Thursday, April 9, 2009

Are Character Arcs Necessary?

The first time I heard the phrase 'character arc' was during the fall 2007 retreat of the Sask Rom Writers. That first night we watched the movie Troy starring Brad Pitt and Eric Bana and followed it with a discussion about character arcs. In particular, how Achilles changed and Hector didn’t, if my memory is correct.

I’ve been thinking about character arcs a lot during March because I’ve been working on my contest entries. In particular, Charley’s Saint. In this novel, Charley starts out as a pregnant young woman struggling with a debilitating phobia of entering her house by herself because someone could be waiting to assault her. Charley is already pregnant when the ms starts and she doesn't have any casual affairs. But, she thinks about it. She also gets drunk when she thinks Pastor Henry has betrayed her, yet again.

So what I’ve written is one very flawed heroine who will change and grow over the course of the book.

However, I’ve been told that readers won’t like Charley and I should change her. That readers won’t sympathize with someone who gets drunk while pregnant. Or with someone who even drinks coffee while pregnant. That readers will put the book down and walk away because they don't think she's a 'good' heroine.

Really? Are readers that fickle?

One judge wrote she didn’t like Charley but she’d buy the book because she knew Charley would have a wonderful character arc. That got me thinking. What exactly is a character arc and is it necessary?

For the exact definition, I googled ‘define character arc’. This came up:

Definitions of Character arc on the Web:

· A character arc is the status of the character as it unfolds throughout the story, the storyline or series of episodes. Characters begin the story with a certain viewpoint and, through events in the story, that viewpoint changes en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Character_arc

· Formulaic inferred curved line which traces the development, growth, and transformation of a character over the course of the screenplayhttp://www.google.ca/url?sa=X&start=1&oi=define&q=http://www.teako170.com/glossary2.html&usg=AFQjCNHCog4AFwTkiThgo0YZrkyMxSXt6w

· Emotional or psychological development made by a principal characterhttp://www.google.ca/url?sa=X&start=2&oi=define&q=http://www.thescriptconnection.net/glossary.htm&usg=AFQjCNEJYmqHGYlRd4beflcf1I0zd7U0Dw

· A concept used in screenwriting and narrative theory. A character in the story undergoes a certain development leading to a conclusion.highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072963352/student_view0/chapter9/glossary.html

In other words, the character’s status changes, grows, and develops. These aren’t physical changes we’re talking about here, rather they are emotional or mental changes. We want to get into the character’s psyche and find out why they’re acting a certain way.

If your ms follows the formula for category romances, your characters will have hang ups or flaws at the beginning. These flaws will influence every decision your character makes. By the book’s end, your character should have evolved into someone who is emotionally and mentally stronger. Someone capable of making decisions based on just the facts presented.

Some emotional and mental hang-ups are:
- fear of rejection
- fear of getting too close
- fear of loneliness
- cocky or over-confident
- egotistical – I am the best or I am the smartest attitude
- the need to always be at the front
- the need to be the best

Character arcs are shown when:
- the hero realizes he doesn’t need to be the best as the heroine loves him regardless.

- he allows himself to love again, thereby opening himself up to rejection, rather than lose the heroine.

- he’s the cause of a horrific accident which forces him to admit he’s not perfect after all.

- selfish at the start, he feels much better when he’s helping or giving to someone

From everything I’ve read, editors want characters with visible character arcs which leave the reader sighing at the end.

However, it seems to be that today’s editors also want books that contain likeable characters from the start. I’ve heard it said that today’s readers are so fickle, if they don’t like the hero or heroine, they’ll put the book down and walk away.

How can the reader stay interested if the character is perfect without a flaw to correct? In other words, without an inner conflict.

But if this is the case, why don’t the editors like stories that start with heroes or heroines who aren’t perfect?

Do we really want every book to start with a nice girl whom everyone likes?

Why must a reader like a character from the first page?

28 comments:

Captain Hook said...

Another great topic from the Chicks :)

I struggle with character arcs in my own wips, mainly because I think it's highly unrealistic to always expect significant change in one book. It bugs the living daylights out of me when a character starts out with major flaws, the book only spans a few days or weeks, then boom! At the end of the book the characters are these perfect people who will never have problems again.

Grrrr!!

I like my books to be realistic. (Or in the cases of sci fi/fantasy, at least plausible.) But the emotionals flaws that are supposed to be resolved in a character arc annoy me the most. Bad habits that took usually decades to build are not going to be cured overnight, regardless of love.

That's why I prefer series where the character arc starts in one book, but continues for many more. It just makes more sense to me.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Aye aye, Cap't, I hear you and understand.

This is actually the 3rd book in the series for my Charley for exactly that reason. I needed to give her time to change from when I first introduced her.

I never considered before that we make the H/h look perfect at the end, but I guess we do, eh.

Thanks Capt Hook.

Erika said...

I don't know what agents want, but as a reader I don't have to like everything about a character right off the bat. There's a series I read about a woman whose child was murdered. I'm not crazy about the main character, but the idea and the writing keep me reading. I may be in the minority here, but I don't have to be in love with a character to be interested in finding out how it ends.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Erika, then we'll be in the minority together because I feel the same as you. :)

I've always believed the adage 'you can't tell a book by it's cover'.

But I take it one step further - you can't tell the end from the beginning. Maybe I should have used that as my title, eh?

I always appreciate your comments, Erika.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
I think a character arc is when a character, over the course of a book, learns and grows and gets past the thing that has been holding them back from love and happiness. Their troubles at the beginning of the book don't necessarily have to make them unlikeable. For example, in my book "A Long Way from Eden" my heroine Meg has never really faced the trauma of her abusive marriage. Until she comes to terms with the past, she can't move forward. Until events force her, she would rather continue hiding. But I think she's a sympathetic character from the beginning of the book and she definitely grows throughout the course of the book.

Jana

Karen said...

Hey Anita, great topic today.

For me, there's a difference between being flawed and being unlikable. As a person, I have many flaws but I hope I'm likeable. As a reader I fall under the 'fickle' category. If I don't like one of the protagonists I will close the book without finishing it. Having said that, I'm pretty openminded and rarely close a book for that reason. As a writer, I admit it, I want the reader to be attracted to my hero and heroine right of the bat despite they're obvious flaws. (At least I'm trying to do that but have run into a snag because my heroine is actually too together. So I have the opposite problem as you.)

ban said...

i've always liked people/characters that grow on you more than those you're SUPPOSED to love right off the bat. they seem more 'real' to me. that doesn't mean an author should go overboard and make an 'angsty sue' but i like getting to know the character, seeing what makes them tick and learning to empathize with them.

Silver James said...

How many times do we write a character arc and aren't even aware we've done so? I don't necessarily set out to redeem a character or correct flaws. Many times, I'm not even aware of a character's flaws until I'm well into the first draft. Do I expect a character to change? Of course. Based upon the events occurring through the course of the book, the people met, I anticipate the character will grow and change. Maybe not for the better, maybe only sideways, but change because that's what people do in real life. Each person we meet, each event in our lives touches us and changes us. Sometimes, it's profound--death, loss, love, the HEA. Sometimes, it's minute, as subtle as a shadow caught in the corner of your vision.

Like the Captain and others, I want even my fantasy characters to be realistic. I want to be able to identify with them, even if I don't like them. I just finished a book where I didn't like the heroine in the beginning, and still didn't at the end. I have to admit, it was a struggle. Others, though, have adored both the character and the book--very much a case of YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

When push comes to shove, I think each of us have to write the book that NEEDS to be written, with however the character comes out that makes sense and seems real.

And on that note, back to the latest round of revisions received from the editor. *sigh*

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, I'm looking forward to reading about Meg one day.

But are all your other heroines similar? Haven't you written one or wish to write about one who's 'not so nice'?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Karen, I know what you mean - the heroine in my first book, Abigail, is a goody-two shoes. People who've read it say she's too perfect and I have to give her a flaw to give her some inner conflict. She's actually Charley's best friend.

I think that's why when I wrote about Charley, I made her almost the polar opposite of Abigail.

And I have to admit between the two of them, it was far easier and more freeing to write about Charley.

And yes, Karen, you are very likeable - but then I haven't found your flaws yet, either. LOL

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thank you, ban. It sounds like you might like my Charley after all. She certainly isn't angsty - she's just let fear override her good judgement.

Thanks for stopping by, today.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Silver, you seem to have grasped the essence of humanity and are at peace with it.

Welcome aboard. The Captain will be sailing us into waters rife with rocks and reefs. We'll ignore the naysayers shouting at us from the hold. Our destination is The Sea of Dreams and only we know where she lies.

As always, Silver - I look forward to your spin on things.

Silver James said...

Heh, comes from being older than dirt, Anita! *wink*

Hooray for high seas and reefs! For pirates and ninjas and plotbunnies. Life, and books, need spice and tension; it needs waves and safe harbor, too. Life should be experienced with all its wild and wooly twists and turns. Bring on the rollercoaster!

*laughs* I'll stop. But isn't that why we read? We want to experience life vicariously (and safely from our armchairs). As writers, we need to keep that in mind. Smooth sailing is boring.

Can you tell I'm procrastinating? I've got to completely rewrite a couple of scenes and my Muse is resisting. She tells me she's "cogitating on it." Yeah. Right. *gigglesnort*

Erika said...

Silver - I thought you were turning the internet off to do your edits.....hmmmm?

Silver James said...

Talk to the Muse, Erika! lol

Helena said...

It would be difficult for any person, including the characters that spring to life on our pages, to endure difficulties, encounter problems in relationships or other aspects of life, and NOT change in some way. So our stories would be very flat (not a joke) and unrealistic if our characters don't experience an arc of development.

Having said that, I'm thinking about the novels that take place over a very brief span of time. Earlier comments referred to the credibility of the change a person undergoes, considering their personality and habits have developed over their whole life up to this point. It may depend on the degree of crisis they face. I'm thinking of Ian McEwan's novel, 'Saturday,' which takes place in the course of one day. A relatively minor encounter escalates during that day to an intense situation which involves terrorism, a hostage-taking and threat of murder, and draws in all the members of the unsuspecting family beyond the person involved in the original incident. More than one character in that novel learns and changes as the tension grows and reaches a resolution by the end of the evening. An incredible tangle of character arcs intersect and become interdependent on each other.

I know I start reading a novel simpy to get to know the characters and to find out what happens to them. But Silver is right. There is no human interaction that does not bring about some change and learning, in a character and even in a reader, if the writing is strong and convincing enough.

You raise some challenges for us as writers to deal with as our characters live through the situations we deal out for them, Anita. And I agree that a writer doesn't necessarily want to start or end with perfect people. How boring would that be?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Helena - I just saw your post but we're on our way out for a ew hours. I'll read it and comment when I get back later.

nm8r67 said...

great post Anita!

i tend to be a reader who sticks through to the "bitter end" even if i don't like the main characters. i guess it's the avid curiosity in me - i've always got find out the end, otherwise it drives me buggy.

that said, i prefer flawed characters over the goody-goody ones. i like to see how they can be redeemed by the end of the book. it only disappoints when the redemption is weak or non-existent.

it's more reality i guess. i'm far from being good or even perfect... i can only hope i'm changing for the better.

DebH

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I disagree with the need to make characters 'likeable' at the beginning, or 'fixed' at the end, but then I can't really speak for what sells in romance. Progress at the end of course is great, but I think if the character ends up fixed and without flaws, it's unrealistic.

I think your heroine sounds very compelling, the sort of person who could become heartwrenching once I got invested in her. I know that at just hearing the scenario I definitely have an "oh my god!" moment if I catch wind of alcohol during pregnancy... but if I'm already into the story and the world, I don't know if I'd care the same. I think it all comes down to how you handle it. What would emphasize it as an 'unforgivable' thing for me would actually be the pastor's role. Just from the basic summaries you've given me, I get the impression we'll see a moral resurrection of Charley's character, and that puts me in a mindset of clear-cut good/evil, rather than a place of moral ambiguity. If there's a clear moral line, it's easier to make judgement calls on things like alcohol and throw someone into the 'bad' category for it.

I think a character needs to be compelling enough to get interested in, or relatable enough care about, depending on the genre, but that doesn't necessarily mean we have to like them and empathize with them. Compelling stories have been told from the point of view of an utterly despicable character (American Psycho comes to mind). In that case we are drawn in by our fascination, and kept in the story by the odd balance between horrific acts and the almost desperate sense of trying to reveal his depravity in a society that's so superficial it doesn't even care. We don't need to emotionally invest in his situation, but we can sympathize with his point of view.

And in less extreme terms, there are stories of characters with mixed morals, bad agendas, anti-heroes/Byronic heroes, who we still follow along for the ride because we understand the factors that lead to their actions, even if we agree with them. If we're immersed in Charley's world and relate to her conflicts, her decisions may become easier to accept. I just can't speak for whether that sort of direction works as well in genre romance, or if it might be something a women's fiction audience might be more prepared for.

And it seems I've written you another novella. Sorry! :)

Janet C. said...

Great post, Anita. I'm in the middle of working on character arcs for Gillian and Mac - and my problem, as I alluded to before, is my heroines are too nice. So for those that say they want a likeable character, there are at least as many who say they don't want a doormat. What's a writer to do?

Hayley beat me to this, but I'll repeat her suggestion - women's fiction. When I was reading your post, and learning about Charley's struggles, I immediately thought women's fiction. A flawed character who will fall to the lowest of lows and then claw her way back and create a life she's proud of. I believe, from all I've read, that the character's in women's fiction are allowed more latitude for horrible sins - that they're journey will consist of real struggles, more than just falling in love.

I'm curious - I thought (and goodness knows, my thinking is usually flawed - ha) that an inspirational romance needed those dark, sinister moments to showcase the character's arc as they move into the light of God's love? Please correct me if I'm wrong. Or is it more the hero that is allowed that latitude?

And I would redirect you back to Courtney Milan's guest blog - go with the unconventional, play it up, publicize the fact that Charley is no saint. The unconventional, the unique, the bold are usually the books that resonate with the reader long after the last page is turned.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey there Helena, Ian McEwan's novel reminds me of a chess game where only one move is played at a time but the player's minds are playing several steps ahead in continuous motion. I respect people who can write like that because I can't.

Yes, perfect people are boring because there is no element of surprise. Like you say, they are flat and in this case, flat is not good.

Thanks for putting it in perspective, Helena.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Deb, nice to see you here. Your comment reminded me of an instance when I was probably about 9 yrs old. I started reading this one book and for the first time in my reading life, I found it to be so boring I actually set it aside. But the feeling that I was missing something nagged at me until I started reading it again. I persevered and around pg 60 or 70, it suddenly picked up and was quite a satisfying read from then on. So yes, I always read on through, just in case.

I don't know about you being 'far from good or perfect', but from the Writer's Challenge board over on eharl, I know your characters are not flat perfect people or even perfectly flat ones. :)

btw - do you have your entry for tomorrow? I'm working on one...

Anita Mae Draper said...

I like your novellas, Hayley. You bring a unique slant to our romance world that I find fascinating. Speaking of which, although I didn't watch American Psycho, Silence of the Lambs sucked me in and kept me enthralled. And I haven't seen another horror flick since.

Thank you for your interest in Charley. A couple of the judges have in fact said they would have been disgusted with Charley's one time drinking while pregnant but by the time they read that part, they were sympathetic to her plight and overlooked that fault.

Yes, this story is about good and evil, about the bad girl and the good boy, about God loving the sinners. And I wanted to show the sin and not have the book start after the fact when she's an obedient member of society.

So glad you joined us today, Hayley. Your 'novellas' are a big part of our blog discussions.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Janet, yes, you have to give Gillian some flaws even if its something as simple as sticking her tongue out when people's backs are turned. :)

It never occurred to me to write Women's Fiction. Probably because one of my CP's does and I have such a hard time critting it. I keep waiting for the knight to come riding up and whenever the main character talks about her husband, my first thought is there's a typo. Maybe if I can't get this pubbed in the inspy market I'll try WF. Because there's no way I'm changing her character.

No, your thinking's not flawed, but inspy's don't usually show you the dark, sinister things... at least Love Inspired doesn't... because we might shock innocent minds. We hint at the deep, dark stuff that happened in the character's past. Usually the book starts at the bottom of the upward swing whereas Charley is not quite at the bottom yet. Other inspy pub houses are more lenient. It's the same way for passion in inspy's. In Love Inspired, even a bite on the bottom lip during a kiss can be pushing the limits. Whereas Revell - also an inspy publisher -who publishes Julie Lessman's books (our June 27th guest), contain temptation, desire and shame.

Yes, I hear you about playing up the unconventional characters. Of the 5 books I've written and talked about, Charley's Saint is the one my efriends ask me about. They can't even remember the others.

Thanks, Janet.

sheandeen said...

Anita, you said: "the heroine in my first book, Abigail, is a goody-two shoes. People who've read it say she's too perfect and I have to give her a flaw to give her some inner conflict."

Being a 'goody-two shoes' can be interpreted as a character flaw by some people, which could become an inner conflict for your heroine.

I have read books that take place over the course of a twenty-four hour period and been blown away about how much growth happened during that time. But the conflict was one that became a defining moment in the lives of the hero/heroine and altered the current course of their relationship. It was well written and realistic for that particular couple/relationship.

I have read books that took place over a longer amount of time and the inner conflicts and resolutions never rang true, not did they show growth adequately. Those stories don't end up being believable.

As always, I am fascinated by your questions and blog posts. You really make me think and, hopefully, grow as a reader and a fledgling writer.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Nancy, you're right about the goody-two shoes being a flaw as well. I'll have to remember that when I revise my ms because the way my heroine is right now, she's very forgettable.

Yes, I agree about the time not being a factor for growth depending on how well written the book is because I've read the similar ones to yours.

I'm glad I make you think about your writing because everyone's comments always give me enough to dwell on for weeks.

Speaking of fledgling writing - which I think you're past the stage - I love the laundromat theme for the writer's challenge this week. Going to work on it now...

Molli said...

Hi Anita - sorry to be late tuning in. I enjoyed the post, and thanks for the links. This isn't an area I've pursued lately, and although I have done some reading on it I haven't looked on the net so you've given me something new to follow up.

As for editors wanting characters you can like, I really think the initial impression you can "get away with" presenting will depend: liking a character, or not, is a function of what the reader expects, and expectations are different depending on the market. I'm with Captain Hook regarding major flaws and unrealistic timeframes for character change. Jana pointed out that even flawed characters can be sympathetic, but is it necessary for the reader to consider them sympathetic from the start? Again, in my opinion, it depends.

Overall, the characters I remember most are the ones who are anything but perfect, and I don't personally mind if they start out unlikeable as long as I can believe in either their inherent "good" character or a realistic change, but when I thought back to those characters as I read through the post and comments I realized that they were all from books by multi-published authors. It seems editors are more comfortable giving them leeway as they have an established readership (and we won't get into the fact that editors will also accept less than stellar work from said multi-published authors for the same reason, hmm?). So, if I'm right, tuck Charley into the drawer and bring her out once you have some publishing credits, or maybe pitch the series and point out the strength of her story as being the climax of the group.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Molli - I'd rather have you late than not visit at all. :)

You've given me something to think about. I've considered putting aside one of my first wips because it wasn't good enough, but I never thought to set one aside until the time was right for it. Yet, I may have to because I'd rather do that than change her.

Thank you Molli, I'm so very glad you took the time to comment. Your opinion matters.