Thursday, January 15, 2009

Character Arcs -- Part II

Before we continue our discussion on character arcs, I have great news about Katy and Liz. They will be moving into their new apartment tomorrow! They are so thrilled that they will no longer be homeless. Right now I'm lining up people in their area who can provide cars to help them move. Liz's own ancient car isn't even working right now--it needs a new starter, which is about $250. Their donation funds have been drained by the long motel stay. We are hoping some additional funds will come available soon for the car. If you'd like to donate through Paypal, please use the email address of: hugheselizabeth (@) gmail (dot) com. Or send a check to: Elizabeth Hughes, PO Box 111525, Campbell, CA 95011. Visit Katy's blog here. Thanks to all of you who've been such a great support through your prayers, letters, emails and financial donations.

The local ABC news channel wants to do another follow-up story. This may happen Monday, showing Liz and Katy getting settled into their place. I'll keep you posted.

Character Arcs -- Part II

Thanks for the comments yesterday. Good discussion. Today, continuing from the original email that brought up the discussion of character arcs, are the first responses. I'll continue with more on Monday.

Email #2. I think the best fiction includes character arcs--usually with a problem the character has that the story must help her come to grips with. The story forces a decision to stick with the old way and be destroyed or go with the new way despite the cost.

However, I think you can also have excellent fiction in which the main character does not change one whit. Consider Forrest Gump, Anne of Green Gables, Being There, Mary Poppins, and of course the story of Jesus Christ. In those stories, 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.

Email #3. I think there is a character arc in both Fargo and The Fugitive, but it's just not the primary character. In Fargo it's the dweeby guy who hires his wife's kidnapping and spirals down and down (a reverse or negative arc). In The Fugitive it's Tommy Lee Jones's Gerrard. In Forrest Gump it's Julie; in Mary Poppins, the father. If the main character wasn't so centered and unchanging, the others wouldn't have changed. The thing that makes these stories work is the extraordinary situations the stable leads find themselves in.

Email #4. The most compelling thing to me about Marge Gunderson was that she did all of what she had to do when she was about 22 months pregnant. I kid you not, that one thing about her undoubtedly went a LONG way in creating an empathetic character that women wanted to see in action.

So. . . the fact that she had a perceivable "burden" or "weakness" and yet did her duty made for a compelling heroine.

As for the "arc" of change, she didn't. But there's also something compelling about a steady hand and the oak tree around which everything else dips and slides and moves. In a crazy world, that's a great character people want to spend time with.

Marge was also a great antithesis to the incredible evil that came into her world. To me, Fargo was a very black and white movie. The evil was evil and the good was good. Not a lot of need for growth there. We just needed to see the good woman win. And she did.

So, for simple-minded readers like me, I don't know that a true "story arc" is necessary. As long as your "flat-lined" character is believable and empathetic and put into a game they have to win. And then win.

When you come right down to it, I'm not sure Scarlett O'Hara grew much. She was still self-centered, thinking about tomorrow and running home to Tara, at the end of that book.

Email #5. I don't necessarily think that character arcs are always weakness to strength - I guess I approach them more as "growth" in some way. Not only in themselves, but in their relationship with those around them. The other thing I do a lot--and didn't realize until I started thinking about this--is show a character who is forced to change in some way because of something that has happened to him/her, or has no choice but to react to a challenging situation. I find it compelling to walk with a character through that kind of experience.

Email #6. I don't think of it as change from x to y so much as I do that the character learns a lesson. After going through the conflict and either meeting or failing to meet his goal, he learns something that either leads to an HEA ending or a SBW ending (sadder but wiser).

The father in Mary Poppins learns how to be a father (and I've always seen him as the protagonist.) Scarlett learns that she loves Rhett. Lars learns how to allow a real girl into his life.

That's the key for me.

Email #7. It seems to me that readers like to identify with characters who are struggling to overcome adverse circumstances, and my most popular heroine gives them a chance to do that. She doubts herself, can think three contradictory thoughts before breakfast every morning, but is gradually learning how to deal with her domestic problems while solving crimes in the community and worrying about going on a diet.

The heroine of my other series is a much stronger person but is also taking a journey through doubt to belief while trying to mother (but not smother) a couple of dysfunctional youngsters. She is not as popular with readers, though she does pretty well.

On the other hand, what about the famous fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, et al? They don't change, and the people around them don't change, either. They are the deus/dea ex machinas of mysteries, sorting out human problems from above. Perhaps they are so popular because they reinforce our belief in a God who distributes justice?

Is our more sceptical age a reason why we don't see such god-like figures in literature any more? The best of the new crime stories feature protagonists who are far from god-like.

Interesting, isn't it?

Your thoughts?

Read Part 3


Anonymous said...

Sorry, I was too busy trying to guess who wrote each response. :)

Deborah said...

i like character arcs as long as it's not a stereotype and not one that's been done billions of times in the exact same way just changing the setting.

i actually prefer character arcs that happen over a series of books. they change little by little. like Han Solo in the Star Wars movie. he started off being self centered and then by each movie he changed his ways. i think it gives more character depth when you have a longer period with them and are able to fully develop their character. with one book, you have them grown and change in the book and then it ends. what happens next? are they able to keep up with their change or do they revert back to their old ways? obviously i know that sometimes you are only limited to one book with the character. if you are, then don't rush the arc. i really hate seeing the "two years have passed" statement when the character has changed but nothing has been written to show how or why.

am i making any sense? i feel like i'm rambling off topic lol..or for anyone who saw the Office last night..i'm making a "improv conversation. An improversation."

Deena Peterson said...

The characters change, or they change us by being in our lives. That's real writing. We cannot leave this life and leave people unchanged for having been with us.

Jesus didn't. We can't either.

Good, honest, realistic fiction does that...either changes the character or changes the reader.

Great fiction does BOTH.

And while it may seem that some characters aren't changed...well, not everything is visible to the eye, it?

Amy said...

I'm getting these flashbacks of diagramming the hero's journey in English class. ;)

I don't think character arcs have to be really obvious. But I think I do enjoy seeing a character's progression through life...we, human beings, do change everyday as we add to our experiences and knowledge. We change, only Jesus is the same. So whether these are big huge obvious changes, or more subtely developed changes, I do like to see it.

princessjennifer said...

Just wanted to let you know that I have started my own blog about my journey through homelessness. I also wanted to say that I am so happy for Katy and Liz. I wish them all the best in their new home...

Check out my blog if you want to....

Cathy Bryant said...

Thanks so much for your wonderful posts. I've really enjoyed the comments on character arcs. Thanks also for helping Katy and Liz.

I follow this blog (and subscribe to it), and wanted to let you know that I've nominated you for a blog award. If you're interested you can pick it up at (1-17-09 post).

Thanks again!

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

What a great discussion. Mary Poppins, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holms ... great examples of characters who did not change. But the stories really weren't about them. Doesn't that matter?

As one of the writers in the discussion pointed out, they were the instrument of change, but I would suggest the story wasn't really about them.

As to our skeptical age, I think we do have similar stories today—the superhero stories. I think our society very much wants someone stronger and wiser and more capable to "fix" the brokenness around us, and that's why Spiderman, Superman, Batman and co. are so popular.

I'm looking forward to the next installment of this conversation.


JBarWriter said...

Thanks Brandilyn for making this a topic of discussion it’s been wonderful reading everyone’s thoughts and learning.
Character Arc
Wikipedia says that, “Characters begin the story with a certain viewpoint and, through events in the story, that viewpoint changes.” The article at Wikipedia mentions several examples of stories where the viewpoint character changes.
If we take a summation viewpoint then the standpoint and opinion, their stance of a character must change by the end.
Without using, the character arc and taking examples of people in society that don’t change. Below I’m creating a situation, where clear heads to do not prevail…
Boar City’s Mayor has learned that the government has abandoned the government Nuecular bio waste facilities, and there is no certainty the chemicals are intact, and haven’t seeped into the soil already. The major calls for a town hall meeting to address the situation.
The situation could affect multitudes.
Our character---other than preferring the solitude he adamantly intends to keep, he has no dog in this race. Now he doesn’t want the unrest to flow over into his world of solitude… or the multitude of madness which he isn’t concerned about to do the same.
What drives this character too help…getting even with the government…he told them it was a mistake to abandon the grounds.
Mentioning one you brought up I would say the character I have in mind to play the scenario, I mentioned above would be …Tommy Lee Jones’s character Gerrard.
Gerrard …very little changes his viewpoint, in the sequel his viewpoint is tested, but left unchanged. He is a no none sense person, more like a pig on mission and will stop at nothing until the answer are provided.
My purpose for writing this out this way is too say there are individuals that do not
change their dynamics, they are who they are , what they stand for is set in stone.
Hopefully this hasn’t been totally unclear, and made some sense.

Anonymous said...

Great discussion! I'm inclined to believe that some characters require the arc others don't. It depends on what your story is about. Character arcs definitely provide interest and authorial direction, but characters who are immovable are a story in themselves. Sometimes I want to read about change, other times I want to read about how a character weathered changes around him/her. Inner change can be interesting, maybe even satisfying,But I recognized that there are some benefits to having an unchanging character. He/she can be the anchor in the storm or a safe port from churning seas. When the universal ship is sailing rough seas, I think many readers derive some security from a steady hand at the helm. For me, it's as interesting to see how a nonarc character survives the storm as it is to see character with an arc format respond to storm.
So, I'm in both camps. I like both approaches so long as they are written well and the writer understands that certain adjustments to the story must be made accordingly.