Lessons I’ve learned as a writer – Character Arcs (Part 1)


The process of bringing a book from odd idea to full fledged novel is a circuitous path. Each book is a road which must be walked. This could take months or years before you, the creator, are happy with the overall finished manuscript. Hindsight is 20/20 they say, but I don’t believe them. Trust your feelings, let them flow through you and into the piece. Looking back on a project there will always be moments where you could imagine things going differently, but who benefits from those wasted mental processes?

Your brain has a shelf life; and you’ve got better things to do.

Namely, you need to be experiencing life in all its forms. In your creations, you’re going to be relaying these moments through the characters you create. The positive ones – full of heroics and courage. The flat characters – those who already know their path in life and serve as a constant for you to use as building blocks for your other characters. The negative ones – those who’ve chosen to regress or fail in their character arc. If you’ve not gone through a serious trial in life – and I’m betting from your personal perspective you have – then you need to talk to people who have to glean enough mental and emotional experience from them. I used this process in my latest piece for my main character Dow. She comes from autocratic world I do not. She has gone through a gender transition during her mid-teens, which I did not. Speaking to people within that community served as critical feedback for building her as a character.

Let me caution you this: When writing outside your given circle, I highly recommend you do some serious one-on-one with someone within that community before you begin creating them. I haven’t written a character (as of yet) who requires an accessible chair to move around, but one of the new characters I’m considering working on will use something close. Before I give her too much notepad time, I’ll talk to at least a handful of people who are differently abled. This is by no means a catch all process, but if you care about your writing and how you choose to project humans in those works, you’ll need to have a serious ground game.

Paper is roughly 2-dimensional (don’t @ me math nerds, I know it’s technically 3D) but people aren’t. A character in a story shouldn’t be paper thin, especially not a main character. Like Tony Stark in Iron Man, there has be be something more we can dig into about the person behind the mask. Now that “stuff” doesn’t have to be positive. We learn a lot about Stark in the first movie that we really shouldn’t like – he’s arrogant, self-centered, and an unabashed capitalist who will stop at nothing when it comes to his playboy lifestyle. You might like some of those traits just fine, but in the movement of the piece, Tony has to walk a positive path of growth to clear all that crap out and become Iron Man. In the end shot, he declares “I am Iron Man”, showing that he’s retained a part of his old self, but become something more. This is not an easy journey, nor should it be.

To get from the beginning to the end of an arc – what we call the change in any positive or negative character – we have to give that character conflicts. We have to present them situations where they’re forced to make a decision. This is where I hear Geddy Lee, lead singer and Bassist from Rush in my head – “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”  So that choice can be anything. Will Tony decide to break his way out of the makeshift prison where he’s being held? Or will he accept his fate and build the Jericho missile the terrorists desire? That’s quite the choice. The writers of the film up the tension another notch, showing us that Tony has a serious medical condition thanks to some shrapnel, which could also claim his life. Lucky for Tony he has Yinsen, a fellow detainee, who helps keep Tony alive and offers him some choice bits of wisdom which the main character decides to listen to.

In the scene and those which follow, Tony decides to bust out after crafting some low grade armor with what he can cobble together. Yinsen is killed in the breakout scene, but he’s served his purpose. He teaches Tony humanity, and more importantly, the world has been changed for the worse by Stark Industries products. This isn’t the end for Tony’s growth. He has ups and downs, conflict that leads to drama, and that’s how we get our story. What the scene does, is show us the point in which Tony must make a serious choice about what path he wants to walk. It becomes a point in our minds we can look back to and realize – that’s when Tony Stark first started to become Iron Man. 



I’m not sure when Part 2 of this series will show up, but I hope some part of it has been useful when you think about building characters.  


Addendum: And so here we are. The clock is ticking on the queries I have out, but my internal focus is going back to research. I have more to learn before I can push forward this new idea, which is little more than yellow pad material at this point. That’s okay. The point isn’t to have everything done. Everything won’t be done for a long time. The point is to work and churn through what my brain decides is next, before moving onto the next thing.