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Writing Character Arcs
  • By : Shoshanna Gabriel

When writing fiction, writers get to create characters from the inside out, from the ground up, pulling together bits and pieces of reality and imagination. But even when writing narrative non-fiction (as well as in fiction), our main characters need to have a “character arc,” where they grow or change in some way.

Something in their point of view changes, or they realize something that changes their outlook on life. Maybe your main character starts the book not wanting to commit to a relationship because of a bad prior experience, but by the end, she’s fallen in love and is ready to open her heart and commit to marriage (many romance novels have some variation of this for either the hero or heroine).

Or maybe your protagonist starts out wanting to seek greener pastures somewhere far away (over the rainbow?), but discovers along the way that there’s no place like home (hello, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz!)

Some authors fill out long character questionnaires to get to know their character better. By the time they start writing, the author knows everything about the character, from what his favorite band was in high school, to which side of the bed he sleeps on.

That can work well, though personally, I don’t do that. I let my character make little preferential choices as I write (and I keep note in case there will be a sequel, so my hero who only listens to country music in his truck doesn’t switch to heavy metal by accident in the next book).

Some small quirks can even inform your character arc or lend itself to metaphor. Perhaps your straight-laced protagonist starts out drinking her coffee black and bitter, but by the end of the book, she’s softened around the edges a bit, is allowing herself to experience joy and to stop and smell the roses, and now enjoys some cream and sugar with her coffee. It’s a tiny detail that may add a touch of interest to your character.

There are only a few key things I *must* know about my characters *before* I start writing, and I will know these things about my hero, heroine, and villain (if there is one) at the minimum.

What do I need to know? I need to discover what my character WANTS. What is his goal? What motivates him to achieve it? The goal may shift by the end of the novel because of the conflicts he’s encountered over the course of the book, conflicts that may not only change him as a person, but change his goals. The romance hero who only wants a one-night-stand and eschews commitment, but ends up falling in love and wanting to commit to marriage is a good example.

Your character may achieve his goals, or not. The Wicked Witch of the West, who opposes Dorothy and her friends throughout, has a clear goal (avenge her sister who was crushed by Dorothy’s falling house), but she doesn’t achieve her goal by the end. Spoiler alert: she’s accidentally melted by Dorothy instead.

Think of the things that have motivated you, and the backstory as to why. I had never even considered a career in the medical field, and yet I became an RN (before retiring early to focus on writing). How did that happen? Well, just as any character in a novel should, I have a “backstory”: after the terror attacks on 9-11, I wished I could be the sort of person who was able to help people like the first responders at the World Trade Center. I became an EMT shortly after, and after a few years of doing that, I enjoyed it so much I decided to go to nursing school. If your protagonist has a career, how did he end up in that line of work? Does he wish he could be doing something else?

People don’t make major life decisions in a vacuum. Backstory informs your characters. It shouldn’t all be dumped into the first chapter, but by sprinkling it throughout the story, you’ll give your characters depth, and give their actions meaning beyond simply forcing your plot to occur. By motivating your character to act, you’ll avoid having them act in unrealistic ways. And the way your character reacts and changes according to conflict will bring your character arc to fruition—and hopefully to a happily ever after!

Questions to ask yourself regarding your main characters:

  1. How has he changed by the end of the book?
  2. What has she learned by the end that she doesn’t know in Chapter 1?
  3. What has she had to “unlearn” to grow as a person?
  4. Does he have a motivated reason to take each step along the way?

Happy writing!
All my best,
Shoshanna Gabriel
(formerly NYT & USA Today bestselling author Shoshanna Evers), co-founder of SelfPubBookCovers.com

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