In the spirit of the new year, I couldn’t avoid talking about one of my favorite topics—renewal and growth. Fitting, as my historical debut, Becoming Josephine, just released on New Year’s Eve and a major theme of the book is the hope that comes in starting anew. As a former military brat, I’m no stranger to this topic. New towns, new houses, new friends. I know as well as Josephine did, the feelings of isolation, the gray between of not quite belonging anywhere and searching for a better understanding of self through it all.
Any good writer knows that what we’re really talking about here is CHARACTER ARC, how we—how our protagonists—face obstacles and change over time as a result. So how does one ensure change happens? You’ll need to first choose which path your character will take. Let’s look at our choices of character arc:
FOUR TYPES OF CHARACTER ARCS
REVOLUTIONARY, or THE HERO’S JOURNEY: In this arc, our story opens with a protagonist that is the farthest thing possible from a hero or savior. Yet he/she typically possesses an inner drive or strength that the character has never been forced to access—until now. By the end of the novel, this character will undergo a complete metamorphosis of spirit, mind, and sometimes, body.
Example: Peter Parker, an average teen and science nerd, becomes superhero Spiderman
INTERNAL GROWTH: In this type of arc our protagonist overcomes internal conflict—fear, anger, weakness, loss—all the while, facing down an external conflict. By the end of this arc, the character becomes a better version of himself (or herself), happier and more complete. Note the difference between the revolutionary arc and the internal growth arc. With internal growth, the character basically remains the same person, just a more developed and improved self.
Example: Harry Potter overcomes fear of his own power and his fate, as well as the loss of his parents, in order to become his true, fulfilled self.
PERSPECTIVE SHIFT: In this arc, our protagonist moves sideways, so to speak. This may result from leaning something new, a different world view, or accepting a new role, but ultimately the character ends the story just “different”, not necessarily “better”. This doesn’t mean the character hasn’t arced or doesn’t possess good qualities. This arc is typical of stories with high levels of external conflict.
Example: Katniss Everdeen, though heroic ultimately, doesn’t change who she is and doesn’t become a better person. She simply makes a choice to accept her new world and Peeta’s love. She shifts to a new role with a new perspective of what holds meaning in her life.
TRAGIC FALL This arc follows the character’s unraveling. He/she devolves because of a series of faults and character flaws that dooms the protagonist and often others. Classic endings for these stories are illness, imprisonment, insanity, or death.
Example: Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s death led him to lie and murder, ultimately resulting in his haunted conscience and his own eventual death by poisoned sword.
Once you’ve chosen your protagonist’s path, you’ll need to devise their belief systems and what drives them, or their motivation. Motive propels a character to make choices and ACT. In essence, motives are a result of something that has happened to the protagonist in the past (backstory). Motivation changes over time in a story, or should, if the character is arcing properly.
Next in the lineup toward character change is conflict. It’s your job to make certain the protagonist never gets too comfy, never feels quite at ease. The minute they do, it’s time to throw in an obstacle that prevents your protagonist from attaining their goal. Each story will have MANY obstacles, MUCH conflict, either external or internal, and sometimes both. In fact, a scene without some sort of turmoil is a dull one. Let’s look at examples.
Example: Peter Parker gains his powers from a radioactive spider, but ignores a victim being robbed. It’s not his problem. (Here comes the conflict) But the same robber goes on to shoot and kill his uncle. BAM. Peter Parker has a solid reason to use his powers, if for no other reason, to avenge his uncle’s death. Through the pain of loss, Peter changes.
Example: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta are surviving in the cover of the woods. During a quiet moment together, Peeta shows her a wound from a previous battle. The gash is severely infected. (Here comes the conflict) Now, Katniss must choose between leaving him alone, unable to fend for himself, or risking her life to venture back to the supply station. In the moment she realizes he will die, she knows how important he is to her. Her feelings and her attitude toward him change.
Be HARD on your characters. The moment they are comfortable, give them something to worry about, a YEARNING, something to strive for. Challenge them. Without challenge, your character will not arc, regardless of the trajectory you’ve chosen. Without challenge, WE don’t arc and grow.
Growth and renewal is painful, sometimes even brutal, but there’s nothing more beautiful.
As a writer, what types of character arcs do you gravitate towards? And as a reader, which character paths do you prefer?