CHARACTER ARCS: WHAT THEY ARE AND HOW TO MAP THEM TO A PLOT. PART 1.
Characters in a story are the linchpins. They are what holds the plot together. Their reactions to plot elements drive the build in tension, and reveal all the emotions. If your characters aren’t strong and complete, the story falls flat.
When I first started writing, my only thought was to write a story I wanted to read because I’d been struggling to find published stories that didn’t fall short in some way. I had no clue about plot or structure, and hadn’t even considered characters beyond the fact I wanted them to be interesting. I went into the whole venture totally oblivious.
It took me writing the beginnings of several stories for me to realise I actually needed to learn something about how to write a good story.
So what is a character arc?
A character arc is the path by which a character grows and changes as they traverse the myriad challenges in their story.
Because I’m me, I like to break everything down into easy-to-follow steps. I do the same with character arcs. Each step delves a little deeper into the character and links a little more closely with the plot devices and plot arc.
Decide on the types of characters you’re going to have in your story. Must haves:
Protagonist. The main character, the hero. The protagonist learns a lot about themselves throughout the story and change accordingly so that, by the end, they are a true hero (within the confines of the story).
Antagonist. The main character in conflict with the protagonist, the villain. The antagonist learns and changes in similar ways (but, potentially, with different results) as the protagonist.
Foil: The character that supports the protagonist (eg. Best friend). They provide a way for the protagonist to develop, prove the world of the story has more than one person in it. There is no growth or change with this character; they’re the same at the end as they were at the beginning.
There could be a whole supporting cast in there as well, but you need to be wary of naming too many characters and of giving too many characters point-of-view (POV) speaking parts. If everyone who appears on the page is identified and described, and has a POV role, your readers will very quickly become confused. They’ll expect every POV person to have an important role in the story and will try to remember everything about them as they read. It might become difficult to remember who the protagonist actually is.
Learn your characters. Getting to know the people in your story is as interesting and challenging as getting to know a real person. Your characters must feel real to your readers. The protagonist needs to have hero qualities or develop those qualities over the course of the story. Your reader needs to be hopeful that redeeming qualities are there from the very beginning, they need to cheer your protagonist when they overcome a flaw, or push through a fear to do something good. The protagonist also needs to have flaws to overcome, or just live with. They don’t need to be perfect; they just need to be trying their best to do the right thing.
Your antagonist has to have some redeeming quality, or a lovable feature, something so that they’re not a cardboard cut-out of an all-bad villain. The antagonist doesn’t have to be unlikeable. They need to be a real person with real flaws that have perhaps made them make poor choices. Has the antagonist chosen ‘the path of evil’ or have they made a poor choice and become trapped in a cycle of poor choices that they can’t get out of or don’t recognise?
Goal, motivation, conflict (GMC).
Where does your character begin their story? Write a sentence that shows their goal, motivation and conflict at their first appearance in the book. The structure of the GMC is simple:
What does your character want?
Why do they want it?
What’s stopping them from getting it?
The GMC feeds into the plot. Some people form the plot of the story first, then develop the characters to match it. Other people create the characters first and allow the plot to develop around them. It doesn’t matter how you develop your characters or when, in relation to the plot, they grow, but they must have a logical and believable GMC at the very beginning.
All major characters need a GMC. Some will have more than one GMC. Sometimes the GMC changes over the course of the story.
This is the big thing the character wants to achieve. It’s the big thing that feels unattainable but will bring happiness or save the world (or their part of the world). In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo wants to destroy the ring.
The motivation is the driving force behind the goal. The motivation has to be strong enough to carry them through the entire story: destroying the ring will defeat Sauron and save the world.
Conflict is internal and external. There must be both for a character to be well-rounded, believable, and remain interesting right to the end of the book. Overcoming the conflicts is what makes the character change and grow, it’s what makes the reader identify with the character, what makes the reader invested in their success.
Internal conflicts are things intrinsic to a person. It’s rare for a person to have just one intrinsic barrier to achieving their dreams but which conflicts and how many are shown in the story depends on the length of the story and the complexity of the plot. They can be things like the teachings of a difficult childhood (eg. being unable to trust). Frodo doubted his ability to complete the mission. He doubted whether or not he wanted to leave the shire, no matter how much he’d talked about adventure. He had to overcome those doubts and become the person he needed to be in order to save his people.
External conflict is imposed by external forces. They are physical (or mystical) barriers to prevent the character achieving their goal. There can be more than one external conflict, particularly in longer novels.
The image shows how I track GMC for major characters. It’s an early version: this is a living document: it changes as I write and the character changes and adds their own flavour to the story.
Next time, I’ll be looking at developing character personalities so you can identify flaws they need to overcome while pursuing their goals. These flaws are the key to building tension for your character and increasing pace with your plot.