Thursday, January 15, 2009

Character Arcs -- Part I

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


Anonymous said...

Character arcs are vital IMO but growth is not always positive. Perhaps change is the better word. Look at Anakin Skywalker AKA Darth Vadar, or Othello. These guys changed but it wasn't for the better. I think character arcs need to run very closely to the story arc, beneath and intermingled at times. There must be change or at least the foreshadowing of the possibility of change for better or worse or the story lacks.

JBarWriter said...

The character arc and the enduring story?

Considering that there are no strengths, or weakness defined, but remaining the same throughout the story, to me that is the strength in Marge Gunderson which leads ultimately to what her character stands for and that is good vs. evil.
Taking what Robert Olen Butler describes as the starting point of a story (that doesn’t necessarily hold with the tradition character arc), but does add credence to a character that seemingly has no flaws/weakness or strengths, and that is that the character has a yearning.
So basically, we can define Marge Gunderson arc as a crusader, her yearning is to bring to justice those that would perpetrate evil, which endures the character to the audience and makes them sympathetic.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm looking forward to seeing the comments and will check back later today.

In my opinion, I LOVE to read about people grow in a positive manner...from weak to strong, from unsaved to saved, things like that. I love the dramtic changes. Does each story NEED it? I'm not sure. Do I enjoy reading stories that have it? YES!

Pam Halter said...

Of course, our characters need to change over the course of the book. What's the point, otherwise? People do not live in a vacuum ~ every experience changes us in some way, whether we notice it or not.

Speaking of a character going through a dramatic change, I just watched "Autumn in New York" with Richard Gere and Winona Rider. What an incredible movie, if you're looking for characters who change and grow! I loved it and I usually don't like sad endings ... but that's because of the change in the main character. If not for the growth and development and the truth of who he was and how he needed desperately to change, the ending would have been meaningless.

Lynette Eason said...

Interesting discussion. I think in most of my stories, most my characters have a character arc. Is it always dramatic? No, sometimes it's a very subtle, but still there. I like to watch characters grow and learn, but I also like characters such as the ones you described in the post.

Hm...thanks for the "thought to ponder."


Anonymous said...

I think some of these points become a matter of semantics. I would agree that every character experiences growth or change simply because of the experiences in the story. A stagnant immovable character would have to be in a coma. We can't assume overt change unless it's given to us, but I think it's safe to say we see the exercising of the strengths and weaknesses of characters for better or worse, and we infer growth or recession in them.

How we feel about the character will determine whether it's a positive or negative "arc". And I think if the author intends for us to turn a negative experience with a character into a positive, the writer better not wait too long to do it or the reader simply won't care.

Being mostly a seat-of-the-pants writer, I don't "think" in terms of character arcs, but I know my main characters pretty well before their story develops. Then it's fun/sad/exciting to see what happens to them when the plot "thickens".

Anonymous said...

I personally prefer stories where the protagonist has a character arc. I personally change and so, I appreciate and identify with characters who grow and expand. However, flat characters with no character arc can help to anchor a story & the other characters within it. Also, flat characters with no character arc can serve to contrast with your round characters that do have character arcs.

Anonymous said...

I like the character arc technique because it reflects how real people learn and grow and change. The arc can be positive or negative, obvious or subtle, but I think the character should be affected by his experiences in the story. Otherwise he (or she) comes off as flat. My exception to this would be certain secondary characters, who can afford some flatness in the story.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I think JBarWriter states what I believe. I think a character arc is much less important than that the character has a goal, desire, yearning.

If memory serves me correctly, Brandilyn says this should be two-pronged or three-, with at least an internal and an external component.

Personally, I've read too many stories with weak characters who want nothing but who react to negative circumstances rather than proactively going after what they desire. It takes some doing for me to begin rooting for those passive, reactive characters.

And yes, I originally wrote such a character. I think when we want to have a character move from unsaved to saved, it's endemic.

In the re-write, instead of having a reluctant hero, I'm aiming for a likable guy who wants to save the day. How does that character change when he can't pull off what he wants to accomplish?

So here's an on-topic quote from Steve Almond, columnist with Writer's Digest: Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forcing him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Seems to me, a character forced into the danger of his own feelings might be changed.