Essential writing skills: Tolkien and character arcs as an editing tool for writers

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.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

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

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7 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: Tolkien and character arcs as an editing tool for writers

  1. Hi hope you’re right Matthew.

    When I laid out my story arc, I folded in my MC’s arc, and had to go through many revisions to support her journey. And, when I laid in the other important characters, I was astonished to discover they didn’t necessarily have the same arcs. Some of them had started much earlier than Scene One. Some of them never got a chance to finish their arcs as they perished.

    Silent

    1. Yes, sometimes the arcs of the secondary characters won’t coalesce. That’s a challenge, for sure, with ensemble-cast novels. Probably less vital where there is a single main character, where what counts is that central arc – the rest are important too, but they won’t make or break the story.

  2. Nicely expressed (as always). I see lots of writers who produce a story with beautiful language and lots of emotion, but end up with the literary equivalent of a framed piece of wallpaper on the wall instead of a picture because it just doesn’t GO anywhere. The reader is left thinking ‘very nice, but why did you tell me all this? What’s the point of the story?’ A strong character arc would fix the problem and give them a frame to work to, yet somehow they resist the concept as ‘trickery’!

    1. It’s the difference between pretensions to literature and a story that the rest of us might want to read, I suspect! You’re right – the story really has to go somewhere for to be interesting ‘for the rest of us’. And when it comes to writing, the ‘rest of us’ are the audience that counts!

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