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.]

Any Plans Today?

I love those moments when something simple can be profound, such as this example from Chapter 2, when the antagonist is asked what he has planned for the day…

“Guten morgen, Sir. May I take your briefcase?” the driver asks, snapping to attention.

“Thank you.”

“And, where are we going today?”

“Eurotower.”

“Very good, Sir.”

The black limo glides west onto the B44, then loops back to follow the Theodor-Stern-Kai motorway, parallel to the River Main. As they slow for the Friedensbrücke bridge, the driver glances in his mirror.

“Sir, if I may ask, what have you got planned for the day?”

Michael is silent, his thoughts caught by reflections on the water. Across the bridge, he gazes up at the rising commercial landscape north of the round Westhafen Tower and finally speaks as their destination comes into view.

“I plan to change the world.”

A Big Thank You

A big thank you for taking time to check out my humble blog. A thousand views is a big encouragement to help me keep going to find the right literary agent and, eventually, a publisher. Before you congratulate me, among these 1,000 views are a few dedicated followers, including me. Perhaps this blog has had only 750 unique views? Still, it gives me an opportunity to share my writing journey. Yes, I could give up the search for an agent and self-publish again. However, I feel compelled to partner with an agent to help produce a book with a far greater reach. As my professional editor said, “I have a good feeling about this book.” I hope she’s right.

Closer to the Gates of Hell

We had a friend staying with us recently who told us about his fear of driving through a car wash. He had a bad childhood experience which surfaces when he has to lock the car doors and look out at the swishing of water and rollers. In my new thriller, the crew of a submarine face their greatest fear—the fear of breaking up at depth; a depth that is a secret known only to a few. If you ask a submarine captain how deep they can go, the answer is always “deep enough.” If you ask the engineers who designed it, they will say “a little deeper than the specs.” Can you imagine the horror of being in a steel tube that implodes underwater; the sudden implosion that ends life in an instant. Worse is the gradual squeezing of a hull under pressure; a tightrope of fear that envelops sailors and drags them closer to the gates of hell.

A jolt shot through the hull, pinging like a hammer on steel. The sailors jumped. Some crossed themselves, while others kissed their crosses. Every hand on its controls was a fist of white knuckles, clinging to their fears. Each foot deeper brought them closer to the gates of eternity. The hull had to give. One false move and it would be over, and Hammerhead would join the long list of subs lost at sea with all hands.” [new thriller, pg 99]

 

“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.

Genre Research

You can’t escape the need to research your book genre and do it well. Research involves reading classic and current novels in your chosen genre. For my latest book, I read every book I could find on the main topic, plus movies and online interviews, etc. Why? Each source gave me insight and information that I sifted to authenticate my plot. For thrillers in real locations, visiting in person is hands-down the best approach. If you can’t visit, then at least search photos of the area(s). I even use Google Street to get ideas and, with so many travel docs available, these help too. With handfuls of information you can add authentic details that help readers immerse themselves in the writing, especially if they have visited the place too. I have made great use of small details—the color of tablecloths at a restaurant, the plants that grow along a boulevard, etc. Here is one such detail from my new book;

She smoothed her floral dress and settled behind a table on the waterfront, her back warmed by sun-saoked stonework along the old city wall and her front sheltered behind potted color in raised flower beds. Touts trolled Split’s swanky Riva Boulevard, and beggars fossicked through the Spanish broom, plucking its yellow flowers to sell to restaurant clientele in the evening. They left Claudine to herself.” [pg28]

If you have contacts living or working in the area you are writing about, ask them if they would be happy to check pages from your manuscript that refer to their location. I did this for my first novel, using contacts living in Milan, southern France, and Israel. I also added them to my Acknowledgements page.

Is Your First Book Your Worst?

Don’t you love this book title? I remember reading somewhere that an author’s first book is ‘always their worst’. I loathed that thought and was determined to disprove it. Yet, the final draft of my first book was so rough that I had to completely re-edit and improve it.

After a period of time I discovered that my first book, although well received, could have been much better. I had moved on and so had my writing. As someone posted, “Ten years ago you thought you were doing alright. Now, today, you may look back and cringe at your hairstyle or the clothes you wore or the way you acted and thought. I was terrible! you might say, but at the time you didn’t realize it…First books can be similar…Two books or a few years later you can see how much you’ve grown and cringe at the first attempt. If it’s bad let it be bad and grow from it. Don’t let its potential to be bad keep you from moving forward.

A great post and one I can connect with. What did I learn from my ”first book experience”?

  1. I used it as a platform to get better
  2. I revisited it months later (after being self-published) and did an entire re-write (and re-publish). Note: if I had taken the traditional publishing route I would have avoided this drama 🙂
  3. After an ‘aha’ moment, I added another chapter to my first novel
  4. I took my first thriller, with all its shortcomings, and worked harder to make my second thriller a vast improvement – more nuanced and complex, with clear connections from start to finish.

You Need More Layers in Cold Weather

When we lived in the fickle weather of Portland in the North-West of the USA we learned to layer our clothing and adapt to the changing conditions (which is why the Columbia clothing seconds store was so popular). We needed more layers as the weather headed south. The same is true for a thriller; it needs layers to gather complexity—layers that unwrap as the plot thickens. I like this analogy as gives weight to the fact that thrillers can’t be too short. If they are, the layers are thin and the reader chills too quickly. But, a multi-layered story holds their interest. Thrillers with several layers provide complexity. In my first draft of my second thriller, feedback from Beta Readers pointed out that the ending was too simple. I agreed with them and, with a tough edit and re-write, finished the book on a more powerful note. My new ending prompted some other changes, even as far back as Chapter One. So, layer up friends and look forward to a thriller that, hopefully, keeps you warm throughout.

Now that seasons have been mentioned, these play an important descriptive part of my new thriller. Here is an example taken toward the end. It also gives a strong impetus for the protagonist to want to leave dreary London and settle somewhere warmer;

Sir Donald stands, holds a match to his pipe and looks across to Hans Place Garden. I follow his gaze. The trees have shed their coats, leaving a wet carpet of brown and yellow leaves along the street and over parked cars. Another dull and soggy day in London ushers in an early night. I hate winters here and yearn to be back in the Mediterranean. [pg 339]

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?

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