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The Anti-Arc

Imagine the world’s worst birthday magician.  Let’s call him The Amazing Perfuncto.

The Amazing Perfuncto arrives at your child’s birthday party, late, and quickly sets up a folding table.  Then, with no patter or cheesy jokes, he immediately slams down a top hat and yanks out of it a rabbit.  “Ta-da!” is all that The Amazing Pefuncto says.  He then puts away his equipment and sticks out his hand for his one-hundred-dollar fee.

Not so amazing, right?

What’s missing is the fun that comes from anticipation.  There’s supposed to be a long lead-up, and an examination of the hat.  See?  It’s a regular hat.  Try it on.  Look inside.  Nothing there.  Then, with a waving of a wand and a group “Abracadabra” from the kids…nothing.  They try again.  “ABRACADABRA!”  the kids scream in unison.  This time, Perfecto fishes around inside the hat and…voila!…there’s a cute bunny rabbit inside.

Now, that’s worth a hundred dollars.  Indeed, the delight and amazement of children is priceless.  However, that delight and amazement doesn’t come from the rabbit emerging from the hat, but rather from the belief that a rabbit cannot possibly be inside.  (It isn’t.)  Then, when there is in fact a rabbit there—it’s a trick, trust me—the surprise is indeed amazing and The Amazing Perfuncto earns his adjective.

In other words, the effect is founded not in the final result but in expectation of its opposite.  There first must be no possibility of a rabbit in order for the rabbit’s appearance to startle, amaze and delight.

I mention this because in fiction the same principle applies in constructing a character arc.  Arc, of course, means the way in which a character will change.  In discussing arc, we tend to begin with the needed change and its roots.  We focus on back story wounds and burdens.  Secrets.  Shame.  Guilt.  Something has distorted a human being, and in order for change to occur then that back story wound must be faced, the burden lifted.

However, as therapists will tell you, understanding the deep source of suffering does not automatically relieve it.  You can peel away a score of psychological onion layers, and the subject still will not change.  Not necessarily.  There is resistance.  There are more reasons to stay the same than to change.  In order to change, the subject must feel free to transform.  That’s not so easy.

In fiction the amazement and emotional punch that come with change result not from the eventual change but from the growing, step-by-step understanding in readers that change—no matter how necessary, desired or hoped for—is not possible.  Thus, constructing an arc of change for a character really means constructing a defense against that change.

We can call that the anti-arc.

Change is a broad term.  It can mean change of belief, behavior or opinion.  Those can mix and mingle, naturally, but in general it’s more dramatic when the anti-arc is built out of what characters say and do.  What characters feel is important, of course, but focusing on feelings tends to turn narration inward, to twisting inner monologue.  That’s okay, but outward actions and their consequences will more surely convince us that a character is caught in an anti-arc.

To put it differently, when a character is suffering inside, mentally swinging this way and that, torn between change and staying the same, then the reader is justified in thinking, just get over yourself!  By contrast, when the anti-arc is externalized and visibly demonstrated then it’s hard for the reader to object.  Self-destructive speech and actions are concrete, laden with consequences and cannot be taken back.

Why do people in general resist change?  When what needs to change is a behavior, then inhibiting factors might include loss of control, uncertainty, the discomfort of being different, doubt about ability, the work involved, the humiliation in acknowledging past behavior, effects on others, resentment of the past, hatred of self (which of course is to be avoided).  Plus, who wants to become the opposite of who one is?

“Belief” is a broad term as well.  I’ll use it here to mean beliefs about self.  When a belief—really, a misbelief—needs to change, there are a host of psychological reasons for that belief to persist, even in the face of reason.  Clinging to a belief is comforting.  If affirms and validates one’s view of oneself.  It makes mental anguish a matter of circumstances.  One’s suffering is caused by others, and therefore is not one’s own responsibility.  Thus, why change?  It’s impossible.  Anyway, suffering inside is exciting while thinking differently about oneself is hard.  Staying the same, by contrast, is easy.  It’s rewarding.

“Opinions” in my terminology are beliefs about other people and things.  Opinions are subject to reason, or ought to be, so you’d think that contrary evidence or any solid counter-argument would cause people to change their minds.  That’s not true.  People’s ideas about other people and things are nearly unshakeable.  They are a rock of identity.  To change your mind means that you were wrong, and who wants to feel that way?

While there are many reasons not to change, people nevertheless do.  Why?  Behavior changes in response to experience and events.  A cycle of harmful behavior may turn one time too many.  The awful reality of stasis may become clear.  One may discover that old behaviors have led to being exploited.  Trying out being different may turn out okay.  Failing at something important may show that there is nothing left to lose.

Misbeliefs about self are, likewise, somehow shattered.  The inner suffering born of inner conflict may become unbearable.  A crisis may free up the possibility of change.  A catharsis may release new power.  Anger, sadness, distress or fear may so profoundly overwhelm a character that all prior reasons for staying the same are erased.  A new purpose may be found.  The secret rewards of staying the same may be replaced by greater rewards from change.

Opinions are tough to transform, but can.  Fear of others or different ways of thinking can be eroded by exposure.  Positive examples may be seen.  Kindness may open a door.  A universal awareness may arrive.  An emotional experience may lower one’s defenses long enough to let in a different way of seeing.

Enough theory.  Let’s turn this into practical applications, ways to build the anti-arc.  I’ll pose the possibilities as fill-in-the-blank questions to be answered by your protagonist:

Some people might see it as a negative, but I _________, and that’s just the way I am.

You’ll notice that about me because I always __________.

I’m happy with who I am because __________.

I can’t change because I have a responsibility to __________.

The person I cannot possibly disappoint is _________?  If I did, then __________would happen.

My problems are because of ___[whom]___?

My problems are because of ___[what]____?

If I were different, then I could not control __________?

If I were different, __________ might happen.

If I were different, I would lose __________.

I can’t be different because I lack __________.

If I were different, I would be angry about __________ and I don’t want to be.

If I were different, I would have to admit that I __________ and I simply can’t.

My way is the best way and everyone should be like me, because __________.

When I’m unhappy or suffering, I am rewarded with __________.

I don’t want to feel conflicted because when I do __________.

The thing that I wish I didn’t do over and over is __________.

The person who keeps getting me to change is __________.

The person who benefits the most from me being the way I am is __________.

The thing I am positively never, ever going to do is __________.

That’s because __________.

I am always right, never wrong, about __________.

That’s proven when __________.

The thing I don’t want to see about myself is _________.

The worst way in which that could be shown to me is __________.

My greatest fear is that __________ will happen.

It would be my fault because __________.

You would see me break when I __________.

What would make me rage out of control is __________.  I would say __________.  I would do __________ to __________.

The worst betrayal I can imagine is __________.

The person who would never take advantage of me that way is __________.

The greatest failure I can imagine is __________.

If that happened, I would have nothing left to lose because __________.

I never thought I would see the __________ side of __________.

The favor I would never expect is ___________.

The gift I don’t deserve is __________.

People aren’t good, and I know that because they don’t ever __________.

If I try a different way, the person who would humiliate me is __________.

When that person actually approves, it’s because __________ and as a result I can __________.

The secret thing I’ve always wanted to do is __________.

When I do it, the best part is __________.

The thing that feels the best to let go is __________.

The person I won’t let myself worry about ever again is __________.

The thing about me that needs to be saved is __________.

A better way to be allows me to __________.

My gift back to the world is __________.

As you can see, the anti-arc method is founded in building the impossibility of change.  The stronger the imperatives are not to change, the more we hope for the change anyway.  Then, when it nevertheless happens, it is magical.

Does an anti-arc work for your protagonist?  How?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].