Writing 101: The Character Arc

by Monica Shaughnessy

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If you’re a beginning writer or maybe a writer struggling with your second novel, you might be wondering how to construct the perfect character arc. Well, I’m here to help. First, let’s define it, shall we?

Character Arc: a character’s emotional journey throughout the story. 

This is completely different from (but intertwined with) characterization, which is the exploration of details about a character’s past and present that make them seem real and that help drive decisions (along with emotion) throughout the story. For instance, if your main character is autistic (characterization), it will significantly alter their emotional choices (arc). One feeds into the other. But for the sake of this post, let’s extract the character arc so that we may study it in detail.

At the opening of your story, your character begins with an emotional state. Here are some classic opening emotions:

Boredom – I wish something exciting would happen to me for a change.

Joy – I met the most wonderful guy last week, and now we’re dating.

Terror – I just woke up, and there’s a man at the foot of my bed.

Pressure – If I don’t defuse the bomb, the mall will explode.

Throughout the story, your character’s emotional state will vary, but the main emotion, the one you begin with, will drive the forward action of the plot because your MC will either be trying to rid themselves of that feeling or trying to maintain that feeling, despite roadblocks. So choose this state carefully and with purpose.

As we progress through the story, here’s how the above emotions might play out, depending on plot turns:

Boredom – I went looking for action, and I found it! Hooray! Except, it’s more dangerous than I thought it would be. And I have to be home in time for dinner.

Joy – My guy’s mother doesn’t like me. She’s trying to tear us apart.

Terror – I’m going to fight my way out of this situation. Again and again.

Pressure – I’m getting a little old for all this pressure. Do I even want it anymore?

As the story progresses, your character will continue to fight for what they want or they might begin to see what they’re fighting for isn’t worth it.

Boredom – Well, I’m not bored anymore. Because I’m in the emergency room with a broken foot.

Joy – I’m so confused. We were so happy once. Can we be that way again? Maybe, if his mother moves to Boca Raton.

Terror – I refuse to live in terror. I will make a plan, once and for all, to end this.

Pressure – You know, defusing bombs is kind of fun. And it beats working for the post office.

By the end of the story, your character will come to terms with the emotions they’ve been feeling since page one, and they will assess whether they want to maintain that initial state or not. Even if they don’t control the outcome of the plot, they can still choose their mental state.

Boredom – Things aren’t so bad at home. Especially when you compare them to a trip to the ER. I’ll take homework and dinner with my parents any old day! (character craves boredom)

Joy – Who needs a mamma’s boy? The guy was a jerk. Good riddance. (character realizes that joy is no longer attainable)

Terror – I defeated that crazy guy and reclaimed my life so that I can live in peace. (character overcomes terror)

Pressure – This job is totally worth whatever stress it gives me. I’m not ready to retire. (character accepts pressure)

You see? The main character will accept or overcome or reject or crave what they once felt. In all cases, the emotion is tightly bound by the plot, and the plot is tightly bound by emotion. If, once you write your story, you can’t easily change the plot without damaging what the character is experiencing emotionally, then you’ve nailed your character arc. Congratulations! But if you can easily swap out one emotion for another, say, lust for greed, then your story needs more work.

With a little hard work, I know you can get it right!

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Your turn, dear reader. Having trouble with a pesky character arc? Let’s talk shop.

 

Acing Unlikeable Protagonists

by Monica Shaughnessy

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Tell My Story. I Dare You.

When I look back at some of the short stories I’ve written, many, many of them feature unlikeable main characters. I find deeply flawed people fascinating, and it’s easy to “get away with” telling their secrets in short form. Readers might not stick with them for an entire novel, but they’ll definitely stick with them over, say, ten pages.

Here are just a few of the evil/pathetic/bigoted main characters I’ve cast over the years:

Lydia Strichter (“The Trash Collector”) – A bigot with a big mouth who loves prying into other people’s business. Perma-free on Amazon.

Josie Kreneck (“Date From Hell,” First Last Forever) –  A fickle thirty-something who’s dumped more men than Madonna.

The Professor (“Hell Cent,” Lethal Lore) – An academician with a giant ego and a yen for strangling women.

Lydia Strichter, by far, has hit the most home runs with readers. Reviews mention her by name, either calling her out for bigotry or praising her journey. (I won’t spoil the ending!) The Professor comes in a distant second, but only because “Hell Cent” is part of a recently released collection and “The Trash Collector” is perma-free (and more widely distributed). We’ll see about Josie Kreneck. But I think her story will resonate with readers as well.

So how do you write an unlikeable character that people will tolerate, maybe even secretly like or identify with? Here are my top tips:

  1. Give them a past tragedy that evokes sympathy and let it drive the story. Lydia is a grieving widow. Josie is afraid of entering middle age alone. The Professor is out of a job. Even readers who haven’t gone through one of these major life events can at least imagine what it’s like to lose a husband, their youth, or their career. This evokes a sympathetic response from the start. It’s harder to hate (truly hate) someone when you know they’ve had a rough past.
  2. Give them a least one likable or admirable quality. Perhaps it’s a sterling work ethic (The Professor) or sentimentality (Lydia) or even bravery (Josie). Your unlikeable main character must have at least one winning quality. Why? Because that’s real life. And people love characters that read like real life. No one is ever “all bad” or “all good.” If you write them like that, you’re creating cardboard characters (which is WORSE than writing unlikeable characters!) Plus, it gives readers something to root for when things turn ugly.
  3. Give them a foible that is very, very common. If a reader has that foible, too, or at least knows someone with it, chances are, they will receive your protagonist more kindly. In the case of my characters, Lydia is uncomfortable with anything too “different.” Josie is desperate for companionship. The Professor is superstitious. I don’t know about you, but these traits resonate with me because I’ve displayed them at one time or another in my life. Luckily not all at once!

Okay, to show you all of these tips in action (and to prove they work), I’m going to give you some characteristics of a real person (now deceased) who has made a great unlikeable main character in both fiction and non-fiction in the past. And by the way, all of the bullet points below are factual. Can you guess who I’m talking about?

Our Protagonist was:

  • An aspiring artist and cartoonist
  • A student with unfilled dreams
  • A grieving brother
  • A decorated veteran with multiple war wounds
  • A vegetarian against the slaughter of animals
  • A loving husband
  • An electrifying speaker

I don’t know about you, but I can either identify with or root for many of these qualities, even admire them. Except, they all belong to…

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Adolph Hitler.

Yeah, no kidding.

Which leads me to the very last tip:

4. Don’t make your main character so freaking bad that no tragic past/admirable quality/common foible can overcome their evil. In other words, it’s possible to wade too far into the deep end and create a character that prompts readers to shut the book on page one and curse your name. Er, like Hitler.

So don’t be afraid of casting bad guys in protagonist roles. Just do it with thought and planning and a little sympathy.

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How about you, dear reader? Ever cast a bad guy as your protagonist? Ever made your hero an anti-hero? Let’s discuss!

Imaginary friends and writing

by Mandy Broughton

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My daughter had an imaginary friend. My daughter treated her as a real friend. So real that it was six months before I realized she didn’t exist. Imagine my surprise when I asked the preschool teachers to point out Olivia to me and they told me, “there’s no Olivia in this class.” Turns out there wasn’t an Olivia in any classes at the school. I know, I checked.

Best friends. Olivia was quite the trouble-maker. I’d hear all about these wild parties my daughter and Olivia would throw while I slept blissfully through the night. I said more than once I was glad Olivia was good at cleaning up the house after a wild night of partying.

Olivia’s mom was quite the rebel too. I was informed one day that Olivia’s mom was thrown in jail for speeding. I found myself arguing with a three year old on whether or not her imaginary friend’s mother was thrown in jail for speeding. Sheesh!

I decided to research children and imaginary friends. I never had any. As a child, I was perfectly content to sit and read in my room all day. Friends–real or imaginary–would disturb that peace.

Imaginary friends are what we would expect from highly creative people. Active imagination. Intelligent. Creative. Verbal. What I did not expect was that many adults had imaginary friends. What?! Are these people in need of a mental health professional? Maybe, but mostly they are creative adults. And it turns out many of those creative adults are authors.

As a writer, I know I have proper characterization when I dream about my characters. I can hear what they say in certain situations. I know how they’d act when problems arise. Fictional characters should not be shooting gallery ducks forced to respond in a certain way when a crisis occurs.* Characters should be organic, growing as the story progresses. They should feel more real than some real-life celebrities we watch and follow in the news.

As a writer, have you ever needed a character to act a certain way and she just wouldn’t? She’s supposed to be angry but she’s acting all quirky and sarcastic on the page. Or two characters start flirting with each other and they’re not supposed to even like each other. Happens to me all the time. My characters have taken over the pages of my manuscripts. And many of them are completely unrepentant for derailing my plot. I guess I’ve developed imaginary friends as an adult. Maybe I’m a late bloomer.

So tell me, dear writers, how do you know when you’ve achieved proper characterization? Do you hear voices in your head? Do you dream about them? Do you mock-up a fake Facebook page and imagine what they’d post? I mostly argue with mine.

Back to work on this first work week of the New Year. I hope the New Year brings plenty of good books, lots of writing, and great friendships–real and imaginary!

Oh, and I can’t forget, as a longtime, die-hard University of Houston Cougar alumni and fan… oDPuclxr.jpgCongratulations on winning the Peach Bowl. GO COOGS!

 

*My editor once told me my characters were like shooting gallery ducks, they were cardboard and went back and forth like I was shooting at them.

 

Would You Date this Protagonist?

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By Ellen Leventhal

I love character driven stories. Great characters become your friends. They hit a chord in your heart. You don’t have to like them, but they should evoke some type of emotion. Are they kind? Funny? Quirky? Certain characters stay with us forever. Is it weird that I wanted to name my first born either Scout or Atticus? As a writer, there are hundreds of ways to develop characters, and I’ve used a bunch. They were all good, but now I’d like to share a new one with you. Match.com. Stay with me on this.

I have been happily married for close to 44 years, but for some reason I get match.com emails almost weekly. I’ve now also been introduced to the ranks of eHarmony and my new favorite, OurTime.com (for mature couples). Obviously, the internet knows I’m old. It just doesn’t know I’m married. Or doesn’t care.  My inbox is a virtual cornucopia of “singles in my area.” One day last week, being of curious mind and wanting to put off real work, I decided to look around a little. You know, just for fun. And then it hit me. The Constant Contact gods did not want me to leave my husband and troll the internet for people looking for love in all the wrong places. They sent these lovelorn souls to me for something much more interesting. Character development! You want to know a character? Read the online dating profiles and then write one of your own. I’d like to introduce you to three characters you may meet in some of my stories.

Ms. Magnificent is a 5’10” (6’ in her Jimmy Choos) Texan with a heart bigger than Southfork. She has been hurt, yet she doesn’t let that stop her from trying to find love. She believes that everyone is basically good, and she is kind to everyone. Those Prada sunglasses she sports may keep out UV rays, but they are rose colored and has caused her some disappointment. But don’t worry. She bounces back for more! She wears her heart on her her Stella McCartney dress sleeves, and when she is upset, y’all will know it. She feels sure that her Prince Charming is right around the corner. Could it be you? Ms. M. likes mocha frappacinos (sugarfree, no fat) arugala salad (dressing on the side), and long walks. (But not in the rain because her hair has a tendency towards frizzing). Ms. Magnificent is an animal lover. She rescues puppies and kittens, and her favorite farm animal is a unicorn. She doesn’t eat carbs, but she’s a wonderful baker. That’s not the only reason they call her Cup Cake. Call to find out more.

Mr. Macho is 6’2” and muscular. He has been divorced for five years, and he enjoys life to the utmost. His luxurious hair is almost to his shoulders because he doesn’t care that it’s not 1969 anymore. He’s a people lover and wants to love as many people as possible. He sometimes gets sad when he thinks of his ex-wife because she is really pretty and rich. They only divorced because she took advantage of his good nature and had a crazy idea that their relationship should be monogamous. He’s too much of a giver to only give to one person. He is also too much of a man to be told what to do. He believes women should be treated like ladies all the time. He opens doors and makes decisions for them. He doesn’t want “his girls” to work too hard. If you want to have fun, and you have very low self-esteem, call him. He’ll answer if he feels like it.

Ms. March wants you to know that’s her name, not her title. And it will be Dr. March as soon as she finished her PhD. She is a biology professor at a prestigious university. She’s never been married because her career comes first. Although she spurns the institution of marriage, she’d like someone to spend time with and possibly travel with her to third world countries. She likes politics, but is open minded. As long as you agree with her. Ms. March does not want to be categorized by political party, race, or religion, but she will not date a Republican. If you don’t recycle, don’t call her. She will have to clear her chakras after being with you, and who has time for that? A perfect date would be margaritas on the beach and an anti-war demonstration. Call and find out why they call her Top Shelf.

So there you have it. Put any of these people together and watch what happens. Thanks, match.com! Research comes in all forms.