Recently on a writer's loop one of the novelists raised a discussion question about character arcs. Do we feel they're important in novels? I found the original question and ensuing discussion very interesting. With the permission of all writers involved, I'm running the emails here anonymously for the next few days. I'm going to run them pretty much as the discussion played out--so you can add your own thoughts to the topic. If you're like me, you'll find some interesting points to ponder--and very likely use in your own writing. For today--the original email that kicked off the discussion. Tomorrow--some responses.
Email #1. Would love a little discussion on "character arcs." That's usually a term found in screenwriting books, meaning how the character grows from weakness or need to an overcoming strength or completion by the end. Some go so far as to say without that, you won't have an enduring story.
I agree a complete character arc is a fine thing to have in some stories...but not necessarily all. I thought about this as I watched Fargo again the other night.
The lead character in Fargo, Marge Gunderson, does not have a weakness>>>strength arc. In fact, she remains the same person throughout. But we are totally locked in with her. Why?
Because she is a sympathetic character who is faced with a huge challenge. She's a small town deputy who loves her husband and their normal life, and then this horrendous homicide happens, unlike anything she's ever faced. So she proceeds to investigate, and clearly shows how good she is. And we cheer for her as she ultimately brings the perps to justice.
So without the traditional "character arc," we still have an enduring story. Why? Perhaps one reason is simply that the hero in this case vindicates the values of the community. Like the hero in myths, we are confirmed in our notions of justice, which overcomes the evil in the "dark world."
This might be described not as an "arc" but as the strengthening of an already in place "spine" (or some other metaphor).
A second variation: taking the character to a higher level of what Maslow called "self-realization." A more complete human being. Here I would put Sam Gerard, the lawman in The Fugitive. He doesn't go from weakness to strength, but from "I don't care!" to "I care...but don't tell anybody." He's grown.
This might be described as "the next level" type of growth. Richard Kimble [the fugitive] doesn't change, BTW. But his competence (demonstrated as a surgeon) has to be used in a totally new way, to stay free AND solve his wife's murder. So, like Marge, it is a strengthening of what's already there.
Do you think in terms of "character arcs"? Do you think it always has to be from weakness to strength, or negative to positive? Again, some writing "gurus" say so, but I'm tending to disagree.
BGs, what do you think?
Read Part 2