Some Thoughts On Character Arc

cross blogI am madly writing in order to reach a deadline for my new novel, so my blog has been neglected lately. But there’s always time for some thoughts on craft, especially when in the throws of finishing a novel. Today, author and writing mentor Sydney Smith and I talk about character arcs.

 

SYDNEY:-
A character arc is the journey a character takes through the course of a story, from someone whose actions and decisions are shaped by their internal antagonist (also known as their character flaw), to someone who has modified or overcome their internal antagonist and is rewarded with the thing or person they most want in the world.

Mr DarcyMr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is a good example. He begins the story being proud and disdainful of others, judging people on their social standing, and ends by having a more open and accepting attitude. His reward is marriage to the woman he loves.

In The Last Coyote, by Michael Connelly, Harry Bosch’s internal antagonist is his refusal to accept that he is having a mental breakdown which is endangering the welfare of himself and others. Through the course of his investigation into the murder of his mother many years ago, he is confronted with the consequences of his reckless refusal to acknowledge that he is dangerous. His actions bring about the torture and murder of his supervising officer. By the end of the novel, he has acknowledged his flaw and has changed it. His reward is the solution to his mother’s murder.

The important thing to note is the vital role of the internal antagonist. If the character has no internal antagonist to overcome, they cannot change. They will be at the end of the story the same person they were at the start. Their circumstances will be different. But they themselves will not be different. They will not have learned an important lesson about themselves. They will not have been tested and will not have met that challenge.

JENNY:-
ScroogeWhen planning my character arcs, I focus on the personal lie the protagonist lives by. What false belief about himself and/or the world is causing his life to be unfulfilled?This fundamental misconception can take many forms, but it must be deep-seated – influencing the character’s every thought and action. Usually it can be simply stated in a sentence. For example, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge believes a man’s worth is based on how much money he makes. In Schindler’s Ark, Schindler believes it is okay to exploit other people for profit. In Toy Story, Woody believes that his worth only lies in being the favourite. In Jane Eyre, Jane believes the only way to earn love is by serving other people.

The lie is born of a wound in the character’s past. Barely realised at first, it acts as an obstacle to achieving his goals. I always identify this lie right at the beginning. It becomes the foundation for planning the character’s transformative journey.

SYDNEY:-
Character FlawThat’s an interesting take on the issue of internal antagonist, Jenny. Some people put it that way, as a lie the character tells themselves, or a secret they keep from themselves. Whichever way the writer phrases it to themselves, the vital thing is that they understand ths aspect of character and the role it plays in the story as a whole.

As a teacher and manuscript assessor, I have seen how writers avoid this whole concept of internal antagonist. They desperately want their character to be liked, and believe the best way to achieve that is by making them free of this kind of character flaw. But that is death to a character. Readers want to identify with flawed people. The great stories in literature show that the flawed characters are the ones we love and who endure.

So I look for ways to help writers get around that fear of making their character flawed and unlikeable. Sometimes, it’s simply the way it’s expressed. I thinking referring to the internal antagonist as a lie or a secret is a good way of doing that. I’ll have to use it in future!

The Magical Middle

cross blogTime for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, writing mentor Sydney Smith and I discuss a novel’s mid-point.

JENNIFER –
I’m approaching the middle of my new manuscript, although still a few thousand words away. Since reading Sydney Smith’s wonderful new book, The Architecture Of Narrative, I’ve been giving a lot more thought than usual to structure. So many writing gurus emphasise the significance of the magical midpoint. James Scott Bell, in his clever book, Write Your Novel From The Middle, calls it the mirror moment, when the main character looks at himself, and takes stock.  What kind of person is he? What is he becoming? How must he change in order to achieve his goals?

Humphrey BogartMy favourite film example of this is Casablanca with the fabulous Humphrey Bogart. At the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick’s bar after closing. Rick is drunk and bitter, remembering how Ilsa left him in Paris. Ilsa tries to explain, pleads with him to understand, but Rick essentially calls her a whore. She leaves in tears. Rick, full of self-disgust, puts his head in his hands, thinking, ‘What have I become?’ Will he stay a selfish drunk, or regain his humanity? This goes to the central theme of the narrative, and the second half of the film answers that question.

Alexandra Sokoloff  calls the midpoint the Call to Action, or Point of No Return. It heralds a major shift in the story, and is one of the most important scenes in any book or film. Something huge might be revealed. Something might go disastrously wrong. A ticking clock might be introduced, heightening the suspense. This fits in well with James Scott Bell’s analysis. In Casablanca, Ilsa reveals something huge at the midpoint―that she found out her husband, Viktor Lazlo, was still alive. This information leads Rick to a moment of self-reflection, then locks him into a course of action, thus linking the external and internal conflicts.

SYDNEY –
A of N Cover
The midpoint of a novel can be a powerful place where change happens. In Pride and Prejudice, the midpoint is the chapter where Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth and she rejects him, citing his pride and arrogance, his interference in her sister’s romance with Bingley, and his cruelty to Wickham as her reasons for rejecting him. That propels him into writing the letter in which he reveals the truth about Wickham but admits to meddling in Bingley’s business. That in turn leads Elizabeth to realize she’s been prejudiced toward Darcy, which had blinded her to the truth about Wickham. And it leads Darcy to modify his behaviour toward others. That’s a powerful about-face for both of them, and a vital hinge. All that follows is a consequence of that. It’s interesting to note that this hinge is also the most memorable part of this time-honoured novel.

Gregg Hurwitz, thriller writer extraordinaire, uses the midpoint in his novel, Don’t Look Back (dull title but don’t be fooled―it’s amazing!). Eve Hardiman has lost her nerve in life after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. She gives up the low-paid nursing job she loves and takes a highly-paid post with an insurance company, turning down applications for medical treatment by seriously ill people. She goes on a holiday in a distant outpost in Mexico, and for the first part of the novel, she collects clues that point to the mysterious disappearance of Teresa Hamilton, and hands them to others to deal with. Then smack in the middle of the novel, something happens. A member of the holiday party is seriously injured. Eve takes charge of the situation and the threat to all their lives, and she doesn’t let up until she’s destroyed the villain. High-octane is not the word for it.

Lesser novels can employ the midpoint effectively, too, though in a different way. Philip Pullman uses it in his Sally Lockhart mysteries. For the first half of each novel, questions pile up. After the midpoint, they’re resolved one by one.

JENNIFER –
All these examples show just how crucial the midpoint really is. The sagging middle is a frequent trap for novice, and not-so novice writers. A lot of brainstorming is usually put into the start of a story, and to the climax, but the middle is neglected. It meanders, becomes boring, and loses the reader’s attention. As a manuscript assessor Sydney, you must have had a lot of experience with this all-too-common problem.

SYDNEY –
Don't Look BackThe thing to understand is that, if a story sags in the middle, it’s weak at the start. The weakness is the lack of a character flaw in the protagonist. In many, many examples of the midpoint, the critical moment is the protagonist’s realization of their character flaw. When Eve recognizes that she lost her nerve, that’s the moment she gets it back. The midpoint in Casablanca is the moment when Rick realizes his character flaw―his bitterness over Ilsa. This kind of self-knowledge always leads to a dramatic change in direction for the story because the protagonist is now able to change internally and act externally without the nagging hindrance of their character flaw.

To highlight my point by contrast, why is it that many, possibly most, series novels don’t employ the midpoint this way? Because the series hero will lose the very character flaw that drives him or her to do what they do. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is obsessed with catching murderers. But his obsession keeps him from connecting at a deep level with others. He’s single and can’t be with the woman he loves. His friendships are superficial. If he lost his obsession, he would no longer be driven to solve crimes. Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent is ashamed of his dyslexia. He is driven to compensate for it by solving crimes. If he lost his shame over his disability, he might become a more balanced human being, but he would lose the drive to compensate for it by being a super-duper crime-solver.

Look at the Sally Lockhart series: the midpoint is the hinge where the questions amassed in the first half begin to be answered. It’s cute. It’s obvious. It works. But it lacks that power-pack oomph that comes from a midpoint resting on the protagonist’s recognition of their character flaw.

JENNIFER –
Love these examples Sydney. They illustrate the importance of mid-points and character flaws in such a practical way. I’ll be sure to keep this discussion in the front of my mind as my manuscript grows.

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