Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tips for Creating a Character Arc

I’ve been plotting my new novel, “Me and the Alpha Jerk”. It’s a contemporary YA set in Arizona. My main characters are an animal rights activist from the East and a young rodeo cowboy, the son of a rodeo stock contractor.

This is the first time I’ve created something totally from scratch, without having either a legend to build it around, as my Arthurian trilogy, or an incident from real life, as in my dramas produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty. By now I’ve learned quite a bit about novel writing, which includes building the plot around a character arc. I thought I’d share my experiences and what I’ve learned. Hopefully, if you’re struggling with character development, this might give you a few ideas.

Basically, a character arc is the change in the character from the beginning to the end of the novel. Any novel worth its salt has it. Novels, in fact, are about character change. The plot provides the incentive and opportunity to change.

In the past, my stories have been plot driven. I’ve said to myself, “OK, here’s what happens. Now what kind of character would get involved in this kind of situation and how would it cause her/him to change?”

Because the idea for “Me and the Alpha Jerk” came from the title, the book basically started with the characters, not the plot. An alpha male and a woman who can’t stand alpha males. Since I’m experimenting with YA’s, I’ve made them teens.

Now I need a teen alpha male. And not your usual football jock. Well, there’s only one alpha male who’s more alpha than a football jock. A rodeo cowboy. And as I happen to love rodeo, I’ve got the perfect setting, one I know a lot about, even though I’m now here in New Zealand.

But novels are about conflict. I’ve read over and over again that the best way to create conflict between your hero and heroine is to make them exact opposites.

So what kind of woman is likely to hate rodeo cowboys? Ding! An animal rights activist. Make her from the East, so she looks down on “rednecks” from the West. Make her a horse lover, too, but one who does dressage. No, even better, one who does Combined Driving, my favorite sport, something else I know a lot about.

At this point I’ve got two static characters. The thing that gives the plot life is their growth. Now, I could just say, “OK. She changes and sees his point of view and he changes and sees hers.” But that really doesn’t give much depth to the novel.

I’ve taken a number of workshops on plotting, and one of the things that stuck with me is the idea that the character is driven by a belief, a view of the world, that is essentially flawed. In order to be successful, the character has to change that mistaken world view.

I’ve also heard numerous times that romances (ok, this is a romance, what else could it be with a title like that?) work better if the hero and heroine are basically dealing with opposite ends of the same internal conflict.

So what could be driving both my hero and heroine to take the stances they do? Why does one become an animal rights activist and the other a high school rodeo cowboy dreaming of making “Pro”?

How does this keep them apart and how do they need to change if they’re to ever get together as a couple and have the obligatory “happily ever after”?

At this point I started to put together a table with three columns. The left hand colum covered the turning points in the characters’ growth. The other two columns were headed with the hero and heroine’s name. Here are the turning points that I listed in the left column:

  • Original wrong world view
  • How this keeps them apart
  • Beginning – What does it look like when they’re “doing their thing”
  • What happens to force them to do it differently
  • They try the different thing and begin to become confident
  • What’s the reward for doing the different thing?
  • Major setback in doing it differently
  • Go back to doing it the old way (which leads to renewed conflict between the hero and heroine and a sense they’ll never get together)
  • How does this cause them to fail in achieving their non-romance/story goal? (This is the crisis)
  • What causes them to take a chance, and doing it the new way
  • Success (this is the climax)
  • New world view
  • How this allows them to get together (denoument)

As I filled in the two columns, I focused on how each character’s action would cause conflict with the other character, adjusting the action to cause maximum conflict. For example, in the beginning when they’re “doing their thing” I have her outside the rodeo arena, carrying a placard, protesting cruelty to animals. He, of course, as he enters the showgrounds, says something insulting to her. But what if she ups the ante and does something to cause him to lose the event?

I won’t go into how I’ve filled in the boxes, but by the time I was done, I could see what had to happen to make each of my characters change -- events which can be turned into scenes. This doesn’t give me the whole plot, but it gives me an overall arc that I can fill in with the rest of the story. Even better, it gives my story direction. Plus, as the structure of all novels is predictable, it gives readers a sense of where they are in the story as they read through the work.


  1. I think I love you! This is a fabulous, at least for me, post. I'm thinking about my characters and work in progress in a whole new light. Thank you!

  2. Great questions to ask yourself. 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.

  3. Very nice, Vicky. Succinct. I'm going to use these columns to brainstorm the next one.

  4. Hi Vicky. I'm swinging by from FF&P. This was a helpful post, thanks for sharing. I'll actually use this to guide me in a revision of a completed ms, where my goal is to up the romantic tension. Perfect timing.

  5. Great post, Vicky! Bookmarking this one for sure.

  6. Thanks, everyone for your comments! Glad this was useful!

  7. Very useful. Life has been in whirlwind-mode for over a month, but I've saved your email on this post just so I could come read it. As I expected, this could be really helpful. I've finally realized the current book isn't going anywhere because I have no idea how the story ends. I think I can pants just about anything between beginning and end, but I have to know where I'm headed and I really don't have a clue. *___* Thanks for the tip! Once I'm no longer wondering around with my head revolving to see everything, I'll try this out. ;D