Essential writing skills: what Ebenezer Scrooge teaches us about character arcs

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.

Wright_Typewriter01So 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

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18 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: what Ebenezer Scrooge teaches us about character arcs

  1. Great post. I’ve been fighting with myself lately over how my current MC’s arc will develop, where she starts from, where she needs to go, and how she will get there. I love the posts that don’t just say, here’s what you have to do, but shows us in a way that we can see, touch and understand.

  2. Hi Matthew. When I became serious about writing, I started with Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” to learn story structure.

    I started planning my WIP around story structure. But, it wasn’t until I added character arcs that I saw my story turn to plot. As I added more important characters to my WIP, subplots appeared that hadn’t been there before.

    Instead of struggling to get to 40 scenes, I finally wrote out 83 scenes. Why? Because I paid more attention to my characters than my story, if that makes any sense.

    Silent

  3. As much as I love this post don’t you think it’s a bit early to think about Christmas stories? I’ll let you go with this one because it’s also the best ghost story I know but still…

            1. It’s got a lot bigger here of late – when I was a kid it only existed for my family because we had American friends. Now it’s more common but still hasn’t reached the US scale (though, I suspect, various retail chains would very much like it to).

              1. They probably would but i hope it doesn’t get as big as here in North America. The stores will start selling Halloween in July the way they sell Christmas in September. Far too early to be special.🙂

  4. I don’t think there always has to be character development for a good story.

    Some stories work well where the characters remain as you find them. The evil villain remains the evil villain, the hero remains the hero. It is the narrative of the obstacles they each have to overcome that carries the story, not how they internally develop.

    This style, to me, evokes the image of the ancient story-teller at the campfire, or the cliffhanger movie.

    I’m not saying character development shouldn’t be used – far from it! But I’m just pointing out there is an alternative that, while it probably won’t result in great literature, will still be a rattling good yarn!

    1. True – but they always learn something along the way! Even one like Craig Thomas’s ‘Firefox’, which was a real rattler and a great book that in effect carried only a ‘snapshot’ of the lead character rather than an arc…yet he had to find strength within himself to overcome his combat stress disorder and steal the Firefox.

  5. As I review my WIP, this post is perfect timing. I see breaks in the main character’s arc that need to be fixed for the story to flow better. Thank you for the prompt.

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