Writing tips: chicken-and-egg character arcs

One of the biggest challenges for novel writers – and a challenge closely entwined with structure – is the character arc.

At the beginning of the story, the lead character – and, usually, the two or three others developed to similar extent – is incapable of meeting the challenge posed by the plot. During the course of the story, they learn how to meet that challenge. At the end of it, they meet that challenge and win.

In some stories – especially the hero journey – this usually involves action; physically learning from experiences. In literary tales, that journey is more complex, inward-looking, a journey of the mind. Some tales may have aspects of both.

The character arc has to work closely with the plot and structure of the novel – they are aspects of the same thing when it comes to planning. Therein lies the challenge. Some writers, I suspect, approach story telling from a plot perspective; a cool scene, or a cool scenario, then make the character arc fit that.

Others do it the other way around:

1. Define the character – particularly, what is it they need to grow as people (as opposed to what they say they want)
2. The character arc becomes their journey towards getting what they need – for instance, learning confidence; or understanding something about themselves.
3. The plot falls in around that, including the cool scenes the author has in their mind.

Of course, it’s not literally as easy as one-two-three. The character arc will help draw the reader forward, but there are other issues of pace, tension and action to work in.  It’s a juggling act with jigsaw pieces. But they can be made to fit! It’s a question of breaking down the issues – the character arc, the plot tensions, the actual events, the conflicts – and working them out systematically.

Which way do you define your characters and their character arcs?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


12 thoughts on “Writing tips: chicken-and-egg character arcs

  1. In my current work, I’m working with the topic of fear. Everything from the fear of not getting paid to the fear of death and beyond. As the plot proceeds, the main character has to deal with different types and increasing levels of fear, The initial character’s back story was the driving force in generating the character arc. His origin and ultimate destiny created the beginning and end of the arc. The middle of the arc is coming together as he proceeds through the plot points. So far it appears that both action and internal processes will affect the character’s change. We will see as it comes together.

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    1. Sounds very positive – and you might well be surprised at how it coalesces. Sometimes writing that seems somehow disconnected just ‘clicks’ a little later, sometimes forcing a quick re-cast through earlier chapters, but not a complete re-write, and the new whole is a better entity. I find my own writing often springs surprises on me like that – hope you do too.

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  2. Might depend on what you are writing or what kind of mood you are in. Once I thought up the characters first, wrote out everything about them and then put them into the story and another time the story was going on in my head faster than I could write it and the characters were developing according to the story.

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  3. Ah, a timely post as I’m just planning out my next novel – thanks Matthew! Good to have all the elements laid out like that so they can be accounted for. My ‘snowflake’ may become a blizzard at this rate!

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  4. I start from a cool premise and then work out a high-concept logline from that. But from there, developing character and plot go hand in hand. I’m always asking myself “what does the character want?” and “what do they need?”. For a meaningful story (for me anyway), the character has to come to realize what they actually need, and understand that what they wanted never would have made them happy.

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    1. That is a very powerful way of building a character arc – that dissonance between what a character wants and what they need. I’m often surprised at the number of stories that don’t do it – or where that side is very much secondary. But it is such a great way of building character, story and arc!

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  5. Reblogged this on Naimeless and commented:
    It’s now NaNoWriMo in the US, and I’m a few days late, but I’ve been counting pens for inventory at work (read 12 hour days)I could write a whole post about pens.
    But I won’t.
    Yet.

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  6. Now then, this is interesting Matthew. I stumbled across this post in my search for writing character arcs backwards. It seems I’ve just done that and was a bit stumped about how to address the mess. This is an insightful approach to sorting out what my character thinks she’s doing and what it really going on behind the scenes.

    I always find good things on your site.

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  7. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I’m still not sure I understand what a character arc is. I write a character bio to start with and see how the character develops from there. They sometimes surprise me, and that in itself blows my mind–it’s my pen and my paper. How do those pretend people in my head manage to become something different from my plans?

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