Saturday, January 22, 2011

More Thoughts on Developing a Character Arc

Last week I blogged on my method for developing a character arc. This method, by the way, works for any genre of fiction, not just romance. Just eliminate one of the character columns. The big difference is that in any other genre of fiction, the character arc centers around the internal issue that keeps the character from achieving her/his goal. In a romance, having a happily ever after ending with the love interest IS the goal. In a well-crafted romance, the same issue that keeps the characters apart, also keeps the protagonist from achieving his/her non-romance story goal.

Ari Thatcher commented, “One chart I use asks for the epiphany - what the character needs to realize to deserve their happy ending. I think that equates to your "What causes them to take a chance" but it makes me think about their mental processes rather than something that happens to them.” I like that and will add it to my chart. I think, though, that the moment of epiphany is actually a two-step process. First, some external circumstance or event shakes up the character enough that she/he has to rethink his/her actions or way of doing things. Then the character goes through a mental and emotional process that leads to committing to the new way of doing things.

I’m having my own epiphany, by the way. I’ve been getting a lot of praise from my critique partners on Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty, my YA set on Long Island during the post-McCarthy Era. Their comments were that I’d really hit hard with the emotions of a teen going through the pain of being left out. When I think about it, I was writing from my own pain as a young teen. It wasn’t hard to show Sophie’s pain because I’d been there, done that. That was me sitting outside the guidance counsellor’s door.

What I need to do with Me and the Alpha Jerk is find that same pain (well, a different pain but just as painful). Dig into my teenage years and find it.

Not hard. Being a teenager is like walking around with an open wound.

Not that any of this comes as a big revelation to me. Nor should it to any writer. We’re constantly being told to dig inside ourselves and translate that into our character’s pain.

A marvelous RWA on-line workshop given by TJ Bennet a couple of years ago, titled “The Black Moment” asked the participants to imagine the worst thing that could possible happen to ourselves and describe how we would feel. I did the exercise, but didn’t get much out of it. I now know why. I was answering the wrong question. Because, for me, the worst has already happened. I’ve lived though putting a cherished aunt in a nursing home, being fired, having cancer, learning a boy friend was gay, near bankruptcy, having a beloved parent die just as we were growing close. For me, when I look at the future, I can’t imagine anything worse than what I’ve already experienced. The best is to come…

But I can dig into what I felt then. In fact, my best stories have come from that. So what I need to do with Me and the Alpha Jerk is find the link between Emily and me, and let her live through my pain. 

Getting back to my planning chart, that pain is linked somehow to her Mistaken World View.  Interestingly, the Mistaken World View is a result of pain, but also causes more.  Because it's not the right response.

Lots of opportunities for some good writing here.  And Em is becoming real under my fingertips.


  1. As one of those critiquers of 'Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty' I have to say it reads as if written by a teenager who keeps her emotions under wraps so everyone thinks she's fine, but inside she's isolated and misunderstood. There is also a subtext that says 'everything was worse in Poland' which has given her the tools to get through life in the US. Can't wait to read more.

  2. I'm blushing! Thanks for the praise, Anita!

  3. Your post inspired me to think about my problems with my last novel, and to create not a 'character arc' but a 'plot arc' for my latest mystery. I listed all the key elements I thought would keep the plot moving: red herrings, twists, additional suspects, a middle cliffhanger etc. and am using them to plan the movement of the narrative. I wrote about it on my web journal,, and referenced your blog too!

  4. Thanks, Susan! Those are great elements, which I can see using in almost any kind of novel. I'm going to add them to my own toolbox.