I’ve been starting the habit of reading more books on writing. It’s something I’ve always believed in, but didn’t really practice as much as I should. I read plenty, and I listen to video blogs and podcasts when I’m not furiously doing the other things that life has me doing. The thing is, we have to take the time to hone our craft, and it’s not enough to simply write. Writing without learning about the craft or trying new things won’t lead to growth.
I’d mentioned a few times how Caught was a bit delayed because my editor didn’t think Sal’s arc was clear enough. As is always the case when I hear feedback, even if I disagree with it, I started doing some research, and the book I’m currently listening to, Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland, has at least got me thinking. See, my struggle is some characters don’t change. I like some of those characters. So I had to figure out a way of thinking that allowed me to distinguish between one arc and another.
Here’s one choice that’s important: The events your characters experience should change them, or the situation or people should change as a result of your characters.
That, to me, is the distinction that matters. I’ll post a “review” of the above book once I finish it, but I’m far enough along in that book to know I’ve pinpointed that choice as one every writer should make.
Tyrion from Betrayer’s Bane: This was the December Book Cover of the Month. I finished this book last week, and I’ll post a review on it in a few weeks, but Tyrion is a good figure to study. You have a character who’s come to believe a simple truth: Nothing is more important that the elimination of the enemy.
Without giving you too many spoilers, I will tell you what matters is he has a fundamental belief. Each plot point serves to in one way or another test that belief. As the story progresses, he’s even tempted by other things. Then his moment of decision comes when he has to choose to let go of that belief completely or hold to it. That moment of choice must feel realistic. The temptation to change coarse must feel tempting to the reader, and the moment of decision must come at the character’s most delicate frame of mind. Michael G. Manning does an amazing job of following those threads to a satisfying conclusion.
This story I feel less likely to have spoilers, so I feel a bit more ready to point out some of the specifics. Tony Stark has a fundamental belief in the beginning of the movie. Nothing matters as long as you have wit and money. There may be other (and even better) ways to say it, but this is him in a nutshell. Sure, when he’s captured he learns the pain of irresponsibility, but he still counters this with his mind and financial power, but he’s fighting the symptoms of the problem. He’s still pretty caviler about things until the his newest weapon nearly falls into the wrong hands. Here he has the chance to let let the responsibility go, or accept it and do something. That moment of choice is when we see Stark’s growth.
But what about those other arcs I like so much? I’ve been open that I like a character who doesn’t change. When a character doesn’t change, the world around him has to. This is the nature of a story. Something must change.
Captain America: From beginning to end, our hero is who he is. Yes, he gains power. Yes, his looks change. But those are superficial. He starts the movie a young man believing that truth and justice are worth fighting for, and ends his battle paying (or seeming to pay) the ultimate sacrifice for his belief. He doesn’t change. But every other character around him does. His belief becomes a beacon of light for others to look upon. Characters look to him and decide to follow his example, or reject him and become his opposition.
A great plot is an equally great place to start, but events (especially those as traumatic as the ones we see in literature) test people. If those people hold tight to their beliefs (regardless of their truth or falsehoods), the characters around him should be inspired by those actions (or they should try to kill him). If the people don’t change, the characters should. People crave companionship. If the world around us doesn’t change we’ll eventually change ourselves to fit in. Peer Pressure and Social Norming are examples of this truth.
How do you do that? Well, part of it is to consider how your character will react to the events you’re about to put him through? Who is your character at the beginning of the story? Who will he be at the end? Who were the other characters when they meet your main character? Who will they be at the end?
Plot shows a progression of events, but that’s just part of it. Characters should grow or help those around them grow. I thought I’d spend a bit of time offering my thoughts and seeing what everyone else thinks.
Thanks for reading,
2 thoughts on “Growth of a Character: The Plot isn’t the Only Thing That Moves”
Terrific points! Characters make a book. It’s who we identify with, and what keeps me reading.
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Thank you. I tend to agree. There are some exceptions in the world (as is the case in everything). People attach to characters for different reasons. But the goal of this particular post was to make sure that people see the world affect the character or the character affect the world. I think that will result in a more satisfying conclusion at the end of the story.
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