Monday, January 19, 2009

Character Arcs -- Part III

Happy Martin Luther King day. Today, in continuing the discussion from last week on character arcs, I'm running the final batch of emails on the subject.

First, an update on Liz and Katy. They are in their apartment! Spend the first night there on Saturday. Katy has updated her blog.

Character Arcs -- Part III

Email #8. I find that working on the character arc during the planning process gives me a stronger spine to the story. I like to discover those character arc turning points, such as realizing the need to change, making the decision to change, trying to act in a new way, getting kicked in the teeth for the effort, realizing the change will be impossible without God's help, etc.

Email #9. I do see your point. We are encouraged to present flawed characters in need of redemption. (I simply want characters my readers can identify with in some way.) Past novels with well-known detectives do seem a little more stable than some of today's offerings.

However, Sherlock Holmes struggled with his desire for "seven percent solution," and he had a strange and rather disturbing view of most women. Except of course, Irene Adler. He was also taken with periods of melancholy. Dr. Watson would become very worried about his friend during these "dark periods." Hercule Poirot was certainly an odd man who relied on his "little gray cells" over emotion or human empathy. But off the top of my head, I don't remember any other demons he struggled with. I agree that Miss Marple seemed rather well-rounded. And I simply adored her!

Email #10. Maybe the detectives mentioned would be examples of the "strengthening the spine" type. They are all good detectives, but the current case tests them in a new way. Can they meet the challenge?

Email #11. Of course [they can meet the challenge]. We know that or there wouldn't be a book. It's the puzzle.

Email #12. In the older mysteries, especially Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle, the mystery was all. You read to solve a puzzle. For me after a while that wasn't enough. I like the new mystery leads because you not only get to solve the puzzle but watch the characters grow and develop. Whether it's series like Evanovich's Stephanie Plum or Robb's Eve Dallas or stand alones like Dick Francis writes, that character arc is there. It's like twice the value for your time and money.

Email #13. I like to see some kind of character change or epiphany, even if it's small. If the lead character is strong, driving through a situation, a big character arc isn't needed, but even Mary Poppins softened, nearly falling in love with the Banks children.

In fiction, I don't think we realize how much we need some kind of arc until reading a book where the character doesn't change. I've read a few of those and the flat line character really stood out to me.

Maybe instead of seeing a character go from weak to strong, or embrace some grand universal truth, we need to see them power through their struggles. Sure, Scarlett was stubborn and strong in the end, but she was more stubborn and more strong than in the beginning. We watched her go from a spoiled southern belle to an overcomer. She wasn't using her wiles to get a man, but to survive. Her core was the same, but fine tuned by the end of the movie. Would we have liked her if she'd let Rhett conquer her? If she'd become the dutiful wife? ;) Probably not.

My take on all this: I do believe in character arcs. When the protagonist changes for the good, when he/she learns something, the reader is left with a take-away value from the novel. That story has spoken in some way of the human condition. However, I was most intrigued with the statement in Email #2, regarding such characters as Marge in Fargo: "It's the stubborn peculiarity of the one who is out of step with everyone else that brings about the change in those around him or her." True. Still, I haven't written a story like that. My protagonists always have some kind of learning curve.

But there's no denying that some very popular series don't include character arcs, such as those mentioned above or the James Bond stories. Yet how interesting that in the new James Bond movies the character was first taken back to how he was "back in the day" before he became the chill-hearted agent. All to make him more understandable/empathetic, of course. And that arc was positive to negative, rather than the other way around.

Final thoughts on the subject, anyone?


JBarWriter said...

This is a good discussion that has worked those little grey cells of mine to the extreme, thank you; it has been a learning experience with lots of valuable information, for this wanna-be author.
I do believe though that a character can have flaws or flaw that are basically unredeemable and be put into a situation, where the resolution has a positive outcome and the character come through unchanged, because of that flaw. Say an internal flaw that marks only the character.
A flaw that makes the character believe that they don’t deserve any better than they are getting, brought on perhaps, by something they did and that there will never be a resolution, too.
Look at Rambo played by Sylvester Stallone…a fatally flawed character, but not of his making and he doesn’t change in First Blood. There is much in Rambo that people empathize with, although Rambo is a fictional character it is possible that there are lives out there that mirror this situation.
The structure of the story could start with the resistance of the flawed character getting involved that could be the change that takes place, it is not the change within the character, but the change in the character getting involved, although a minuscule change, a change nonetheless.
You would still have crises, tension/conflict/resolution, then the character goes on his merry way living the flawed life he/she chooses.

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Pam Halter said...

I was away for the weekend, so I missed getting in on part 2&3, but I enjoyed reading through them.

I'm thinking that whether or not you plan a character arc, someone changes. I'm not a reader of Sherlock or Agatha, and I assume there are no definite character arcs for them because the story is about the plot. It's a mystery, after all. But I believe, somone somewhere experienced a change.

Just my thoughts.