I’ve posted several times about the importance of character arcs – the pivot around which novel-writing must revolve. The narrative events of plot all derive from it.
A character arc is the journey – the direction – in which a character moves through the story. When that journey is complete, the novel ends. It is not about what a character wants – it is about what they need. Often the character arc is all about the difference; a character goes out to get what they want, learning along the way that what they want – and what they need to develop as people – are two different things.
What perhaps isn’t realised is that this arc is also a key editing tool. We often conceptualise stories as successions of cool scenes, snapshots that the writer things, ‘gee, that’d be neat to include’. The problem is that it’s too easy to wander – to end up with scenes that go nowhere or which don’t advance the story.
The answer is in the character arc. Sort that out first – what is the journey your character goes on? In The Hobbit, for instance – the classic ‘hero journey’ – Bilbo has to learn to discover his innate heroism. It is a progressive journey in which the development steps are clearly laid out.
First he is pushed into that journey by an unexpected event, with the help of a mentor (‘An Unexpected Party’); then he meets his first challenge (the trolls) – and is rescued by the mentor; other adventures follow that force him to act alone for the first time (‘Riddles in the Dark’); and finally he is stripped of his mentor and forced to find his heroism (Mirkwood and the spiders, escape from the Elvenking). Tolkien, brilliantly, extended Bilbo’s journey of self-discovery into ethical heroism – the confrontations with the dragon and the Arkenstone sub-plot.
The narrative events of the plot were subsidiary – Tolkien geared them to make it possible to explore Bilbo’s hero journey – not the other way around. That’s quite clear from the ‘first drafts’ published recently in a two volume set. Tolkien’s notes exploring narrative directions suggested various possible stories that were very different from the one he finally came up with – but all were built around a principle of rising tension and the essential character arc for Bilbo. The character arc, in short, drove the story. And that, I think, is a good principle to follow.
Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014