amount of time ogling all the gowns and shoes I will never have reason to wear (because who doesn’t want to pretend they have a ball to go to, right?).

The other day while scrolling through the party dresses, I came across one that absolutely screamed, “OLIVIA. OLIVIA WOULD WEAR THIS.” (Olivia being the reluctant assassin protagonist of one of the novels I’m working on, Cadence.) It was crazy how much that dress looked like Olivia. I could picture her scoping out a ball full of corrupt businessmen and politicians from the edge of the room, lips stained red and a gun strapped to her thigh.

Intrigued, I searched for dresses that some of the other characters would pick and, sure enough, I found others that matched their personalities just as well as Olivia’s did.

Olivia’s party dress is royal blue and fairly plain, with a swoop neck, intricate back, thick straps, and a flowy, knee-length skirt. Practical but feminine. A color that’s bold, but wouldn’t stand out in a crowd.

Another character’s dress is soft pink, with a sweetheart neckline, a short, flouncy skirt, and lots of lace. It shows off how she’s very outgoing, sweet, and girly, but also sophisticated.

A third is short and tight–a rick, dark shade of plum. This is another outgoing character, only this one’s the other side of the coin: instead of sweet, she is sarcastic. She’s whiny, flirty, haughty; a slow burn. Open with her affections. Passionate about her friends. More interested in how she looks than how practical it would be to run in stilettos.

The important thing to note here is that, over the course of Cadence, we only ever see one of these three characters actually get to choose clothes, and even then it’s only street clothes. The rest of the time they’re all in various uniforms. But just looking through ModCloth, I can tell you what each of these characters would think of any particular article of clothing.

Figuring out what your characters would wear in different situations, and what they’d think of different types of clothes if they saw the pieces in the store, is a great way of getting a grasp on the larger traits of your characters’ personalities.

We all have different goals for what we want our clothes to do for us. Some people like to wear bright colors, and others like dark, and others are all about pastels. Some people want to let their quirkiness shine; others want to keep up with the latest fashion trends; others want to be able to pull something on as quickly as possible without having to worry about whether this-shirt-goes-with-these-pants or not.

Maybe your character has volleyball practice after school and she doesn’t want to take the time to change before it, so she wears a t-shirt and sweats all day. Or maybe your protag wears Toms all the time because he likes to help people (and we ALL KNOW that’s why you wear Toms, right?).

I can tell you that Olivia hates wearing skirts, because they’re impractical; loves Converse, because they’re tennis shoes but also look nice enough to wear places; and has a thing for bright colors, because they’re such a contrast with the plain black uniform her organization makes her wear.

Basically: Olivia is practical, but craves the opportunity to be impractical without worry. And this is something I wouldn’t have figured out without her clothes (and my ModCloth addiction).

So, peruse ModCloth for yourself. Ask yourself what your different characters would think of some of the pieces on the site. Put them in an imaginary scenario and figure out what clothes they’d pick and why. Really think it through.

After all, you never know when your characters are going to have to attend a ball. You don’t want them to have nothing to wear.

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A reminder to anyone who wants to write a guest post or do an interview for while I’m traveling, you have until the end of Friday, June 20th to email those to me at jbyerswriting@aol.com. Show me your beautiful words!

 

~Julia

PS. It’s after midnight again. Sorry! I should be more on top of things again beginning, like, three months from now.

Wordy Wednesday: Open with a Bang

Sorry today’s post is coming so late! (And, you know, after midnight. So technically Thursday.)

Things are really hectic right now. On the upside: The Night Before Our Stars is tomorrow! (Or today? I never know what to say this time of night.)

Anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post about how to write openings that keep readers reading.

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I’ll admit, I am not the best person to talk to you about how to open a novel. I am notoriously bad at finding the right place to start, or introducing characters in unique and interesting ways, or any of the number of other things that make for good opening pages.

However, I do seem to be halfway decent at one thing: keeping people reading.

Your opening scene has a lot of work to do. It should introduce your lead cast (or set up for meeting them), give an idea for both the type of story and where it’ll take place, and give readers a feel for the tone and overall conflict that they’re stepping into. On top of this, it has to do all this in such a way that gets them to read on to the next scene, and this (in my personal opinion) is the most important part.

1. Don’t let your characters play nice.

While generally you’ll want to open your story in the sort of “before” period (aka: before things go crazy), it’s also important to remember that readers don’t want to watch things go right. That’s boring. You haven’t earned a reader sitting through things going right yet (that’s your reward for putting your characters through hell–nothing should go right until the end of the novel).

So: just because everything hasn’t exploded yet, doesn’t mean something can’t be wrong. The easiest way of doing this is to build tension between your characters. (This is also a great way to develop personalities early on. If something’s eating at your protagonist, and it’s causing tension between her and those around her, it shows the reader a lot about who they are. The opening chapter of Divergent by Veronica Roth does a good job of this one.)

2. Let the conflict boil.

This sounds simple, but something I’ve seen a lot in manuscripts I’ve critiqued is writers introducing problems in the first chapter (great!) then resolving them before chapter two (not so great).

Prepare yourself: this is about to turn into a prolonged and convoluted metaphor on boiling water.

So, let’s say you put water (characters) in a pot (your story). ThenĀ  you turn the burner on. The heat from the burner represents the problems your characters must face. The more problems your characters face, the closer they–like the water–get to boiling. And boiling is good.

Boiling is conflict. Boiling is enthralling. Boiling = the reader not being able to stop reading.

So, why would you get your water all hot and boiling–then turn the burner off? If you do that, you can’t cook your delicious pasta (yeah, I don’t know; I lost myself like half a metaphor ago).

Basically: If your chapter ends with the immediate conflict resolved and no other conflict already in action to replace it, the reader will lose interest.

Fiction is conflict. Something must always be wrong. If you don’t have any conflict left, then you’re at the end of the story.

Examples of openings that let their conflict boil: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater and The Maze Runner by James Dashner.

3. Give your characters purpose.

This goes hand-in-hand with utilizing conflict in your opening. (Notice a theme yet?) The next worse thing after not having residual conflict at the end of your opening is not having a purposeful protagonist.

Don’t let your characters sit by on the sidelines. If your protagonist doesn’t play a key role in your opening scene, either you’re not writing the right scene or you’re not writing the right protagonist.

Get your characters up and doing something. We don’t want passive observers. Movement and decision-making are the lifeblood of a successful opening.

(Unless, of course, you’re writing about someone who starts out a passive observer and must throughout the story learn to be something more. In which case your best bet is to draw attention to the downsides of passivity in your opening, rather than having your character right away making decisions and doing things.)

A couple of my favorite novels that open with purposeful characters are Across the Universe by Beth Revis and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

4. End with juicy information.

A super easy way to get the reader to continue past the first scene or chapter is to have the protagonist reveal some sort of surprising, unexpected information at the end of it. Maybe he’s been hiding in the shadows all day and boom: turns out he’s a vampire. Or she’s been going on and on about how delicious the toast her dad used to make was and actually, by the way, someone murdered him and they never found out who. (Or you could also instead find out she’s a toaster. Who knows. It’s going on 2:00 AM and my brain shut off like four hours ago.)

I remember I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter doing this well.

5. End on a cliffhanger.

Ending with a cliffhanger is different from ending with an info drop, because it requires throwing something out there that your protagonist isn’t expecting. Maybe her plane veers towards the ground or the police are on his doorstep with handcuffs and no hints as to why he’s under arrest.

A cliffhanger puts the reader and the protagonist on the same level. They’re both experiencing the shock of what’s happening. It opens opportunity for the reader to sympathize with the protag, and if the reader connects with your protag, s/he’s much more likely to flip to the next page.

Great cliffhanger endings to openings: Of course The Hunger Games. And, to continue with the Ally Carter examples, Heist Society has a pretty solid cliffhanger at the end of Chapter One.

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Do you have tips for writing openings that keep the reader reading? Let me know in the comments!

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~Julia

Wordy Wednesday (“Show the Complete Picture”)

Reminder that you have through November 7th at midnight eastern time to enter to win a signed copy of Veronica Roth’s Allegiant!

Also, Hannah and I are giving away an Allegiant poster on our vlog: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DN_WvA9BeDQ

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a Writing Process post about how all you need to write a complex character is a single photograph.

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I post a lot of pictures of myself on this blog. Partly because I have a tendency of being (more than) a bit of an attention hog (them creative types, ya know?), partly to be ironic (because selfies, guys–selfies), and partly because that old adage is true: a single picture is worth a thousand words.

One of my weaknesses in writing is creating complex, relateable characters readers want to trust and believe in. I didn’t realize it until recently, but now that I know it’s one of my problems, I’ve been really focusing on how to fix it. And the answer came from a surprising place.

A photograph.

Specifically, this one, taken by a friend while I was in England this past summer:

I’ve always liked this picture, because even though I don’t look the greatest in it, you can learn a lot about me if you know how to look at it right.

This shot’s not the usual, posed school picture in which everyone tilts their head to the same side, with their hair combed just right and teeth freshly brushed. Instead it’s me, standing at the top of Warwick Castle with the wind beating against my face and my stomach twisting into knots, dizzy and breathing just a little too hard, because I have a phobia of high, wide open spaces and the walkways along the tops of castles in England have this weird way of qualifying for that. I’m leaning against the wall just a little bit because of the dizziness thing (unlike most people, I get vertigo from looking up rather than down), and my hands are mid-action; I wasn’t sure whether to plant them against the stone or not, trying to decide which would look better for the shot.

My smile is uneasy–nervous, embarrassed–happy, proud–trying to repress the way my stomach dipped every time I stepped away from the inner wall, closer to the open air and space. Because that’s the thing: I have a phobia of high up, open spaces. You can see how my hair’s pushed back like I have on a headband, but the headband is nowhere in sight, because part of the panic my phobia induces manifests in the fear that I’ll lose something, so when we visited Warwick Castle, all potentially loose articles I had on me (headband, cell phone, etc) got stuffed into my bag the moment I walked out on the first tower. But I’m there anyway. I fought my irrational, idiotic fear and walked all the pathways, all the towers, along the top of Warwick Castle. And it was great, getting to look out at the beautiful English countryside and breathe in the history all around me. And I have this photograph to show for it.

Other things you can tell from this, if you know how to look: I’m wearing skinny jeans, because I’m naturally thin, and regular, straight-legged jeans have a tendency of ballooning around my legs because of it. I’m wearing a sweater from Oxford, which we’d just visited the day before. I chose to wear the sweater that day because Oxford is one of my dream schools to learn at, and because it was sort of a running joke for the rest of the trip that all of us would wear our Oxford stuff EVERYWHERE (even to Cambridge).

My bag is worn out and the white stripes aren’t very white anymore–I bought it in Costa Rica a few years back at a fair trade shop and had been using it endlessly ever since. My hair is in a ponytail–practical. I have on a grey, baggy wool cardigan that had seen better days and a green rain jacket–it was cool and wet out (so basically an average day in England). My nails are painted bright pink and I’m wearing a necklace and makeup, which means that I’m a little high-maintenance and girly despite trying to be practical with everything else. Everything I’m wearing is some sort of color, because wearing bright colors makes me happy.

Basically: You can tell a lot about me just from this one picture. I could give back story galore about the decision behind everything I’m wearing, and my weirdo phobia, and the color of my hair. I could tell you how I came to stand atop that tower in England, and why I love Oxford so much, and the meaning behind every single thing in my bag.

I am a human being. I am a complex, relateable character. You can learn so much about me, just from one photograph–if you have the right back story to bring out all the intricate details.

Every single character you write should be the same way. They should live entire lives, not just what’s immediately important to the story. Maybe a lot of that doesn’t make it onto the page, but it should exist anyway. You should know why Character One likes to paint her nails sky blue and Character Two thinks baggy t-shirts are trashy. You should know their favorite foods, colors, hobbies, and memories. You should know their least favorite ones. You should know what they think is important and what they think is stupid and what they think about political issues and, if they could change one thing about themselves, what it would be.

Look at how specific my phobia is: A fear of high up, wide open spaces. Put me on the top floor of a New York City skyscraper, and I’m fine. Crack open a window, thus connecting me with all that space outside, and I can’t handle it. It’s not something I have control over–believe me, I’d rather not be afraid of something so stupid and not dangerous. But I am. And it’s a complex fear that has developed over the course of many years, many experiences.

Not saying your protagonist should have irrational phobias, but everything about him/her should be that way: Complex. Both parts precise and still in the process of solidifying. Something they, and the reader, can understand without having to think too deeply into it, while still knowing that more exists beneath the surface.

Everything about your characters should be so detailed that not only the characters, but their lives, become real.

Stop and close your eyes. Imagine a character. Picture how she has a high forehead that she tries to hide behind bangs, only her cowlick and perpetually greasy skin make it difficult; picture how she wears a watch that she inherited from a favorite relative, because it makes her think of them, only it’s beginning to break so she babies it a bit now. Think of the reasoning behind everything, behind her thought processes. Think about her fears and her strengths and how they correlate with the way she presents herself to the world.

Think about all of these things, until you could draw a picture as beautiful and flawed and complex as any single one of you.

A photograph is just an instant–one snapshot in time–but just one photograph leads to an entire flood of information, and other snapshots, and memories. Look at a picture from the right angle, and you could eventually learn everything about a person.

You should use every single word of your story to deepen and further your character development. If a narrator describes another character in a certain way, be aware that that description defines both the character described and the narrator.

Show the complete picture. Don’t make your character a stick figure you fill in, fill out here and there, when it’s needed. Make her a living, breathing human being, more complete than any story could ever entirely portray.

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~Julia

PS. Here’s another picture from that day. Take from it what you will.