Character Arcs Part 3: A Few Things to Note

Character Arcs 3

Parts 1 and 2 of this short character arc series covered the basics and the process. Part 3 includes a few extras that you need to keep in mind as you’re writing.

Don’t Forget the Secondary Characters
Character arcs can—and should—apply to secondary characters as well. These arcs might not play out on the page in full detail as with the main characters but showing some of this progression will help fill out your world, ensuring an immersive experience for the reader.

This applies to antagonists too. Whether he’s a full-on villain trying to thwart your main character at every turn or just someone who’s acting in opposition to her goals, the antagonist should have his own, well-developed arc. This doesn’t mean he’ll suddenly realize the error of his ways and turn “good.” But he can’t come across as static or he’ll feel more like a cardboard cutout than a living, breathing person.

Start in the Right Place
Trying to decide where to start your story can be daunting. But when you boil the story down to plot and character, the appropriate starting scene usually becomes clear. Look at who your character is and then drop her into a scene just before her world changes. All the reader needs is a hint of her “normal life” so they are grounded in the story world before things go sideways.

Eliminate Backstory
Most writers create detailed backstories for their characters. Only a fraction of that information actually makes it into the novel. Why? Because backstory slows down the pace and stops the forward momentum of the present story. That’s not to say those details aren’t important—they do inform why the character acts a certain way—but usually, they mean more to the author than the reader. So, while characters continually grow and change, the only details that pertain to the current story arc are the ones that matter most.

Show, Don’t Tell
Yep, the Show, Don’t Tell advice applies to character arcs too. As your character changes, you will need to show this progression on the page You can do this through her actions/reactions and dialogue.

The character’s emotional reaction is what’s driving her to change or adapt to be able to reach her goal. How she reacts and the action she takes because of it should play out as a scene, using physical movements and internal thought/reaction to let the reader experience everything right along with your character.

You can also use what the characters says to show her gradual change. Word choice, tone, and speech patterns all play a part in revealing her moods and overall state of mind. Altering these over the course of the story will work in concert with her actions and reactions to show the character growth in an organic way.

When an Arc Is Not an Arc
Now that I’ve convinced you of the importance of creating character arcs, I have a confession. It’s not really an arc.

If you tried to map out your character’s emotional journey, it would involve a lot more ups and downs (hello there, obstacles!) than the word arc implies. What’s important is that your character ends up in a different place on both the X and Y axis (unless you’re writing a flat character, and if you’re doing that you’d better have a really good reason for it!). It’s that change from page one to The End that will give your character—and their story—meaning for the reader.

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