One of the key things all novellists have to master is the character arc. It’s fundamental to the nature of the novel – the reason why readers become emotionally engaged. Usually, the arc of the main character dictates the fundamental plot structure of the novel.
So what is a ‘character arc’? At basic level, it’s the journey a character takes as a person. They learn something. They develop. They change. The plot and events of the novel will always be about how they make that change. What does the character need to learn? How can they discover the better person they probably already believe themselves to be?
Take Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s all about Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal character arc – his transformation from a mean-spirited Grinch into a kind and generous man. The whole of the plot is subordinated to that goal. So how does Dickens handle it? Very, very unsubtly, broadly as allegory. That, of course, is why this tale is such a great way of exploring the integration between plot and character arc. Several key points emerge:
- Scrooge doesn’t know how to find his own joy. So the key tension of the character arc is going to be one of self-discovery. Undoing self-delusion is one of several possible character arcs.
- The plot of the story takes us on a journey through that character arc – it is designed to show first how Scrooge has insulated himself from Christmas joy, then how he is made to discover himself. It’s not subtle – nor did Dickens intend it to be. When the transformation is complete, we are shown how Scrooge has become a different man. The narrative ends there because there is nothing more to say about Scrooge’s transformation. The story is over.
- Dickens didn’t ‘pad’ the story with any unnecessary events. Everything was subordinated to defining Scrooge and taking us on a journey through his character transformation.
- The drama came wholly from within Scrooge – driven by that internal transformation. It didn’t rely or need external crises, adventure or other setting. And that’s the best way to develop story drama.
If you deconstruct other stories you’ll often find much the same thing – Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for instance, which is the classic hero journey.
Plot and narrative, in short, all swing around the needs of the characters. Something writers have to bear uppermost in their minds when plotting out their novel.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014