All stories have one thing in common — something has to happen to someone. The more interesting the happening, and the more relatable the character, the better the story.
This is obvious but I’m saying it in case you thought this post was about Noah’s ark, the biblical saviour of beasts and birds. It isn’t.
Plot lines, whether linear, non-linear, recursive or interwoven all share a sense of onward progression but what’s important is that characters more forward too. Only forward.
Characters need to change, otherwise what is the point of all of that beautifully rendered plot — if it can’t even change the characters who live through it, how is it going to resonate with the reader?
And if the writer can reflect the sense of momentum and change within the characters themselves, then a vital balance has been achieved — a relationship has been drawn between what happens and who it happens to.
All characters need to start the story in need of something and by the end of the story they should either get it, or they must be left wanting something new.
Every character should want something, even if it is just a glass of water.Kurt Vonnegut
For my novels, I do a full manuscript edit for each one of the main characters, just so that I can see things from their perspective. I let them speak to me. I let them speak to each other and sometimes even to themselves.
‘Should have been briefer,’ Frank muttered. ‘But Frank was never such a soul born into brevity, was he? No, not brevity, but the ability to at once pose himself a question and at the same time answer it? Definitely.’Frank appears in Recursion
I let them show me inconsistencies in their actions or in their speech, in their movements or mannerisms. When I listen to them, they tell me things, often surprising things. Mostly they complain.
They grumble and moan about the other characters, and about the plot or the location. They ask me why it is always dark, or raining, or stormy, as if they’ve never heard of prophetic fallacy.
Not only that, but they also ask me why is it that they have to change. My characters, just like most real people, hate change.
They prefer not to grow and develop, they do not wish to be changed by the danger and hardships that I shower them with. They consider it gratuitous that I put them under so much duress. I explain in vain that this is what a writer must do, to make bad things happen so that the reader can see who they really are.
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.Kurt Vonnegut
No character can afford to be unchanged, and protagonists, especially, need to go on a journey. This is sometimes physical, but always emotional.
Three characters who are changed by what happens to them:
The titular character of Stephen Donaldson’s epic. He begins the story as a leprosy-ridden rapist with missing fingers, and after moping around for an indeterminable amount of time we last see him as a half-handed neurotic with a terminal disease — actually perhaps he’s not the best example.
At times, he is the archetypal, one-dimensional, most violent man on Earth. His natural instinct is to kill first, and enjoy it later. But he’s also many more things besides; thief, pirate, assassin, soldier, lover, usurper. Conan begins as a hill-tribe urchin but becomes king. He learns to think and to employ a strategy behind the low cunning of his tactics. He engages in politics and develops and understanding of optics and approval ratings, but he knows, that if all else fails, he can revert to type, cleaving skulls and hewing limbs.
I said that characters must change, not that they have to totally deny who they are.
At the beginning of Recursion, Jane is a brilliant musician, but struggles with people. She interacts with others in a high-minded, off-handed fashion. She sees the world in black and white, separating issues and uncompromisingly compartmentalising her life. However, once she’s in the rural Lake District, those coping mechanisms simply don’t wash, and the events in Barrowthwaite irrevocably alter her. Yet for all that, her core values do not slip, even if time itself does.
Jane starts from humble beginnings on a London estate, conducts a symphony, and then finds herself having to orchestrate the very events that will shape time and space. How’s that for career progression?
2 thoughts on “Character Arcs”
Brilliant post. You’re right, Thomas Covenant is not the best example of anything. What possessed us to read so much about him, though? Book after tedious book where he wandered about aimlessly. Maybe we were starved of good things to read in those days.
And one of the regional powers was a bloke called Kevin.