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. [Read more…]