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CHARACTER ARCS: WHAT THEY ARE AND HOW TO MAP THEM TO A PLOT. PART 2.

Milestones and impact

A character’s personality can have a huge impact on they way they traverse their arc in a story, as much as the way they react to plot elements. Character flaws, and the ways in which the character lives with them and overcomes them, need to be addressed in a complimentary rhythm to the plot.

How they change depends on the type of character they are in the story, the type of person they are for the story, and on their interactions with other characters. Where and when those changes take place in the story depends on the plot.

Let’s have a look at ways you can analyse a character and identify which flaws will change during the story, how, why, and when.

Step 1

Write a brief background for the character. You can do a full background either at the same time or at a later time, but the brief background will be enough to identify major milestones throughout their life.

Once you’ve identified defining moments in their life, you’ll be able to work out what sorts of strengths or flaws will have grown out of those moments.

Step 2

Make a list of emotional and physical milestones. The highs and lows they’ve lived through. I use a table for this. On the left, write the milestone; on the right, write what impact it had on them. The example below is for a character in a cozy mystery I’m planning. It’s very early stages so the character plan won’t have the depth it needs yet. I’ll build on it as I plan and write the story.

Anh

Milestone

Impact

Happy childhood

Secure in the knowledge his family will be there for him when they need him.

Parents have high expectations of him, rigid. They don’t accept his orientation (completely ignore it) but are more angry he abandoned them and the family business.

Strives for success, wants to please them, struggles to feel fulfilled because they don’t really consider his needs/wants.

Grandmother came to Australia as a refugee. She loves him and supports him in his and Dinh’s business venture, but still expects him to be a good Vietnamese boy. She accepts he’s gay but still expects him to marry and have children.

Anh is very aware of how easy his life is. Has grown up with cultural dissonance, living in two cultures, and still struggles to please everyone while trying to live his best life.

He’s loyal to his family but has limits on what he’ll do for them.

Moved out of home at 23, with his cousin, to open a café.

Feels he abandoned the family by not staying and contributing to the family or family business. Guilt.

His cousin, Dinh, is his primary support.


Step 3

Once you’ve worked out how the character has been impacted by events in their life, work out how they would use those to make changes (either positive or negative) in their life. Some of the changes have to be big. The very middle of the book will require the character to overcome some major flaw in order to move forward. There needs to be another one after the second transition too, or a second part to the major one. Other coping mechanisms and periods of growth don’t need to be big, but there needs to be several of them so that the reader can recognise the character is changing and growing throughout the story. The number of changes the character makes depends on many things:

  • The length of the story

  • The seriousness of the large changes to be made and how many steps toward change each takes

  • The complexity of the plot

  • The genre

Impact

How they change

When they change

Secure in the knowledge his family will be there for him when they need him.

Realises the support he receives from his family has always been conditional. Only his grandmother supports him when he’s suspected of murder.

Begins three years ago. Keeps going to family dinner on Sunday to support grandmother only, and because he and Dinh need to feel like they have a family.

Strives for success, wants to please them, struggles to feel fulfilled because they don’t really consider his needs/wants.

This change began three years ago when he and Dinh left home and started their own business.

Three years ago.

Anh is very aware of how easy his life is. Has grown up with cultural dissonance, living in two cultures, and still struggles to please everyone while trying to live his best life.

He’s loyal to his family but has limits on what he’ll do for them.

Loyalty to family is tested when they expect certain behaviour from him but won’t support him to receive it. Confrontation.

Tries not to upset his grandmother but has got to the stage where he doesn’t feel he can do the same for his parents. His sister is good but his brother is hostile. Comes to a head during the murder investigation.

Feels he abandoned the family by not staying and contributing to the family or family business. Guilt.

Abandonment complete when his father and uncle turn their backs on him and Dinh when Dinh is charged with murder. He refuses contact.

Dinh is the one constant in his life. This won’t change.

Dinh is the only one who has supported him unconditionally. He’s completely loyal to Dinh and will do anything to ensure he’s safe – even admit to a murder he didn’t commit.

Will confess to murder to keep Dinh safe.

I don’t have a lot of hard lines in my plans because everything changes as I write and the characters develop their personalities more and start making their own decisions. These plans give me enough to start and they also have an impact on how the plot develops.

There’s still more work to do on character development, specifically character flaws. We’ll look at those next time.

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