New writers often ponder the problem of Character Arc in a Novel because they instinctively know that it is of great importance. If your novel is going to be satisfying to the reader it should have a character arc that is recognisable.
So, What is Character Arc in a Novel?
Characters are always getting into scrapes which forces them to take action and do something about getting out of the scrape. Characters also spend a lot of their time trying too protect themselves from the results of being in a tight situation where other characters are trying to get them to do something.
It’s when a character is forced to act against another character’s actions that we see a slight change or possibly a development in personality. The character may reveal a new trait that wasn’t obvious before.
The action in a novel causes a reaction from the main character. The reaction may go from something we expected to a development of character that shows us that the protagonist has made decisions which require more determination than before or it may be that he or she must decide to do something that they didn’t want to do before. In any case, it will be revealing and can be seen as development or growth of our protagonist.
When we read, we want to identify with the characters, at least the main character, so that we can understand their motivations and guess at what they are thinking.
In identifying with the character we instinctively feel a path that a character is taking that indicates change; that will mean change in the story too. We want that so we can get a sense of satisfaction after trying to follow and guess what the character is going to do next. When he or she doesn’t do what we think they should have done, it can often be an indication that the novelist has done their thinking and the actions, they we didn’t guess , are in character with something much deeper. Our character has a complex personality, throughout the story we only get to know them enough to be able to stick with them and hope for a good ending. As authors, we only need to write enough about character that is pertinent to the story and the person’s situation.
Character change can be quite clear and we see it happen after each event. That’s very best-seller style or Hollywood and it makes good reading on a busy day. It delivers the story in a way that we don’t need to meditate on the narrative and dialogue too much. Think “Jack Reacher” from Lee Child. Lee Child says that he has no time for character arcs and that Jack Reacher doesn’t need to develop. There is plenty of opportunity for him, as an author, to develop the character but it never happens in the stories. He shoots ’em up, and that’s that.
No development and you definitely have a flat character and a groan of a story on your hands. You have no character arc that will, by its own power, indicate change in the arc of the story.
Sometimes a character can change in a subtle way. Such as a change of opinion that could eventually lead to an unexpected action that culminates in a big change. Other times, we can write our changes with a broad brush that shows the reader that something just happened and that means something else is going to happen. That will mean that the character is forced into a new position and therefore carries an adjusted set of values which affect his way of looking at the world. They are now changing dramatically. The arc is reaching its zenith and we feel that an explosive situation is brewing. The character must undertake something that will keep it under control and make them come back as the hero.
We talk of an arc, but it doesn’t have to be a long rainbow of a thing that lights up the sky from beginning to end. Change can be very slow at first, so long as events hold up the story and reader’s interest, but then take off into a series of changes that have been forced by action. They then cause the character to make decisions to take things in hand and act in a way that she would never have dreamed of at the beginning of the story. At this point, we are already experiencing the results of a change in character and enjoying the results of your thoughtful writing that takes a reader through a story without being obvious about character arc.
For our characters to experience an arc throughout the story we must, of course, give them characteristics or personality. These often limit a character to obvious actions which in turn are motivated by desire. Sounds boring but it isn’t. It’s what happens after the action that propels a story farther along and therefore cause more reactions from a multitude of characters. The actions that I mention can be from other characters, but think a moment, they could also be a natural occurrence or and unexpected event in a complex game of life.
A great book that has an enormous appeal to millions of readers. The protagonist, Michael Corleone, the son of the Godfather has no interest in his family’s affairs as gangsters and criminals. He avoids involvement at every opportunity, even when they ask him to come into the business and be a part of the criminal empire that his father has built, he refuses. He leaves and joins the army, probably to become a man on his own terms. The army gives us, as readers, the information to accept that a war would change a man. So Michael returns home from the army slightly changed. We didn’t see any events from army life or war, but on his return we do see that he is more of a man than before. The war changed him, he made it through but he doesn’t talk about it. It’s part of a character arc that takes him from being inexperienced youth to a tough young man with an opinion. To stand up against the Mafia, even when the boss is your dad, takes guts. He does, and he gives an emphatic “no” whenever they tell him to join them and be a true member of his own family.
He goes off to do his own thing and we stay with the family and their problems as well as Michael’s problems. His problems are women and relationships, the family have a storm brewing and the threat of another gang who are taking their territory. They need Michael, he says “no,no” and they finally get it, he doesn’t want to be a Mafioso, he wants to be a family man with the normal responsibilities.
Then something happens, the Family are trying to fight a war that has come to killings. It looks tricky but they pull it off. When one day all seems to be fair weather, and the normal ‘look over your shoulder but carry-on with gangster life’ is the order of the day, out of blue the Godfather gets shot to pieces in the street.
He’s the boss, the king and the castle. He can’t die, otherwise all is lost and the marauders will sack land and castle before dawn.
The Family are devastated and at their wits end. They talk, they discuss and go round in circles about what to do – “we don’t have the power to overcome our enemy.” is the message we get.
Michael gets the news. It devastates him too. We then see him in action. He doesn’t react, he acts. He knows what he must do and so he does it. His change comes late in the story and it’s an explosive change that we experience as we watch him take control of the circumstances. Then he declares that he is the oldest son and that he is in charge and he isn’t open to argument with family members.
Michael’s character arc begins early in the story, we watch him as he denies his family and turns away from their troubles, we believe that is what he wants and so he isn’t part of the real Mafia story which we want to read. We see change as he gets what he wants in a wife and child. Then, one day, well into the story we see that he realises what he now wants and cannot deny himself. There was something lurking deep in his personality that only needed the right voice to call it to life.
He becomes what he is and he is good at it, so it gives us, as readers, satisfaction to finally have Michael revealed to us in all his glory and brutality. We believe in it and understand the arc of life that he has lived because we have seen both sides of the man, the gentle husband who wooed and courted his wife until we decided that he is a good man who we want to be successful at anything he does. And then, when it comes to him showing the psychopathic Michael in action, we still want him to win and be successful. A successful character arc that gives depth to a story that could have been shot down amongst the thousands of gangster stories around the world.