The Importance of Character Arc
Writing character development should be a key component to any work of fiction. Even for those of us authors who are plot-based, character arc is and development is something we need to utilize to make our characters interesting to readers.
Today, I’m going to talk a little about what novice authors need to do to get over the hump and create a compelling plot along with believable character arc.
But first, a little checklist.
- Who is your character?
- What do they want?
- Why are they after this goal?
- What happened in their past that made them who they are at the beginning of the story?
- Who or what’s in their way?
Let’s go back to Cain from Northern Knights.
Spoiler alert! Eh, kinda.
- Who is Cain? An arrogant college athlete who wants to live a luxurious life but a military draft holds up his plans.
- What does he want? To challenge the oppressive empire in which he lives so his people can live in peace and prosperity.
- Why is Cain after this goal? Initially, he still has his pro athlete ambitions….boom! This is where Cain’s journey begins in terms of character arc. He’s still an arrogant, self-centered jock who still wants athletic glory, but now he’s side-tracked. Something is in his way. So, a goal to inconvenience the imperialists takes center stage.
- What happened in Cain’s past that made him who he was at the beginning of the story? Little spoiler here. Cain was always underestimated in his youth and pushed around some. He also played second-fiddle to his cousins. However, he has a gigantic ego so when he did succeed, he’s the, “they said I couldn’t do it, but I showed them! Now I’m going to rub it in their faces.” type.
- Who or what is in their way? The imperialists. King Rooney, the black and yellow-clad Southpoint Military (yes, I used the work to flip off the Pittsburgh Steelers!), and his biggest threat, Supreme Leader Adam Syndari.
It’s a Bell Curve
I love to think of character arc as a bell curve. Cain starts at Point A and ends up eventually at Point B. Or, in my prequel novelette series, Neo Skyehawk, the main character in the whole series is a girl named Seneca LaSalle.
While the series is named after Neo and the first novelette is in his point-of-view, Seneca is the star and the series is told in her point-of-view after in all the subsequent works.
Seneca begins in the Untouchable caste living in a distant kingdom where she stumbles upon Crown Prince Neo, who despite his status as a Monarch, despises it.
While Seneca shows animosity initially (in the prequel story, also in Neo’s point-of-view), she grows on Neo and the two share wild adventures together.
Therefore, Seneca obviously grows from her hatred of the elite classes when he grows close to Neo and his family, King Irvin and Queen Zina, who treat her like the daughter they never had. She also uses her newfound status to help others, treating her ladies-in-waiting like people, befriending working and middle-class girls, and even going out of her way to save commoners.
I’m on Book Three of the Series, not counting the prequel and her character continues to develop in ways that are surprising even myself.
Her bell curve may only be a quarter way through but she’s someone from my own work who serves as a prime example.
Popular examples may be Eustace Scrubb from the Chronicles of Narnia, Katniss from Hunger Games, and from a more obscure work I enjoyed when I was young, Mary Alice from A Year Down Yonder.
Wait, Todd, I thought you were a fantasy writer?
I am, but I love historical fiction, especially early to mid-twentieth century. If you haven’t read it yet, A Year Down Yonder is worth investing in!
From Zero to Hero
What I love about Cain and Seneca is they’re not the kind of hero anyone in their respective world believes they’ll be.
In Cain’s case, his personality is reminiscent of an athlete who doesn’t fully appreciate what he’s been given and he has a Baker Mayfield type of attitude, especially when yelling obscenities at the opposing team and planting a flag on the midfield logo (Mayfield actually did the latter).
In other words, Cain’s the guy most state they’ll never need because he’s an athlete who only entertains via fake job and cannot relate to the real world.
Well, Cain’s in for an attitude adjustment fast.
Seneca, on the other hand, is subject to a life of working and breeding, to the point she states her parents, so apologetic regarding her forced status, give her options when it comes to seeing other guys. Since she’s forced to only mingle with Untouchables, everything is bleak until she meets (and despises for a time), Neo.
They’re two different characters dealt different hands but they have one thing in common: No one’s expecting much real contribution to society out of them.
That’s where the arc begins with all characters.
It’s like Eustace, who’s a spoiled brat at the beginning of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader and grows through trials throughout the work and the subsequent Silver Chair.
Or Mary Alice, who looks down on country life before going through her own trials and realizing she’d prefer it rather than return to Chicago. In fact, she returns to Grandma Dowdel’s doorstep once World War II ends.
Your characters are the life-blood of your work, even a plot-driven work. Characters make the plot interesting. What they learn and realize is something the reader is going to experience as well. If you’re good, the reader will see each work through the eyes of an evolving character as they journey from Point A to Point B, beyond the bell curve.
The challenge for you today is to pull out your most recent work and get cracking on developing your characters. Make it interesting and it can really add spice to your plot.
Cain’s journey from athlete to cavalier (we ain’t saying warrior, Golden State fans) completes a bell curve, as does Seneca’s journey from Untouchable to the Elite Class.