Friday, 21 January 2011

Character Arc

When you think about it, what I've been writing about most of this week has been character arc, although I've put it in terms of plot.  Of course, character and plot are inextricably linked, and I expect now I'm going to talk about character, it'll end up being about plot.  Still, here goes.

A character arc is the development that takes place in a character's emotional life over the course of the story.  They start emotionally at A and end up at B.  With luck, they've also been through C, D, E, F, G etc on their way to B, but put simply, by the end they have changed.  Usually they have learned something about themselves and/or the way the world works.

Take The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway, the narrator, comes East.  He's from the Mid-West, and thinks his cousin Daisy is wonderful with her rich husband and glamorous Eastern lifestyle.  Mid-Western values of honesty, hard work, thrift etc are forgotten as he gets sucked into a more sophisticated way of life.  But by the end he has changed.  He returns home, disillusioned by the East, emotionally scarred and generally sadder and wiser than when he started. That's his character arc.  

Isabel in Adultery for Beginners starts out as being entirely dependent on her husband, not just financially but also emotionally.  By the end, she is reaching towards financial independence, she is taking responsibility for her own life and actions, she is making her own future instead on relying on others. She has learned about self-reliance and self-determination, and when she establishes a new relationship it will be as equals.  

Often, when the novel starts we see our main character as having this virtue, that fault.  Over the course of the story we usually learn why they have those virtues/faults.  We learn what are the problems created by those virtues/faults.  We learn how they're going to overcome those specific problems and crucially, how THEY are learning not to make those mistakes again by recognising their virtues/faults and changing. 

In Adultery for Beginners, my editor said she wanted only a hint that Isabel and Adam were going to get together, rather than a full blown passionate embrace, explaining that readers could fill in the gaps for themselves. She didn't explain further than that - she may not have known why it was deep down the right thing to do.  Neither did I; I just accepted the situation and amended it.  

In retrospect I know why it was right for Isabel. Isabel at the beginning of the novel is impetuous; she behaves like a child wanting things now.  She rushes headlong into a relationship, and gets badly burned. But by the end she has grown up.  She has learned not to do that again.  She will take things with Adam slowly, and let the relationship develop at its own pace.  

I believe that one of the reasons we read fiction is to discover how other people deal with change.  Without change there is no point to reading.  In a novel the character will change on many levels, in a short story there will usually be space for only one or two changes.  But change there will be.  

7 comments:

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Jim Murdoch said...

On the whole I agree but being the perverse bugger I am I wrote a 90,000-word novel where nothing changes. It’s called the More Things Change and although stuff happens the whole point is how resistant the protagonist is to change and how much he goes out of his way to ensure that, to finish off the truism, that everything stays the same. He doesn’t do this consciously (because he has amnesia) but the simple fact is, by the end of the book, he finds himself exactly where he was at the start. A lot of people say that if they got to live their lives over again they’d not make the same mistakes. The fact is we would. We’d make exactly the same mistakes unless we could somehow cheat and take our memories of what we did wrong the first time back with us.

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Thanks Sarah. This series of posts on plot are timely for me as I am working on plot at the moment. I have written the story out sequentially and next I shall arrange it into chapters. I have made a four column table in Microsoft Word (Chapter number, setting, characters, action) and I have put the story into that table sequentially. Next I shall print it off, cut it up and rearrange each "chapter" and re-order them. Is that essentially what you do with the index cards?

womagwriter said...

That's interesting, Jim. I once wrote a short story where the point was that the MC didn't change, but the reader's perception of her did. You were supposed to start out liking the MC and end up disliking her. In your novel, do you expect the reader to change, even though the protag doesn't? Does the reader change their view of the world and/or their opinion of the protag? If so, then you do have change in there. Done well, I think this can work.

Jim Murdoch said...

In a poem I once wrote:

      No, I don't believe in destiny
      but I do in inevitability.

the point being that even though we are in change of our own destinies we are not in charge of our human nature which is why a woman who has been abused will unconsciously seek out the same kind of man time and time again. Of course as any book progresses and we get more information we refine our opinion of the characters – we do that sentence by sentence – but what I hope they come to understand is that more often than not a leopard can’t change its spots.

Sarah Duncan said...

It's an interesting discussion - how much do characters need to change, or can it be the world around them that changes? And is change of some sort essential?

Personally, I think something needs to change - and it's most often the central character - for fiction to be satisfying, because it's my belief that one of the reasons we read fiction is to learn how other people deal with change.

There are of course plenty of novels around where the main character refuses to change eg Remains of the Day but then it's the reader's awareness that changes, the sense of opportunities missed.

And there are circular plots, like After Hours, where the protagonist ends up back where they started from.

In real life I agree we do the same old stuff all the time, but fiction isn't real life. For myself, I don't want my fiction too like meandering old real life, I can do that at home! I don't want it to be a million miles away from real life, but I like there to be some point to it all.

Fiona - I'm going to do another index card post, and answer your question there.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve been thinking a bit more about our need to experience change through the eyes of another and I thought about the way a great many TV shows ‘reset’ themselves at the end of the show. A good example is The Simpsons which employs a floating timeline in which the characters do not age. Bart has been ten years old since 1987; we don’t want him to change. And the same goes too when you think of a character like James Bond: the main objections people have about new actors is just how different they are to their predecessors; most of us still want Sean Connery to be playing Bond. The thing about Bond is that he’s a hero and where can a heroic character go? He can’t become more heroic. So all we’re looking to see are demonstrations of his heroism; we’re not interested in him changing.