I had someone ask me about character and story arc, so I thought I’d blog on it today.
A novel or story is about the journey of a character from point A to point B. The protagonist starts out his day, smiling under blue skies as he heads to work, but before noon, his entire life is turned upside down.
This disaster is the launch or inciting incident of the book. Every book has to have this. Otherwise, the story meanders. What is the story about? What is the story question? You should be able to summarize in a few sentences. Even a literary novel can be summed up quickly if there is a inciting incident that sends that character on a journey.
Along the way, the story and character encounters problems. Obstacles. More disasters that keep the character from his goal. The character’s story arc is effected by the story arc. Think sets and subsets.
Let’s say my story is about Jane going to the grocery store. She leaves her a house, point A, the top down on her convertible, radio blasting, a melody in her heart, on her way to point B. As she backs out of the driveway, she has a fender bender with another car. But this is no ordinary car.
The driver is distracted, beat up, bleeding, and definitely hiding something. The cops arrive and the other driver runs. Now Jane is involved in a conflict. The police want to ask her a few questions. She’s driven down to the station. The other driver had stolen money in his car. It appears Jane was involved in the robbery. But what? She was just backing out of her palatial driveway.
Some how, some of the money got in her car. Meanwhile, her husband calls her cell to say one of the kids fell off the monkey bars at school and broke his arm. Hubby is in a big meeting and can’t leave. His promotion, and their lively hood depends on it. But Jane is stuck at the police station. Hubby can’t stay on the phone long enough to listen to her problem, so now Jane is burdened with the welfare of her kid.
What’s going on in her heart about now? This is the character arc. Jane was a happy suburban house wife with the world at her fingers until she suffered an injustice. Now, she’s angry. She can’t get anyone to believe her. She’s been falsely accused. Her heart is railing within her. She must face her worst fear — imprisonment, unjust accusation, loss of freedom.
Her response to the story journey is her character arc. The story presses her into some kind of change. She must confront an issue in her life.
In the Sweet By and By, Jade is confronted with the truth about her relationship with her Mama. There’s so much resentment, she doesn’t want Mama at her wedding! Pretty serious. But, after pleading by her mother-in-law to be, Jade drops the invite into the mailbox. The journey is launched. Will her mother attend? If so, what will Jade do? If she doesn’t, how will it really impact Jade’s heart.
For Jane, still sitting in the cold interrogation room, she’s faced with her own brand of injustice. How she’s been treating her husband, her children, her friends, and how she’s grown distant from God.
The black moment comes when no one comes to rescue her. She’s tired and hungry, worried. Angry. She’s left a message with her husband, but he doesn’t show. Her best friend is too busy. The officers really believe she was an accomplice. She’s half crazy with the unfairness. Her children are waiting for her to pick them up from school. Who is caring for the injured child? Her reputation as a great mother is being challenged. Her very identity is in question.
In the end, Jane is cleared. But her hearts been scoured. She does not leave the police station the same woman. There are realizations and changed to be made in her life. She goes home to her family with a new perspective. When she drives to the grocery store, finally, the next morning, she’s made plans to volunteer at the homeless shelter and and recommitted her life to Jesus, apologized to her husband for her attitude, repented to her kids.
So, the arc of the story is getting the action from point A to point B. Jane going to the police station, enduring the police station (and there are all kinds of obstacles her preventing her from getting free) to getting home again. Many times the plot can go full circle. Jane starting out on a journey to the grocery store, ending up at the grocery store but with a different perspective.
In the midst of the journey, Jane’s character is challenged. Her greatest fear is realized. It’s preventing her from her greatest desire – a lovely, peaceful, prosperous life with her family. Her initial goal, going to the grocery store is symbolic of her life and the provision within. The accident and police interaction is symbolic of life changing in a moment. We can’t know what tomorrow may bring and this is a hard reality for Jane.
But, she’s changed in the end. This is the character arc. You need to have a loose idea of how your protagonist will change through the story and how the plot action will impact and move them.
In Lost In Nashvegas, Robin is a talented singer/songwriter but she’s terrified to sing in front of people. Terrified! So, when she makes it to center stage after clogging triplets fall off their stage, she realizes she can overcome her fears. She realizes she loves singing. The audience responded to her. Loved her.
When her sister challenges her to go to Nashville to live her dream, Robin has just enough courage and confidence to do it. But, there are obstacles. Her own fears. The music business itself. Family secrets. As the story moves toward Robin finally singing her song at the Bluebird Cafe, her fears are being challenged and changed. Her heart is growing in confidence.
In the character arc, the character must experience some kind of change. Revelation. The light bulb going on over her head. Think of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind.”
Think of PJ Sugar in “Nothing But Trouble.”
Now, there are stories where the characters don’t change that much. Iris in Maggie O’Farrell’s “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” doesn’t have a large character arc. But what she knows and believes in the beginning of the story is very different from what she knows and believes at the end. The story action and arc did impact her life.
As you read, pay attention to what is happening to the protagonist. They have to do more than react to the plot action, they have to be IMPACTED and changed.
Story arc = the plot movement from incident to black moment to climax to satisfying ending.
Character arc = the impact of the plot action on the character so that she is not the same on the last page as the first page. The story journey has changed her in some way. A crisis solved. A value changed. Her beliefs renewed.