Monday, April 4, 2011

Character arcs

Rumor has it that your characters are supposed to grow over the course of your story. Great, something else to keep track of. As of my incessant use of commas and prepositional phrases weren't enough!

All jokes aside, developing your character's arc is harder than it sounds. I've been thinking a lot about the LoTR and Star Wars series for their treatment of the Hero's Journey, compliments of Joseph Campbell. Information about the Hero's Journey can be found here.

Once familiar with the concept, you see it everywhere. Disney movies, Star Wars, LoTR, and what I feel is one of the better examples, Homer's Odyssey.

Bringing it back down a notch since I'm nowhere near Lucas, Tolkein, or freaking Homer (!) in my writing chops, I have been paying close attention to incorporating elements of the the Hero's Journey in my current wip. The tricky part is to do it so it's not so glaringly obvious.

Look at the Call to Action followed by the Refusal of the Call. Your hero learns what needs to be done and declines. No thanks, they say. And then they list all the reasons they can't do it. Usually, those reasons include being physically too small because really, who doesn't love a good underdog story?

The whole idea of the Hero's Journey is fascinating. If you're working on an adventure story, it will help organize your events and will hopefully engage your reader to keep going, eager to see how your main character comes out on the other side.

Or if you're a nerd like me, keep a list of the steps handy while watching The Fellowship of the Ring and tell me you don't laugh at Step 4: Crossing the first threshold when Sam and Frodo physically stop to point out they're leaving the Shire. Nicely done, Peter Jackson.

No? You don't laugh? Never mind then. I'm just a dork. Carry on.

You tell me--how do you treat a character arc? What does that mean to you?


  1. Actually, I did chuckle at that. I remember the scene vividly.

    Arc reminded me of arches which reminded me of McDonalds which reminds me that I want a coffee, which I am going to make right now and avoid the golden arches of terror.

    In other, more relevant, news, once I began seriously delving into the innerworkings of writing, I noticed that it's amazingly complicated. There are so many things to keep track of; sure, not every character has to have an arc of their own, but trying to time the character arc with the story arc was always difficult for me.

    I always wanted the character to hurry up and get to their lesson or ability or love scene that it sometimes left my stories with holes.

    What's your method for keeping both your story arc and your character arcs evenly paced?

    (Am I allowed to ask you questions? I don't want you to be all offended because I asked a question on your blog like "THIS IS MINE! HOW DARE YOU TROLL".)

    PS: I may be a troll, but no the kind with a jewel in my belly.

  2. Ask away! You raise a great question--how to balance the pacing of your story to keep the character development on pace with the plot. I too have found that I skip over scenes because I'm eager to get to the next part. On the other hand, I cannot bring myself to write out of order, so it isn't until my first read through where I begin to notice the glaring holes.

    So my answer? I can't do both story and character arcs at the same time. I start with the story arc and on the 1st read through (which I suppose is the 2nd draft?) I find all the places I need to "beef up" my character. Hopefully, by the 3rd or so draft I start to have an actual story.

  3. So glad I found your blog! Yay for Minnesota! Yay for wanting to do more and always falling short! I think we must be related. As for character arcs, those two words make my brain turn to mush. I just write. I can't think about stuff like this. Can you guess? I'm a pantser.

    New follower here, so nice to meet you. Visiting from the A to Z Challenge.


  4. Wow, you hit all of my favorite character arc references in this post, from Homer to Campbell. What's really been helpful for me in regard to establishing story arc without appear too heavy-handed is to let the setting and exterior situations do some of the work for me, letting the exterior world mirror the character's interior conflict. It might also be handy for weaving character arc and story arc together.

  5. Sorry, that should have said "in regard to establishing character arc without appear too heavy-handed".

  6. Margo, this: "letting the exterior world mirror the character's interior conflict" just made my head explode. But I love it. I'm going to have to ponder this a bit to see how I can try and make it happen.

    And Karen, welcome! I'm jealous of the pantsers. I need an outline and at least 3/4 of the story ready before I can start writing. The hard part comes when I need to come up with that remaining 1/4 and I have no idea what to do!


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