Character and Story Arc
By Donna Schlachter
So, you have a story idea, a couple of characters that just won’t leave you alone. You’ve come up with the perfect opening line, and you even have an idea of where the story is going and how it will get to the end.
That’s all you need, right?
Now you need something to happen.
But that’s the job of the plot and subplots, isn’t it?
Give Characters Something to Do
Merely giving characters something to do doesn’t make a good novel. It doesn’t even make a good short story. Or a good television comedy. Unless you’re Seinfeld, which the majority of us are not. Thus, we cannot simply write a novel about nothing happening.
Action and activity don’t translate into something going on in the story. The reader doesn’t want to meet the main character or characters in the opening line, only to find out that while there was plenty of action and activity, the characters are exactly the same at the end.
That’s not real life, is it? Every single event, every word spoken to us or about us, every dream we have that we achieve—or we don’t—changes us in some way. And readers expect the same of our characters. Otherwise, why bother? If we want mindless entertainment with everything the same at the end for us and the participants as at the beginning, we might as well watch professional sports. They get paid whether they win or lose. And tomorrow, our lives will be the same as today, no matter the outcome.
Okay, no more sports bashing, promise.
Characters and Story Arc Need to Grow
A story where the character doesn’t change isn’t real. So we have to figure out how to make our character different at the end. Your story and character arc start in the character’s real ordinary world, and are propelled in an entirely different direction because of the circumstances and situations facing them, and their decisions and reactions to those changes.
Here is a series of questions to ask about your hero, heroine, and villain to ensure they are forced to change: (I am using the masculine pronoun only to keep it simple. These questions apply to whatever gender your characters inhabit or adopt)
- What does he want?
- What will he die for?
- What would he never do?
- What would he never say?
- What is one good thing about him?
- What are three bad things about him?
- What is his one redeeming feature?
- At the end of the story, what does he really want? What can he not live without?
When you have the answers to these questions, now you can place the characters in circumstances and events and situations that tear at the thread of their core, that threaten their stability, and that bring out the best and the worst in each character.
The Police Officer
For example, let’s look at a police officer who is squeaky clean but knows half of his department is taking bribes from the mob to look the other way. He says he’ll never accept dirty money, but:
- What if someone close to him needs an operation or medical treatment? His mother? His wife? His daughter?
- What if the police medical care insurer won’t cover the cost because they say it’s a pre-existing condition, or brought on by poor lifestyle choices?
- What if he needs the money, but he can’t beg or borrow enough for the treatment to commence?
- What will this good guy do to change the inevitable outcome? (Think Breaking Bad)
And once he steps over that line into the grey area, how will that change him? Will he apply this new thought process to his everyday beat cop duties? Will he try to stifle his rage over the unfairness of how he’s treated? Will he lash out? Will he give up?
Let’s look at another example: a group of retirees who can’t live on what their pension plan pays them. The bank threatens to foreclose on their homes. They stumble upon a bag of money, and realize that they can rob banks, nobody gets hurt, and they keep their houses and eat meat every day. (Think Dirty Rotten Scoundrels)
Let’s look at your villain: a hitman who kills for money. BUT only as long as the target deserves to die. So he contracts out to abused women, ill-treated employees, victims of hit-and-runs and drive-by shootings so he can get them justice. But he would never shoot a man of the cloth. Except:
- He learns about a televangelist who is on the run from the Columbian drug lords because of something in his past.
- And he learns this televangelist, loved by millions, sells drugs to elementary school kids.
- And he beats his dog.
Do you think this hitman might make an exception to his rule? And what will that do to him? Will he begin to question all of his decision-making parameters? Will it change what he does? How he thinks of himself?
As you can see, every choice our characters make changes them for better or for worse. Every time we put them between a rock and a hard place, they discover new strengths and new weaknesses about themselves that will now be reflected in their actions and thoughts. Usually what happens in a good story is that the main characters realize that what they thought they wanted at the beginning isn’t what they want now. Perhaps they’ve had to let something—or somebody—go. Perhaps they’ve had to admit that their dream wasn’t worth pursuing, but something else was. Perhaps they understand that dying isn’t the worst thing that can happen.
Whatever this discovery is, by the end of the story, the reader should find the outcome satisfying. They should have been able to see it coming, and it should resolve any questions they had about the character’s motivation.
In fact, the ending should feel like it really did happen, not simply that it could happen.
Did you miss previous installations of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management. You can find her at www.HiStoryThrutheAges.com