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Back to Basics – The Character Arc


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They say you never forget how to bicycle, and that may be true. But when it comes to writing, my experience is more like snow skiing. You see, I grew up in Florida. And though my family occasionally ventured north in a tiny camper, I never truly experienced snowfall until attending university in Virginia. I didn’t learn to ski until the age of 25, when I took lessons on a large Ohio hill that would never be mistaken for a mountain. Despite my late start, I took to it. Within a couple of years, I was gliding down black diamond trails at legitimate resorts, ones people know by name. Still, skiing never became second nature. I had to think about it, a lesson that came crashing down upon me, and along with me, when I returned to the slopes one fateful winter morning some years later. Putting it gently, skiing is not like bicycling, at least not for me.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, it is my roundabout confession that today’s post may not be for everyone. There are those in the WU community who have long mastered the essential elements of a compelling tale, who can spin gold out of a mere suggestion of an inkling of a story. There are those with copious talents, who can and do teach entire courses on intricate details of the writing craft.

But most of us, and perhaps some of them, occasionally need reminders. When tackling a complex tale or a theme charged with emotion, we may need a refresher. Sometimes we freeze up, wondering what to do with all those words in our heads and a blank screen before us. Conversely, we may find ourselves reveling in our masterful world building and intricate plotting until, quite abruptly, we find ourselves lost, having no clue as to where our story is going. What do we do then? Where do we begin, or begin again?

My inspiration this morning is simply to offer a boost over that first mogul or a dusting off from a tumble into the brambles, getting you upright and moving again. For those who need it, that is. Everyone else can have another cup of cocoa and glide back into your soaring narrative … but maybe pin it in case you should need it later.

For the rest of us, let’s together perch upon the proverbial bunny hill and chat briefly about a basic element of a story – the character arc.

The Opening Image

Given the looming deadline, I couldn’t count them all. But upon asking trusty Google, it appears approximately 10,000 charts exist online, give or take a few thousand, depicting the character arc. As one might expect, the images typically contain an arch, either a full rainbow or climbing one. Occasionally, when referencing tragedies, they’ll curve downward to emphasize the sad decline of a once-promising hero. The text for the image typically references three broad segments — the opening third, the middle section, and a final segment which gently flattens aloft, returns to earth, or plummets below grade. The three segments in short represent an opening status quo, challenges which culminate in a story climax, and a denouement revealing a changed individual. That is all – class dismissed!

Not so fast.

The challenge is that developing a character arc is not a paint-by-numbers exercise. Of course it is important to understand the concept. That is why my first composition assignment in 8th grade was to analyze a character’s evolution in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible … for the record, I selected Reverend Hale. But a diagram only gets you so far. The effort is much deeper, vital to the entire endeavor. The character arc is an essential ingredient for weaving our voice into the story. A well-conceived protagonist provides the eyes and ears through which our vision is experienced. Their journey can create a compelling bond with readers. For these reasons, it is vital we breathe life and genuine emotion into their existence and the struggles they encounter over the course of the tale.

My process often begins by picturing the opening moment with my protagonist, crystalline in detail and with his or her emotional state clear in my mind. Details may shift in later revisions, but not normally the emotions. I think of the opening scene as a snapshot that sums up the individual, especially when seen in retrospect after the story is told. Hints of their dreams, their strengths, their fears and even their foibles should be included, if possible, all threads to fully explore as events unfold.

A brief example based upon a story idea from earlier this week –

Breathless, Marcia crouched in the dank van, rusted so badly she could see the dried grasses of her stepfather’s cattle farm through holes beneath her bloodied feet. The driver had to come. He’d promised he would. They’d kill her if they found her, after what she’d done. She had to get out of Waltham County.

Of course, a single paragraph cannot paint an entire landscape. It is merely an initial brushstroke. There are so many things I know of Marcia, even this early in the process. And while I want to spill them all on the first page, I know it’s impossible. Taking on even a fraction would result in an indecipherable mess for the reader. Patience is needed, and a trust that readers will soon understand her plight. Her arc will reveal all, in due time. With this in mind I can turn my attention to ensuring the opening scene and early chapters flesh out the current state of my brave protagonist, introducing the elements and figures that shape her world, and the incident which will shake her emotional core.

The Heart of the Story | The Heart of Your Character

Once my breathless Marcia is off and running, things grow increasingly complicated, both for her and for me. Many a good story – and not just mine – has become lost in a muddy middle. But the challenges yield rewards as well. As the story builds, primary and secondary themes can be explored. Secondary characters can rise, some with their own compelling arcs. And all the action can take place in a story world snapping crisply into focus.

Something that helps me even while working on all of that is to envision the climax. Again, as with the opening scene, it helps to find an image, or an exchange, that I know will represent a culmination of events, if not the climax itself. In my first novel, I jotted down an outline of a verbal confrontation, long before I knew its context. I simply knew my protagonist and his mother would reach a breaking point, an irreconcilable moment when his attempts to shield her from a deep truth would fail and her image of him would shatter. I didn’t even have dialogue in my notes because frankly I didn’t know at the time what the trigger would be. But I had a mental image of the room, and felt their raw reactions, which I noted. That placeholder provided an anchor, something I could point to on my bulletin board and say, “all this detail currently in work, every piece of it, ultimately leads to this moment.”

Having that destination in mind, so to speak, offered another benefit. It gave me a touchstone for fleshing out the fears of both characters, the same fears that would fuel the ferocity of their confrontation when it occurred.

Alas, I’m uncertain where my Marcia’s path will climax at this point. But if the story is to progress to a full draft, I will need to find it, for her arc is the lifeline of the tale.

The Final Curtain

Unsurprisingly, given my process, somewhat early on, if not from the outset, I imagine a closing moment for my protagonist. Often, the initial note centers on their state of mind, a final thought or passage, rather than a specific location. The setting means more to me at the start, whereas the ultimate “home” of the character can remain elusive for some time, usually resolving itself as the draft comes together.

What matters most is that I have a solid idea of how my protagonist will change – emotionally, physically, and spiritually – by the last page. Personally, I find it hard to draft the first line without a precise idea of what the final scene has in store for my protagonist.

These are my thoughts on the nature of character arcs, and processes I employ to develop them. How do you approach the creation of character arcs in your works? Do you consciously develop them, or is your process more organic? Are you more likely to develop plot points or character milestones to fuel your writing? Do you have other suggestions for crafting strong character arcs. If so, please share. I and others needing a boost look forward to hearing from you.

 

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About John J Kelley

John J Kelley crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow, about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.

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