Monday, August 20, 2007

Is He Really Who You Think He Is?

I've been wracking my brain all weekend for a topic and since I can't seem to think of anything pithy, I'll fall back on the topic we discussed at the Wild Rose Press historical chat on Thursday night.

Character Arc:

I found it interesting that about 80% of the writers at that chat liked a bad boy hero and a feisty heroine, yet when Scarlet O'Hara of Gone with the Wind was brought up, a majority of the writers booed and hissed her character and grudgingly agreed she did have an interesting character arc. And they loved Rhett Butler, yet no one could quite remember what exactly his character arc had been.

Which left me wondering- How much arc does a character need to be compelling or an unforgettable character? Do we need to make that arc touch the sky or can it be small and still grab the reader and tug on those heart strings?

I just read a book by a well-known author and thinking it over the heroine had such a minuscule arc at first I thought, "Well, she doesn't have one". Then looking at the hero, he had an arc, not of major proportions but a significant one. Which then led me to ask the question, do you only need to make the one, main character(it was the hero's story) have an arc to have a compelling story, or does the reader want to see growth and change in both the hero and heroine?

After all these questions buzzed around in my head, I started thinking back on the stories I've written and more than once after getting to the end of a story, I'd discover (looking back through notes and scenes I'd jotted down along the way) my character had strayed from the destination I'd intended in their arc and yet, the story came out stronger.

So, my challenge to those who have suffered through my ramblings- Can you write a character arc for either your hero, heroine, or both and if you can do you consider it a grand arc or a small one and do you think it is enough to move the reader.


Paty Jager said...

I'll start the ball rolling with the character arc of my latest WIP.

Hero- He's determined to remain a bachelor and a pillar of the community. He falls head over heels for a bright-eyed four-year-old and then her stubborn mother. Only the mother has a tainted reputation. In the end he decides having a family is more important than what the community thinks.

Heroine - has known love (which broke her heart) and has known hate(which nearly broke her body) from a man. She's determined to make her way through the rest of her life without one. However, the gentleness a man shows to her young daughter and the way he stands up for her with the town, opens her heart and leaves her aching for that man. She finally admits, she doesn't want to fight for everything the rest of her life and gives in to her heart and his proposal.

Alice Sharpe said...

Paty, I've actually given this more thought with the my current WIP than I had previously due to the speaker Eli and I both enjoyed at nationals.

I don't think both characters have to have an equally strong character arc. In my very humble opinion, many stories belong more or less to one or the other character. That's not to say there isn't growth on both parts as much as to say that one character might experience a more extensive journey toward their fulfillment.

So, in the current book:

As a kid, the hero dealt with his dysfunctional home life by becoming the one who put a smooth face on his family for the community to see. His "stated" goal: Marry someone who will share the burdens. But at the beginning, he's only able to pay lip service to this ideal. He's actually afraid of being honest about his core feelings with another human being. She might discover he's putting on an act, he's not as capable as he pretends. So what he builds for himself is a life with a woman who will expect him to do what he does best, i.e., make everything look good.

When it appears he makes a horrendous mistake at work, his life begins to unravel. The woman he has chosen is made of better stuff than he imagined -- she wants to stick it out with him. He rejects her. How can she love him when he has done such a horrible thing? He has to make everything perfect again before he feels he deserves her love. So his journey is one of redemption and discovery that he doesn't have to stand alone, he can be loved despite his faults.

The heroine has to grow past her desire to be protected to acknowledge what she really wants is to stand by her lover's side -- not behind him.

I think that's it. Hey, thanks for getting me thinking first thing in the a.m. Looking forward to seeing what other people have to say.

Karen Duvall said...

I know character arcs are absolutely essential to any story, but their degree of arcing is relative. A strong arc will yield a strong story, IMO. And I think the strongest arc will be for that character to whom the story really belongs.

When you think back on our story magic sessions, they were 100% about story arc. We'd chart our characters for their arc. What does the character want (goal), why can't she get it (conflict), what risks will she take to try to get it anyway (disaster), and the sum of all these parts is the arc that's completed at the story's resolution.

I think character motivation and arc go hand in hand. Many beginner writers fail in coming up with sufficient motivation for their character to do what they do because they're putting plot ahead of character. They're still learning the mechanics of good storytelling. Once a writer understands that story IS character, they'll get the arcs down for their character without having to try too hard.

But when you ask if it's important a character have a strong art, I have to say yes, if you want a strong story.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I agree with Alice. I think a story (even a romance) is more one character's story than another. Look at your favorite books. Which character grows and changes the most? Generally, it's really "their" book.

In the WIP (AKA: The Book That Just Won't Die), my heroine has the biggest character arc. She has to learn to trust with her heart rather than her head. Alice and I talked a lot about this on the plane home from Dallas. My hero, in essence, completed his character arc before the story began. It's a reunion story, and their first relationship changed him way more than it did her. The WIP starts with her barrelling back into his life (he thought she'd died, in reality she'd been in hiding for fear of her life). Once he realizes she lied to him all these years and was really alive, he starts to question why he changed his life so much because of her. His character arc is smaller though because he learns quickly that alive or dead, the effect she'd had on him made him a better person. His goal then through the book is to convince her he really is the man she thought he was when they were together the first time.

And all typed out, man, that sounds really dumb. I think I'm going to go read what the rest of you came up with.

Karen Duvall said...

I meant "arc" not art. Sheesh.

For my novella coming out next month, my heroine, Claire, has spent her adolescent and adult life caring for her alcoholic mother and Down Syndrome sister, when a car accident takes both of them away from her. Having seen herself only as a caregiver all her life, she's suddenly slapped in the face with a new reality. Her estranged father is killed at around this same time, and he's left her a beautiful family heirloom and a lot of money. She looks upon this heirloom as a sign, a charm that brings her good luck, and she makes changes to herself to reflect that good fortune. The duckling becomes the swan, but events in the story show her that change came from within herself, from something that was always there to begin with, beginning in her childhood. It just took a "trigger" to bring it out.

The hero, Liam, doesn't have an arc. He actually completed his offstage, before the story starts, and it's the result of his growth that assists Claire to achieve hers. He's the catalyst to completing her arc. Her change comes partly from his reappearance in her life after their rough and tumble schooldays together. He brings out the old Claire, who to her is someone completely new.

Piper Lee said...

This is an awesome, timely topic Paty.

What you all have said in your comments has once again given me more education where I've been needing it lately. You're all so smart! ;)

Paty Jager said...

You all have great sounding arcs for your characters. And I think everyone has pretty much agreed that one character's arc can be greater than another's and perhaps should be to show the Central character and struggle.

I think it's interesting that both Alice and Eli are working on reunion stories and Karen, yours almost sounds like a reunion story as well!

Glad I could help, Piper. ;)

Karen Duvall said...

You're right, Paty, my story is a reunion story. I'd never done one before so it was a new experience, so I enjoyed that dynamic of old friends/lovers coming together again with pasts that affect their relationship. It's great arc-building material. 8^)

Lisa Pulliam said...

It's great to read what you all have for your arc's! One author who I am completely and utterly impressed with - particularly in the sense of character arcs - is Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I've read a few of her books and I'm constantly impressed by her character arcs and how she can make it believable that the two most unlikely people would fall in love.

Anyone looking for a book to read that's a great example of this, check out "Ain't She Sweet" by Susan. It's AMAZING! I've read it over the past week (avoidance behavior for my moving!) and I couldn't believe how great the arc's were. Just amazing writing, amazing characters. I really recommend this book.

Great topic, Paty!

Genene said...

Well, the advantage of reading several blog entries at once is that I can say "I agree" and "You ladies are brilliant!"

I plot arcs for my hero, heroine and any major characters. (As you all might have guessed!) The plot even has an arc, though I think it's called a resolution. :) And, as others mentioned, the character arcs don't all have to be major ones.

I also found Paty's comment interesting that her character had strayed from her original intended arc, but the story came out stronger. I've found that to be the case sometimes, but it's usually because I get to know the character better and better as I write the story. Then their real motivation or cause for their actions becomes clearer (peeling away the layers of the onion, so to speak). Going through the exercise Su and Darla presented at Tuesday's meeting brought one of those realizations for my hero in my current work in progress. Perhaps it's not just my characters who are growing, but me as well!