Seven Strategies for Strong Character Arcs
by Jason Black
If you haven't heard by now the advice to work some sort of character arc into your novel, chances are you haven't been listening. A character arc is no great mystery. It is nothing more than the process by which a character becomes a better person. You get to decide what "better" means in the context of your book, and how the process of achieving it plays out within your plot.
Readers love character arcs because when the storyline is over, the character’s final moments of personal growth leave the reader with the feeling that the book meant something. We are left with the sense that the story held value above and beyond whatever the plot held at stake. Writers love them, too, because the resolution of the character arc—the moment when the character finally achieves the growth he or she has been striving toward—can also serve as the lynchpin of the book's climax.
So what might you do for your character arcs? Here are seven character arc strategies that work very well across a wide variety of storylines and genres.
Get active. Start with a character who is a passive lump, a slacker-type who floats through an unfocused, undirected life. Then give the character direction, motivation, drive, or ambition. Give him a meaningful goal to pursue, a purpose to his life. Hit the character with some kind of life event which leaves him with a strong reason to get out of bed in the morning. For example, he may witness an accident while walking down the street but lack the skills to be of any useful assistance. That feeling of powerlessness could drive him to become an EMT.
Get assertive. Start with a character who is a pushover, and let her start taking charge of her own life. Show her making decisions, making plans, and by all means, taking actions. I see too many manuscripts with characters who don't even try to affect situations that clearly impact them. Show us a character who becomes fed up with life pushing her around, then show her pushing back.
Shake up the routine. Routines can be comforting, but they can also be confining. Start with a character who rankles against the limitations of his routine, and let him break out of it. Show him trying new things, embracing the world, and making mistakes. Let him travel, meet new friends, get his heart broken. This can be a great lead-in to any of the other arcs, too, because new experiences force a person to learn things about themselves. Shaking up the routine can be how the character discovers he has something about himself with which he's not too happy.
Expand her mind. Let the character learn something. Show her finding a new interest, pursuing it with joyful zeal. Should she self-study or go back to school? Or perhaps stay in her garage to experiment, inventing something? Who knows, but if her chosen interest turns out to have some bearing on the rest of the storyline—especially if it's something that will be useful in the book's climax—you’re golden.
Lose the ego. Start with a very self-centered character, then do something that starts him thinking about other people for a change. For example, maybe a high-powered executive gets arrested on some misdemeanor charge and is ordered to perform a thousand hours of community service at a soup kitchen. This can be a very effective strategy for stories that involve the haves getting involved in the lives of the have-nots. It also works quite well for arcs in which the character comes to learn empathy, respect for others, and similar interpersonal skills.
Remove the blinders. Start with a character who is rigid in her viewpoints and force her to loosen up. Let her begin to consider new evidence, to challenge her own assumptions. Let her fail a few times early on because she assumed she was right when she wasn’t, landing her in embarrassing situations. From that, let her learn a lesson in humility: after all, you’re not always as right as you think you are. Don’t forget to let her new self-skepticism save her from a critical mistake or lead her towards a critical victory later, when the stakes are highest.
Refocus on the basics. One well-worn technique—well-worn because it's so effective –is to show a character’s disorganized, chaotic inner life by means of a slovenly, unkempt, unhealthy outer life. Show us a guy who is overweight, who drinks and smokes, whose apartment hasn't been vacuumed since his wife walked out on him. Outwardly, he is ignoring his responsibilities at the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Whatever specific arc you've put the character on, you can reflect his progress along that arc by showing him taking a newfound interest in his physical needs. Let him start eating right, exercising, and occasionally even ironing his laundry.
Each of these strategies involves meaningful change somewhere in the character’s life: in attitude, behavior, outlook, beliefs, or priorities. These are all substantive inner changes that affect a character’s personality. They are more than a mere costume change. Character arcs are deep changes which then affect the surface levels of a character’s actions.
Just remember, it is not enough to include a character arc for its own sake, simply because your critique group calls your characters one-dimensional. The wise novelist, in search of a character arc, examines the storyline for situations that would be exacerbated by some kind of flaw in the character's personality and chooses to blight the character with that very flaw. In this way, the novelist adds an extra dimension to both the character and the novel's conflict, because the character has now been put in opposition to herself along with whatever other forces are opposing her in the storyline.
A well-planned character arc adds another layer to every aspect of the story. And that is why the advice to use character arcs is so common.
Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.plottopunctuation.com.