Helping authors create strong character arcs

Readers like to see character change, even if the change is small, and even if the change is negative. Often a character will be just the same at the start of the story as at the finish, and generally this is less satisfying to the reader than when a character is confronted with the need to change and then either changes or refuses to (as a conscious act versus having no opportunity for growth). This is especially crucial for the main character.

Character development, sometimes just called characterization, then, is about the character showing a true range of human experience and emotion. It is not about making sure to give one brown-haired character a signature fedora in order to distinguish him from the other brown-haired character in the story. If the author needs to resort to giving characters affectations to make them distinguishable, they’ve got a problem affectations won’t cure.

The change a character experiences throughout a novel is often called the character’s story arc or character arc. Characters who have no arc, or no clear motivations or goals, are often described as underdeveloped characters. This phrase is also used for characters who are presented as stereotypes rather than as realistic people. Stereotyped characters are usually easy for us to spot but characters without clear goals and motivations aren’t always so easy to diagnose. So, we have to specifically look for each character’s goals and motivations. If we can’t really describe GMC or if the goal is passive, like “don’t get into trouble” then we can suggest the author work on this aspect of character development.

The consequence of character goals that don’t change is that this makes it harder for characters themselves to change or show change. If the nature of the goal/conflict changes, the character is likely to change, too. By the same token, changing the character changes the goal/conflict.

Authors sometimes suppose characters don’t need to change over the course of a novel and in genre fiction this can be true. Jack Reacher, the protagonist of Lee Child’s thrillers, is basically the same in Book One as he is in Book Twelve.

But there are things about Jack that change: he starts carrying identification and a debit card; his unbroken nose (of which he is so proud) gets broken; he ages. He has an opportunity to change partway through the series when his former commanding officer leaves him a house and Jack falls in love with the CO’s daughter. But in the end, Jack chooses his itinerant ways.

What do we take away from this? Well, that small character changes can serve to keep a series character from becoming too much like a cardboard cutout and if you’re editing Lee Child you probably don’t have to worry about this at all.

But for our authors, character change, especially in service to the theme (or underlying message) of a story, can help improve a manuscript. In case you were wondering, yes, genre novels have themes. They are often tied to the genre: love conquers all (romance); justice prevails (mystery). Authors often explore secondary themes as well: family ties matter (or don’t), compassion is more important than principles (or vice versa) and so on.

Character change is not the same as an inconsistently rendered character. Readers expect characters to act in an internally consistent way (even if people themselves don’t actually do this!)

So if Ramon is a pacifist who has never handled a gun in his life, he’s probably not going to shoot the intruder in his house. If shooting the intruder is an important part of the plot, it needs to happen some other way, or Ramon can’t be a pacifist (or he needs to change!)

As developmental editors, we need to be able to spot these problems and help the author solve them in a believable way. If part of Ramon’s character arc is that he abandons his ideals, then the reader should see this happening, also in a believable way, before Ramon gets around to shooting the intruder.

Inconsistency in character development might be called unmotivated change or change that isn’t shown. So if Max has a ponytail in Chapter 1 and is bald in Chapter 5, it’s a character inconsistency unless we know he’s gone to the barber in between (and ideally, we learn why he’s gone to the barber).

Frequently problems with characterization arise because the author is trying to impose the plot on the characters rather than allowing the characters’ goals, motivations, conflicts, actions, and reactions to drive the forward action of the plot.

That is, the author will have Ramon the pacifist shoot the intruder not because Ramon would do this but because the plot requires a dead body on the floor. We want to help authors solve this kind of problem.

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