The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Character Arc

Typically, when writers think Character Arc they think of the main character’s inner transformation. In other words, the lead character starts with a specific point of view, but because of the need to change their beliefs in order to address the conflicts that arise, the main character is a different person by the end of the story. This is a simplified interpretation, but it will due.

The purpose of the Character Arc is to keep the tension on the page high and to keep the story moving forward. Note that characters who do not change are considered fatally flawed and are tragic characters (Think McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), unless the character is already good (Think James Bond, or Braveheart).

There are different kinds of Character Arcs and it is ideal if you choose the kind of Character Arc that works best with your plot type and story structure.

A Change Arc is where the main character changes from an unlikely protagonist to a hero (Think Bilbo Baggins who was a reluctant hobbit hired to be a burglar but ended up the hero of the story in The Hobbit). This kind of transformation is radical and may include all aspects of the character.

A Growth Arc is where the main character overcomes personal failings during the continual conflict and becomes a better person (think Charlie Babbit who was a selfish-money-hungry-car-salesman but who gave up his selfish ways to support his special needs older brother in Rain Man).

A Fall Arc is where the main character believes something that isn’t true and then makes bad choices repeatedly because of that faulty belief, which then leads to corruption, disillusionment, insanity, or death (Think Anikin Skywalker in Star Wars who believed the lie that his wife could be saved from death if he chose the Dark Side).

To work out your Character Arc, you do need to consider what kind of person you want your character to be at both the beginning and the end of your story. You must also know who they are, where they came from, why they are in your story to begin with, and also how you want them to change so you can incorporate the best kind of Character Arc for your character and story. Note that you can have multiple Character Arcs in your story. Your antagonist may have a Character Arc as well as other characters. This will make your story more complex, on the plus side. On the minus side, this will make your story more complex. In other words, you definitely need the story structure in place to do this well.

Ask yourself questions and incorporate them into the Plot Structure to help you create your Character Arc. Work the Character Arc into the story with a Scene and Sequel structure unless you can seamlessly write both internal and external conflict. And remember GMC, too, when working on character creation and arc.

  • What are your character’s traits (Opening Scene)
  • How are the character traits faulty (Other Complications)
  • What happens internally to trigger the character to question their beliefs (The Point of No Return)
  • What does the character think of the faulty beliefs (Other Complications)
  • What is the main belief that the character must discard in order to change (The Main Complication)
  • What new belief is born or how has the belief changed (The Climax)
  • Show how the character has changed (the Ending)

Note that the Character Arc, story structure, and the theme are linked. I expect that much more thought and planning went into your favorite novel than you ever realized. But you can do it too. I have faith in you.

Next time: Scene and Sequel

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Character Development: GMC

GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) is essential for character development and is a major component of all well-written books that readers love. But what is GMC?

Goal = I want

The Goal is what the character wants, or thinks he/she wants. The goal is so important to the character they can’t let it go, even if the goal isn’t important to other characters. The goal must be relevant for that particular character otherwise it will affect your overall story logic, and if the goal is also urgent, all the better, because the urgency will help move the character forward in the story. The goal should be difficult to achieve and come with challenges and obstacles so that each decision that the character makes will make the goal harder or easier to obtain. You characters’ goals are what drive the novel, and stories without goals for  each character have an incomplete structure. You character should have short-term goals as well. The short-term goals may be steps to the long-term goal, or the short-term goals may just keep your character alive so they can achieve the long-term goal. Regardless, each and every character should have a goal.

Motivation = I want because

Motivation is the “why” part of the goal and expresses why a character wants that specific goal. It is the logical reason the character wants the goal more than anything else in the world. The motivation is what keeps the character from giving up. Strong motivation will create conflict and force the character to move forward. The character must choose the goal in spite of the conflict otherwise there is insufficient motivation.  If the motivation is urgent and/or compelling, this will also help move the character forward in the story. Note that coincidence is NOT the same as motivation. Coincidence happens when the writer has failed to plan a way for the character to get out of the pickle they are in, and it causes the reader to suspend their disbelief. If your character is escaping from evil minions and comes across a car with the keys in it, that is coincidence. Don’t depend on coincidence. Depend on GMC. Your reader will notice all those coincidences, even if you don’t.

Conflict = I can’t get because

Conflict is the “what” which keeps your character from achieving the goal and it is the conflict which is the whole point of the story. If your character reaches the goal immediately, then there is no story and you can just type THE END.  Dealing with each conflict that arises forces the character to decide how to move forward in order to reach the goal. The character may get side-tracked, but they never lose sight of what they want. They push forward. They fight. They will reach the goal or die because it is that important to them.

Types of Conflict

Ideally GMC is both internal and external for each character. The two types of conflict create depth and believability. For even more depth put the two types of conflict in opposition to each other. And for even more depth make the GMCs f one character oppose the GMCs of another character. This use of conflict will ensure that the story contains a natural tension which will keep your reader turning pages. Note that natural tension does not necessarily mean realistic tension. Fictional conflicts must be larger than life just like fictional characters.

Internal Conflict deals with the character’s emotional issues which complicate the character’s ability to reach the goal. The inner anxiety of the character creates tension. Internal conflicts (such as tropes listed here) can be nearly infinite with creative options and opportunities for the writer.

External Conflict consists of problems developed from events or other people which keep the character from reaching the goal, and it is the external conflict that is crucial for plot development. Think Man vs Nature, Man vs Man, etc…and how this relates to plot types.

Generally, writing a strong, well-rounded character, as well as developing a great plot will come down to GMC. A story’s tension is created by good motivations and a story’s momentum is created by good conflicts. You characters must have well thought out goals to make both possible.

Next time: Character Arc

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Character Development (continued)

There are thousands of character creation tools available in books and on the internet. If you need a worksheet or other tool to help you create your characters, just Google the topic. You will find bazillions of listings for how-to’s, spreadsheets, charts, videos, documents to print out and fill in, name generators, character wheels, and also software like Character Writer, Writer’s Block, Character Pro, and Scrivener (I haven’t used any of these software programs other than Scrivener which is inexpensive, easy to learn via video tutorials on YouTube, is both visual and logical, and makes all aspects of novel writing easier to manage. I also don’t make any money by endorsing it FYI. But I like it enough to recommend it).

Not every writer makes character profiles, just like not every writer plots out their novel in advance, but there are some good reasons to do the preparation work. Character profiles help you weave a back story in without information dumping, and also allows you to fully understand your character so you can show him/her without resorting to clichés. The more complex the story the easier it is to forget details of each character as you get deeper into the actual writing part. Profiles help you to remember things. Profiles also help you ensure that your character is well-rounded. Profiles help you problem solve. Your character profile will also help you keep your character acting at maximum capacity.

Consider what kind and how many characters you need for your story. If you are writing a romance you need at least two characters who can fall in love with each other. If you are writing a thriller you need at least a protagonist and an antagonist to pit against each other. Each character should have their own profile, including the antagonist and the sidekick so that they each have their own goals, motivations, conflicts, fears, characteristics, weaknesses, and strengths.

Your characters need a past. The past dictates his/her present to some degree. If your character grew up in poverty living in a one-bedroom trailer with seven other people and a dog and is now a billionaire, things had to happen to them to make them who they are now. Your readers may never learn all of those details, but if you have those already built into your character profile you can serve up tantalizing hints to intrigue your reader along the way. The back story helps to flesh out your character and helps them to seem real.

Your characters need a physical body of some kind. What does that look like? If your character has a scar across their ankle from falling down the stairs when they were seven, and this plays into your story in chapter two, you probably need to remember they have a scar on their ankle in chapter nineteen, or if you are writing a series, in book five.  Trust me on this. You may think that it is no big deal if your character is left-handed in book one but is right-handed in book seven, but your readers will and they will tell you all about it.

Find a photograph that resembles what you are envisioning your character to look like. Keep that handy because it will help you to remember these kinds of details when you are in the trenches of writing.

Your character profile is where you clarify what the goals are, what the internal conflicts are, what the specific mannerisms, and ticks, and fears, and driving forces, and emotional triggers are. Your character profile will also allow you to consistently associate any symbols, colors, moods, sounds, smells, wise sayings, themes, allegories etc…that you want associated with that character so he/she will be unique to your story.

Don’t be surprised if your characters then come to life on the page. Don’t be surprised if your characters then require you to revise your plot. Don’t be surprised if you get more excited about your story than you’ve ever been before and you can’t wait to write it. Creating character profiles is a LOT of work. But it is worth it.