Character Arcs Are Not All the Same

Oh how we love character arcs (youtube is full of them). A good protagonist ends up bad, or a bad one turns good. Or, a level-headed character stays that way to meet challenges head-on. News channels love to publish about someone who has ‘fallen from grace’ or done something awful. We all have stories about fallen characters. I am reminded of what the great Apostle Paul said (in Romans 3:23) – “all have sinned, and come short…” In other words, none of us are perfect. We aim to be better (or worse) and our character trends or arcs upwards or downwards, or stays level. An arc is a line that is part of a circle; character arcs are the same and three types are listed below. However, there is another arc you should consider, and it is the arc of electricity makes as it moves from one source to another. A spark arcs as an electrical discharge between two electrodes. We saw that in a spectacular way a few days ago. Our stove caught fire and, when we looked inside, there were sparks arcing at the back of the main oven. In writing, I like to think of this arcing as being between characters. Sparks fly as conflict develops and, as conflict develops, you want to keep reading. Now, back to character arcs:

 

Here are three basic character arcs (source from tkpublishing):

What is a Positive Character Arc?

A positive change arc is one in which the protagonist undergoes a positive transformation. This usually includes a neat resolution at the end, where, because of their internal change, the character finally achieves their goals. An example of a positive character arc in classic literature is that of Marilla, the woman who adopts Anne in Anne of Green Gables. Marilla starts off uninterested in keeping the little girl, but as the story progresses, we see her developing a subtle but strong affection for Anne.

Negative Character Arcs

But not all stories have a happy ending: a negative change arc is one that still shows how your character develops, but not toward a positive transformation. Instead, this arc illustrates a downward spiral. However, the basic “arc” pattern remains the same, as it is still about how your protagonist starts one way and ends up another. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a classic example of a negative character arc. From the beginnings of her adultery, Anna Karenina continues to spiral downward, only to reach a tragic end at the end of the book.

What Is a Flat Character Arc?

Another character arc is the flat arc, wherein the character already has their beliefs in place and uses them to solve problems throughout the story; but even as the story ends, the character remains mostly the same. The development of Miss Maudie, the children’s aunt in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is an example of a flat character arc. She remains steadfast in her beliefs from her first scene until the end of the book.

[PS: my main character is an ageing spy who has second-thoughts about the value of his career. I will say no more.]

You Don’t Have to Write Every Day

Clark Cook writes, “Writing is exhilarating. For me, if that wasn’t there, I’d go play with the dogs or go see a movie or. . whatever…I sometimes go for days, occasionally weeks, without writing a word. Then I’ll write for 16 hours with bathroom breaks only, sleep for 4 hours, then do it again. For ten days. I start a poem, story, or novel with (sometimes) next-to-no direction or sense of purpose. Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert (Longest jazz piano solo on record) is a model for me: he begins playing with the keys. Here a trill, there a chord or two, all over the place, gradually the rhythm emerges and then. . .it’s FOUND! The remainder of the piece is a joyous celebration, with deep explorations, of that central chord. If I have any kind of ‘method’, that’s it. When it’s done, I write the first sentence.”

I was thinking about the adage that, as a writer, you must write every day, even to the detriment of family life. Who was it that dedicated their book to their family, noting ‘without them, I would have finished this book ten years earlier.’ Clark Cook counters this idea and I tend to agree. During the first Covid lockdown I was convinced that I could use the time to finish my novel. But, the time was eaten up with listening to the silence and enjoying time with my wife as we got busy and repainted the outside of our home (in her wisdom she had bought plenty of paint the day before lockdown). I can’t write under stress and I can’t write when I’m tired. I need space for my thoughts and energy for my ideas. I write better in the morning or late at night.

However, whatever circumstances I find myself in, I have my writing antennae ready to pick up a comment or gesture; a news item or statement, or any snippet that will be useful in my book. For example, my wife and I were on a train in the south of France. I looked over the isle and saw someone who fitted a character I was writing about. Their hair, their shoes, and their facial expression quickly joined the description I needed.

I collect ideas like gathering sea shells, and love spending time making them into a piece of literature.

Keep it Real

Here’s the best advice that helps my writing: I need to review it regularly: “Be myself and be authentic. Don’t try to put on a voice that isn’t my own. Keep my characters genuine and real. Readers will pick up if I’m lying, and they will put my book down. Keep my writing simple and keep it honest.”

I have a trusted reader and, about a week ago, sent her a chapter from my new book to review. Her comment was, “Your (female) character is not real. She would not think or act like that.” When I re-read the chapter, I had to agree. The main problem was that I was being over-descriptive and it ruined the authenticity of the setting. I was over-eager in my writing and, by adding more words, I destroyed it.

“She was Delicious”

How should a writer describe their characters? Well, for inspiration, listen to Orson Welles as he describes Cornelia Lunt (“She was delicious”) and others. For me, there is a magical quality to Orson’s rhetoric. It rises and falls in clipped phrases, filled with pauses, that captivate the listener and reel them closer with each story.

Motive!

Motive is the glue that holds a thriller together, and keeps the plot racing to its conclusion.

In my new novel, I required a glue strong enough to sustain an outrageous heist; a glue that provided background for the characters, and helped them ‘stick’. Here is a sneak peak from page 15;

In his 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell feared a controlling Big Brother would conceal the truth from us.  In his Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley suggests our Orwellian dystopia is created by too many distractions.”

“In short, we’re overrun by messages; bombarded by endless data coming to us via the internet, mobile devices, and television. We’re lost in a sea of virtual, fake news. It becomes impossible to see what’s important, or even what’s real. We’re drowning in a rising tide of irrelevance and, since COVD-19, accelerated social regulation, telling us when to stay home, when to shop, how to socialize, when to be inoculated, and when and how we can travel. The loss of civil liberties is the first sign of a totalitarian regime.”

I would say that a global race to an Orwellian dystopia, with increasing social control, is high motive for action against it?

How Important is the First Sentence?

Here’s a couple of openers from well-known thriller writers;

“Sam Harrison swung his agile body out of the silver blue Ford Aerostar, which he had parked ono Q Street in the Georgetown section of Washington.” [Jack and Jill by James Patterson]

“Duke Russell is not guilty of the unspeakable crimes for which he was convicted; nonetheless, he is scheduled to be executed for them in one hour and forty-four minutes.” [The Guardians by John Grisham]

Only two examples, but both start with the name of the main character/protagonist and both give a sense of place – Washington for Patterson and a prison(?) for Grisham. I prefer the urgency and mystery given in John Grisham’s opener, for two reasons; first, there are ‘unspeakable crimes’ which ups my interest; second, time is running out. A third reason could be that we owned a Ford wagon a while back and we were not that thrilled with it (LOL).

In my new novel I hope the opening line grabs the reader’s interest by suggesting tension, introducing a female character and creating a need to find out who is being followed and why. It reads;

“You are being followed,” she whispers.

I love this comment by Dawn Schaefer on the opening lines of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré; “There is the sense of having been dropped into the middle of a conversation, and a gossipy one at that...” And what, you will no doubt ask, are these lines?

“The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.”

Now that we are on about Carré, here is my favorite opener (from Call for the Dead);

“When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.”

Characters make your book, but only if the readers are invested in them!

What makes for a good thriller?

Author Brad Taylor says, “Without a doubt, characters. Characters, characters, characters. One could write a scene where a car bomb is placed in an empty parking lot, set to go off in two minutes. The buildup is intense, with a “Day of the Jackal” feel of finding components and creating the device, but at the end of the day, do readers care about the empty parking lot? No. They only care if that bomb is going to harm someone they’ve invested emotional energy in — and that is the character of the story. Setting, pace and trajectory are important, but they’re irrelevant without the reader’s emotional investment, and that is driven by characters.” Read more on thrillers from the NY times, here.

Characters in Search of an Author

Six Characters in Search of an Author, is a play in three acts by Luigi Pirandello, using the device of the “theatre within the theatre,” the play explores various levels of illusion and reality.

I saw this play once and it began with workers putting final touches to the theatre set. They were in a panic to get it ready for the play and asked the audience for some help. The audience soon discovered that they were part of the play.

Pirandello’s device is very clever and it has a lesson for authors—you need to introduce your characters from the get—go! My first manuscript for book #2 fell into this trap. While focusing on a setting builder in Chapter 1, I had left out the main characters until Chapter 2. This left the reader guessing where the protagonist, antagonist were. This begs the question—do all successful books require the main characters to appear in the opening chapter? 

The bible is regarded as one of the most read and most important books of all time. In it, the first chapter—Genesis—describes the main actors (God, Adam and Eve, etc. appearing on the stage (the earth). So, take it from the top; don’t forget to put your main character(s) in the first chapter!

Getting to Know Your Characters

Here’s a question I have to ask myself often—how well do I know my characters? Yes, I can describe them (features like hair, makeup, dress, etc.) but do I really know them? A few years ago I met a long-lost half-brother. We talked and he was quiet, reflecting on a father he hardly knew. But, I never understood him until he told me about a letter he had written to his father. The response he got, and the way he reacted, gave me clues about the depth of his feelings. When I saw my half-brother walk away, he had the same gait as my father and my eyes were opened fully to his character. In writing, there is that elusive search to reveal a character by his or her actions, rather than through description. They give away their true identity with a gesture, body position, speech and response. In my latest novel, many of my characters are build upon people I know quite well, but others have to be fabricated from observations, etc. My goal is to have none of my characters appear flat (as in this cartoon). And, here’s a secret, one of the key characters in my book is a little like me—Oh, very well, a lot like me!

Finding Characters!

How does an author find their characters? Here’s a clue—look around you when out and about, at the cafe or while shopping. Everyone you meet and everyone you see has the potential to be a character in your novel! I have used friends and even people sitting opposite me on a train (well, their shoes got into a novel). You can have fun when writing to invent a character who is a blend of a few people. Take someone’s nickname, another’s hairdo. Add a dress from a shop window, and a handbag from a google search. Next, add some details—a hook nose, bald head, unshaven, tattooed, limping, sunken eyes, etc. In my new novel, one of my characters wears lots of yellow. This may not seem significant, but it does later in the book when Sir Christopher Jenson (based a someone close to me) discovers a woman wearing yellow who is cuddling up to another character who has just lost his wife in a skiing accident. Yellow connects these two women for the reader and…I can’t tell you what happens!

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