The Sticky Business of Character Arcs by Lizzie Hermanson

I have recently completed the first draft of a new WIP, and my fab crit partners (*waves* to The 22s) pointed out that my heroine’s character arc was off. This immediately got me racing to the cyber bookshelves in search of both information and inspiration.

Back to basics – a character arc is the journey the protagonist takes over the course of the story when he/she is forced to confront his/her emotional baggage to become a more rounded individual. As I’m writing romance, my characters have to overcome their fears in order to love.

Craft books describe the character arc in a variety of different ways, such as unconscious desire versus conscious desire or want versus need. K M Weiland calls it “The Lie Your Character Believes” with the example of Jane Eyre who believes herself unworthy of love. Debra Dixon describes the emotional journey in terms of internal goal, motivation and conflict. Michael Hauge, meanwhile, says:

“… a character arc is taking a character from his identity in the beginning of the story and moving him to his essence by the end. His identity is what he wants the world to see. His essence is who he truly is.”

michael-hague

In my latest wip, the story starts when the heroine, Lucy, is forced to return to her late grandfather’s house; the place she came to live following the death of her parents and where she always felt like a fish out of water. She now co-owns the house with Cal, a man her grandfather took in as a homeless teenager. Lucy wants Cal to buy her out so she has enough money to return to Paris.

The lie she believes is that she doesn’t truly belong anywhere, and that she’s better off in Paris, hiding within the hustle and bustle of a big city, with many acquaintances, but few friends, and a job that runs from one short-term contract to another.

Cal is her opposite. He values the home he’s been given and refuses to let her sell, believing it goes against her grandfather’s wishes. Lucy’s character arc is similar to that of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She will learn that there’s no place like home.

So in theory, I had a basic arc in place for Lucy, and one which fed into both her external goal and the romance arc. As a pantser, I knew some tweaking was inevitable, but I had a clear idea of what she would learn about herself by the end of the story. The difficulty came in how to show her journey from Point A to Point B.

Cue much angst, replotting and frantic reading. That’s when I discovered a series of blogs on character arc by author, Julie Cohen. Her first tip is seemingly a simple one; if the character’s issue is trust, she writes this word “very large somewhere, and keep on coming back to it. Because most of what happens in the book, character and plot-wise, will reflect those key conflict issues.”

judy-cohen

A valuable tip, because it’s very easy to become distracted by other elements of the story, such as the romance development or the external plot. She goes onto explain that she designs events to reflect the character’s emotional growth:

“I needed a scene in Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom, quite near the beginning, where I show that appearances are important to Nina, so much so that she’ll ignore her true feelings in order to force herself into the mold she thinks she should fit in. I decided to show her shopping for clothes, because …. shopping for clothes is all about appearance.”

For structure, I rely on the external plot to guide the story forwards. Lucy’s external goal is to get Cal to buy her out so she has enough money to return to Paris. Each scene has a mini goal to feed into that goal. This helps maintain continuity, keep the character active and gives the hero and heroine a reason to be together.

nina-jones

Having read Julie Cohen’s blog post, I began to wonder if I was looking at my scenes from the wrong perspective. Should I be using the internal conflicts instead of external to guide the scenes forward and create a series of events designed to show different stages of character arc?

Well, yes and no. Without the external plot to glue the story together, the scenes become random; the character drifts between from one event to another with random encounters between the hero and heroine. If each scene was written on an individual piece of paper, I’d be left with a row of paper, lying side by side, but not connecting.

As Julie Cohen says: “plot and character arc go hand in hand. Plot provides the opportunity for the character to change, and the character’s development affects what choices she makes to make the plot go forward.”

kiss

Both internal and external elements of the plot are required to structure a scene. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, each scene must show Lucy striving to return to Paris. There must also be impacting incidents that create obstacles, force her to make decisions and confront that lie she believes about herself.

Once in Oz, Dorothy must face up to the witch, or she can’t go home. She can’t run away from her problems like she did in the opening scene when Miss Gulch was on the warpath after Dorothy’s dog, Toto, bit her. Killing the witch represents a major turning point in her arc by showing she has learned to confront her problems. So I need to create a metaphorical witch for Lucy; an event that forces her to act so she can’t remain hidden in her old identity.

The external plot, therefore, is the glue that will bind each stage of the character arc together into one, long, seamless sheet, depending on gluing ability, of course! At the moment, I mostly end up with sticky fingers.

Julie Cohen’s fabulous series of blogs on character arcs can be found here:

http://www.julie-cohen.com/blog/2010/01/17/character-arc/

about-the-author

Lizzie Hermanson is a wife, mother and talented procrastinator. She writes contemporary romance when her cat isn’t hogging the keyboard and loves Happy Ever Afters. Find her @lizziehermanson

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