Character Arc - What's the dealio?
Being an avid reader and a self taught writer, I've noticed a typical framework that most books/authors used in order to create conflict and develop personal growth within their characters based on the decisions a character makes or obstacles a character must overcome. I've discovered there is an actual term for it--Character Arc.
While writing Culture Shock I always fretted over making my characters believable/relatable. Creating 3D characters over flat 2D characters is an author's ultimate challenge.
Here are some tips to create believable conflict, personal development, and relatable characters using Character Arc.
Define Character Arc:
Character Arc—the rocky path of personal growth and development a character undergoes in a story, usually unwillingly, during which the character wrestles with and eventually overcomes some or all of a serious emotional fear, limitation, block or wound.
In a character's development he or she might overcome:
o lack of courage or inner doubts (Lack of confidence is what happens with the main character, Macy Holmes, in Culture Shock.)
o lack of ethics
o learning to love
o trauma from the past
o errors in thinking, etc.
Weaknesses, imperfections, quirks and vices make a character more real & appealing. They humanize a character. The audience can identify with them. Flaws and imperfections give a character somewhere to go and progress toward in the story. The development of a character is only interesting if they overcome something.
How to create 3D characters instead of 2D characters:
When a character has jumping changes, you will create a two-dimensional characters. For example, a character is faced with a hurdle and they immediately jump over it without thinking it throughout or the repercussions, etc. To create a three-dimensional characters you need to show the step-by-step process of how the character approaches that hurdle and how they decide to jumping over it. They may trip and fall and or hit another hurdle after the first but these scenarios are developing the characters growth.
Framework for creating Character Arc:
Personal growth doesn't happen overnight. It takes time and practice, a few slip-ups along the way. We're not perfect, we're human. A character in the book you're writing should not just see a problem, realize a solution, and solve all within a paragraph. There should be inner turmoil, weighing pros and cons, taking steps within the framework of personal growth that will lead him/her to their conclusion/solution. It's not always the right solution either. As I've mentioned before, we are human and your characters should be as human as possible to relate to readers. We make mistakes and so should your characters.
Here are the five steps to create character arc within your plot:
1. The character’s internal shortcomings cause external problems. If some facet of his/her personality isn’t causing problems in his/her life, it’s probably not something he/she needs to change. The only things about which he/she needs to experience growth are the things that cause problems for him/her. So first of all, just to set the stage for your main character arc, you need to show the character failing at something because of his shortcomings.
2.The character experiences failure but doesn’t understand why. This is all about how the character reacts to his failures in step one. It’s important to show the reaction, because not understanding why the failures are occurring sets the emotional conditions for growth. Not understanding why is bound to cause some negative emotions: anger, frustration, resentment, etc. These are what fuel a character’s growth; when he gets fed up with failing, he’ll do something to prevent it. (Note, the character may not understand why he’s failing for a couple of different reasons. One, he may not be aware that the problem he/she has even exists. He/She may exist in a state of complete ignorance about the problem, and when confronted with it, his/her emotional reactions will include “gosh, I didn’t even know that was a thing, let alone a problem!” Two, he/she may recognize the existence of the problem, but is in denial that he/she has the problem. This latter is usually easier to defend in a novel.)
3.The character still fails, but understands why. This is the natural next step after getting past denial. Like they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing it. Okay, we’re calling it step three, but you get the idea. The character is still blindsided by failures, but after they happen, can understand why. The character can reflect on the situation, and understand how his/her personal shortcoming led to the failure. Hindsight is 20/20.
4.The character sees failures coming, but still can’t avoid them. Next, the character gains enough experience that the failures don’t blindside him/her anymore. Now, he/she can see them coming but is still powerless to stop them. This is your alcoholic who knows he drinks too much, but can’t stop himself. Or your abusive spouse who knows his rage issues stem from how his father treated him, but can’t stop himself from using his fists to express his own displeasure. The character understands the dynamics of the situation, but hasn’t yet figured out how to act differently to produce a different result.
***Don’t shortchange stage four! There is enormous dramatic potential in this stage, because at heart it is a profoundly sad and distressing time for the character. This maps very closely to the depression stage of the five stages of grief, because just like in that situation, the character feels powerless against larger forces which seem to be controlling him. This stage can get ugly, and you shouldn’t be afraid to let it.
5.The character succeeds. Finally, after seeing enough failures coming, the character realizes how to act differently and thus can intervene with himself to make different choices. That’s emotional growth. That’s the culmination of the character arc. If you’re clever, you’ll time this moment to coincide with your plot’s climax, when the stakes are at their highest point. A chain of failures leading up to success at a critical moment can be a win-win-win: Believable, incredibly dramatic, and satisfying to read all at once. But only if you’ve supported it with a fully developed arc.
Now that we are experts on Character Arc, get to writing. You don't have to follow the framework step by step, but try to keep it as a guideline. Depending on how your plot goes, you end up starting your book on Step 2 or 3. Culture Shock started on Step 2 but reflects back to Step 1 to show how the main character got to Step 2. Be creative and just remember that a single failure does not teach us everything we need to know to become an expert.
CULTURE SHOCK is a witty tale of mystery and romance with a large helping of southern hospitality.
Macy Holmes is a seventeen-year-old socially-isolated introvert since her best friend's death a year ago. When her family decides to move from Manhattan to the quaint country town of Bougainvillea, Florida, Macy finds she's in a completely different world. Macy is no longer the outsider hiding behind designer clothes when she is sought out by three strange students, one of whom she is particularly interested in. The more time she spends with Chad the more things don't add up. When his true identity is finally revealed, Macy is pulled into a supernatural society with its saturation of inhabitants residing in Bougainvillea.
You would think she has enough on her plate, but no, then her dreams become infiltrated by an external magical force, Macy and her band of supernatural misfits must find the culprit behind the magic-induced nightmares. They must dodge zombie assassins, shifty shape-shifters and high school bullies in order to stop this perpetrator before Macy, her friends or her parents pay the ultimate price. Especially when Macy has the sneaking suspicion that these dreams are reality...
***Read an excerpt from Culture Shock, my debut novel and a love story with a dangerous edge.
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