How to Write Those Darn Character Arcs

Photo © 2009 mrmayo CC BY-NC 2.0

I’ll fess up and say I’ve avoided teaching about character, because, well, it’s complicated. And everyone has their own process. So I have to ask myself: How do I write character? Because I do write it. But how? What’s my internal process?

Let’s start with the main character. The process is basically the same for all the secondary characters.

First of all, after thinking and planning out my story, I get a sense just through my imagining, what the main character looks like. (And of course, whether male or female. For this study, I’ll go with female.) I nail down the basics: height, weight, hair. Then I give her a name. This is subject to change as I get to know her and what the story demands. In fact, all my first assumptions about my characters are subject to change— and they usually do… in more senses than one, because that’s what a Character Arc is.

I know a lot of people will do character study lists at this point, including deep emotional questions like what’s their biggest fear, what’s their favorite food, etc. And it works for them, but for me, I can’t do this up front. These kinds of deeper questions are answered in the writing of the story, so I like to do those deeper lists on the second draft.

So for the first draft, besides basic looks and name, I try to determine the Felt Need. This is a concept that I seem to understand better than simply motive or motto. Felt Need to me is that deep underlying need that propels them through each day. I can usually figure this out easily once I’ve mapped out some of the story, even if that information is all in my head.

For instance, in Clockwise, the protagonist’s felt need is to be “normal.” We all want to feel included and to fit in, but she laments because she can’t control the fact that she’s a time traveler— and how inconvenient this “gift” is!

Once I determined her felt need, I gave her other problems or self-perceptions that fed into that belief system. She’s too tall, too skinny. Her knees are knobby. Her hair is too big and curly. And because of these personal problems, she believes she’s unworthy of the “cutest boy in the school.”

Other examples of felt need: the need to belong, the need to feel safe, the need for acceptance, the need to find something, like a loved one or the truth.

Finally, I can determine the Character Arc. Characters need to change as the story progresses. My character in Clockwise can’t be the same person by the time the book ends. All of the conflicts and crises she goes through in the story must bring change to her character. This happens gradually over the course of the story. By the end, she sees herself much differently. She’s grown into her scrawniness and likes her new curves; she doesn’t mind her hair; she’s accepted her brand of normal and that she is worthy of the cute boy’s affections. I try to nail down the basic character traits and the arc path before I start writing. However, sometimes these are revealed as I write. Or at least, become more clear.

How do you approach writing character?




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