Most writers are aware that the main character in a story is supposed to change; the course of that change is often referred to as the character “arc.” But making that change believable and right is often a lot more difficult than it seems. This is where many stories fail. Writers are often taught to write character “sketches” or create character charts, but those usually describe a static character, not a conflicted, changing one. We asked Odyssey graduates to discuss how they craft a dynamic character with a strong “arc.”
How do you create a strong character arc for your protagonist? How do you think of the “arc” or character change? What sort of internal conflict do you try to establish? How do you develop that internal conflict? How do you create a believable change in the character at the climax of the story?
Sherry Peters, class of 2005
For me, there are generally two types of character arc I try to infuse in my writing, and what I look for when reading. There may be exceptions, of course, but I can’t remember them at the moment.
The first is that the main characters must have some kind of loss, or there is a cost, a sacrifice on some personal level, on the way to achieving their goal. The loss/cost/sacrifice must be inevitable; it may possibly stand in the way of the final goal; it may change that final goal, but it doesn’t stop them.
An example of this from Lord of the Rings (I hope everyone has read it, if not, Spoiler Alert): Sam probably loses the least, though he suffers from watching the deterioration of Frodo. Though at the end of The Two Towers, Sam believes Frodo to be dead and has to make a decision. It is when he realizes that Frodo is still alive, that he truly grows as a character, deciding to go back and fight for his friend. Merry and Pippin lose their child-like innocence after experiencing and fighting in wars, and they trick Treebeard into spurring the Ents to war. Frodo loses himself to the power of the ring, so much so he loses his memory, his smell and taste, and to the point of failure. His growth comes from knowing what he could have become (like Gollum) and having seen so much horror, knowing that he failed, that he isn’t a hero. Frodo’s ultimate reward, then, is greater than his loss, he gets to go to Valinor with the Elves.
I think Glinda in the musical version of Wicked (The unofficial account of the witches of Oz) says it best when she’s been named Glinda, the Good (witch of the North) and she has just lost her best friend Elphaba who has become the Wicked Witch of the West, and her fiance Fiyero, who loves Elphaba. “We couldn’t be happier. Simply, couldn’t be happier. Well, not simply. ‘Cause getting your dreams, it’s strange but it seems a little, well, complicated…There’s a kind of, a sort of, cost… There are bridges you cross you didn’t know you crossed until you cross. And if that joy, that thrill, doesn’t thrill like you think it will, still, with this perfect finale, the cheers and the ballyhoo, who, wouldn’t be happier…because happy is what happens, when all your dreams come true.” There’s a bitter-sweetness to achieving the final goal.
The second way I look at character growth is what I like to call the tragic arc. My own term. This is when a character strives to over-come significant odds, there is growth, but then he succumbs to his old self, or is unable to achieve his goal. The chief example of this is Gollum in Lord of the Rings. He starts off slimy, tricksey, false, addicted to the ring. Frodo is able to bring out the good in him for a while, but then things happen, the ring is too powerful, and Gollum succumbs to the ring, bringing his demise. So much potential lost, though his loss results in the redemption of Middle Earth.
Of course the loss/cost/sacrifice doesn’t have to be life threatening, but enough to make achieving the goal worthwhile. [It could be] loss of home, family connection, friendship, anything that will in some way affect the character. As a colleague of mine said, “Once you’ve been there, you can’t go home the same way. You’re not the same.”
I recently read a book in which none of the characters had to sacrifice a thing. There was a point where the girl thought she might have to give up her boyfriend, but that was easily negotiated away and everything was better than perfect for all parties. I wondered why I stayed with the story that long, because there really was no conflict. The author tried to make it look like there was, but it was all smoke and mirrors.
Abby Goldsmith, class of 2004
I think every fiction writer has a favorite theme, or type of character arc they favor. For some, it’s the inner battle between right and wrong, or between family and career, or love and duty. For some, it’s the coming-of-age arc, which begins with dependence on a mentor character and ends with the protagonist taking responsibility for others. For some, the character change is about redemption for a wrong deed, or some other internal realization. Some writers favor the plot and gadgets more than the characters, and don’t give their characters much of any arc.
Personally, I like more unusual character arcs. The more dramatic the change, the better. I think the reason characters like Severus Snape have so many fans is because their internal conflict and character change is drastic and dramatic (much more so than Harry Potter, for instance). Fans identify with human flaws and internal struggle.
For me, the key ingredients to a good protagonist are 1) a powerful enemy or obstacle, and 2) a powerful motive that makes the character intrinsically “good,” such as revenge or protecting a loved one .That’s it. That’s all you need. Then there’s the challenge of pulling it off well.
The main protagonist in my novel City of Slaves is a dark hero. His best friend becomes the main protagonist in the sequel, and together, they are dual protagonists for the rest of the series.
Thomas is a character whose internal flaws set him up for Stockholm Syndrome, and the captors he tries to identify with (the Torth) are like Nazis. He starts out as a basically good guy. He winds up performing awful deeds, driven by his loneliness, and in the end, he hates himself more than ever.
I know this doesn’t sound like much of a hero. But Thomas is one of two protagonists, and when he fails, the other protag picks up his slack. Thomas is set up for redemption later in the series. His mistakes and failures in Book 1 are the beginning of a twisted coming-of-age character arc. Thomas is emotionally a child. He wants other people (the adults) to take responsibility and do things for him. He fell into the trap of trusting the Torth because he longed for parents. The Torth are like twisted, emotionless parental figures. By the end of Book 2, Thomas allies himself firmly with the humans, although he is still emotionally a child and more interested in committing suicide than helping anyone. By the end of Book 4, Thomas finds new reasons to live and help people. By the end of Book 5, Thomas stops trying to make other people do the heroic things, and takes full responsibility for his failures as well as his successes.
Susan Abel Sullivan, class of 2005
I usually don’t find my character arc until I’ve lived with my character for a while to see what her life is like. It starts with an internal conflict, but to me the character arc is more than just internal conflict; it’s about change, realizations, dilemma, and coming to terms with what the character thinks she really wants.
Like in the YA novel I’m currently working on, vampire protag Vladmira (Brittney) Drevenescu wants to be human more than anything. She so over-identifies with humans that she won’t drink human blood. Her parents are concerned about her behavior and send her to a special school for the supernaturally challenged. One of her required courses is exsanguinations with live human donors. Morally, she’d rather fail the class than drink blood from people. But the teacher, Mr. Jinn, is a genie who grants wishes instead of grades. Aha! Brittney can now attain her heart’s desire, but only if she makes an A in the class. And to make an A, she’s going to have to embrace what she really is and do what she finds morally repugnant. As of this point, I don’t know what Britt’s realization will be, whether she’ll decide to become one of The Blood like every generation in her family before her, or if she’ll acquire her dream and become human, but at a huge cost.
As I was writing the first few chapters of the discovery draft, I didn’t know what Britt’s dilemma would be until I created the Mr. Jinn character. I first had him teaching a Math for Immortals class, but quickly realized I’d have a dynamite internal conflict and dilemma for Britt is he taught the one class she didn’t think she could pass.
There’s also a sub-plot about the snobby vampire clan (The Blood) that Brittney’s family belongs to. The Blood look down on other supernaturals, as well as humans, seeing them as 2nd-class citizens. Brittney’s a bit of a snob herself, but she’s going to wind up falling in love with a were-dog and it’s going to shake up her personal beliefs, not to mention get her parents all riled up. And Brittney also has additional internal conflict over whether she pleases her parents and undergoes a Coming of Ageless Ball to join The Blood (a ceremony from which there is no turning back once you commit to it) or whether she remains true to herself. And if she’s going to become human, she must do it before her Coming of Ageless Ceremony, otherwise The Blood will kill her. Because once you join The Blood, you’re an eternal member. The only way out is via death. And even vampires can be killed.
It’s fun to explore these traditional teen/YA themes from a humorous, genre standpoint. I’m taking great pains to make the tone and world building more Harry Potter in America than Twilight.
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