I had a great conversation with a writer yesterday who was struggling with his character arc, specifically how to make his POV character change over the course of the character arc. Telling someone you must have your character change at the end of your story is one of those easier-said-than-done pieces of advice. It seems pretty intangible and obscure at first.
I figured if one writer is struggling with what it means to have your character change, probably dozens (or hundreds) of writers are struggling with it, too.
First, you need to understand that your plot arc and character arc work in tandem. They are not two separate things, but two strands of the same twisted cord. Your plot arc is about the external events that your character must move through over the course of the book. Your character arc is about the internal events that occur over the course of the book.
It’s not as simple as the events change the character. The character has a personality and worldview before the story begins. Those shape the character’s actions and reactions to the plot events. The plot events affect the character, reshaping his personality and worldview. He is changed at the end of the book. Think of their relationship not as cause and effect, but as interplay in which character affects plot and plot affects character.
You will need to show the reader this change of character through the vehicle of your story, that is, get it on the page in attitudes and actions. Make the shift real.
Here is an easy to understand example.
Bill is an average guy in his late 20s. He likes to go to bars and watch sports with friends. It’s common for Bill to drive home after drinking. He knows that he can feel his drink, but he figures he’s got it under control and he’s not “one of those drivers.”
Bill’s best friend dies in a drunk driving incident. This event (plot) causes Bill to change his attitude and worldview (character).
From then on, Bill never drinks and drives. He takes keys from friends who’ve had more than a couple of beers. He makes himself the designated driver.
That little story shows how at the beginning, our character Bill has a certain attitude and worldview that affects how he behaves. In this case, that behavior is illustrated by his social life of casual drinking.
The loss of his friend is a plot event that affects Bill’s character. He shifts his attitude and worldview.
As a result of his change in attitude and worldview, he acts differently in similar circumstances. His actions and reactions to social drinking events have changed, because his character has changed.
The reason the character arc can be daunting is because the change is internal and intangible. In this illustration, I’ll take you through the questions you need to answer to develop your character arc.
What does your character want more than anything in the world at the beginning of the book? Say she wants freedom. Freedom is a good intangible, internal goal. Why does she want freedom? Identify that: she feels trapped in a bad marriage.
How does feeling trapped and longing for freedom shape her choices over the course of the plot? What risks will she take to achieve that goal?
How do the plot events change her? Make her stronger? Cut her down? Teach her self-sufficiency or courage? Ah…strength. Courage. These are nice intangible character traits that are developing as a result of her relation to plot events—see that interplay happening?
At the end of the book, will she have succeeded? Will she be free? If so, her realization that she is free, and therefore empowered, is her new state of being, her new attitude and worldview will reflect this state of being. Show it on the page with actions. She signs a lease on a new apartment. She gets a job. Whatever it is that happens as a result of her change will illustrate that internal shift to the reader. And these things she can now do must be things she could not have done at the beginning of the book. They are the result of the changes she underwent along the character arc.
I hope that helps you to develop your character’s arc. Let me know if you have any further questions by replying or share your examples of character arcs in the comments below.
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