Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ask the Editor: Character Growth

Last month, in my February Ask The Editor post, I answered a question about strong female characters. In the comments on that post, Carolyn Howard-Johnson, award-winning author of the HowToDoItFrugally series, wrote this:
I had trouble with my female character in This Is the Place at first because her character arc was to start out with her needing to get some understanding (and backbone!). I wanted to keep my modern readers and still stay true to that arc. The novel is done but it might benefit all to discuss this.
With her permission, I’m posting my thoughts here.

Having a character (either modern or set in an historical time period) who is weak in some area is definitely okay. It would, in fact, be realistic. As people, we’re all weak in some area or even several areas. A character who is strong in every aspect (male or female) would be more fantasy than real. Even ultra-strong characters, like Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp, has his weaknesses. He can be hurt in both body and heart and he sometimes misjudges how others will view his actions. If you read Robert Fate’s Baby Shark series, you know sometimes when Baby Shark sees someone in need of help, she steps in first and thinks later. She’s also a loyal friend who puts others above her own safety.

Those “weaknesses” don’t sound so bad, do they? Maybe not, but they’re still weaknesses and cause problems.

Another good thing about having characters with weaknesses is that you can use this “flaw” to show the character’s arc. If you’ve read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, then you know your protagonist needs to go on a journey over the course of the book. S/he needs to grow as a person and ultimately find the elixir that not only solves the problem or crisis, but shows that s/he has overcome the weakness.

This works in books, whether your character lives in 2010 or 1910 or 1110.

Another plus to having a character who is weak in an area is that your readers can identify more easily with this type of character. We may want to be strong and invulnerable, but we know we’re not and we see ourselves in characters who are struggling to overcome any faults they feel they have. When those characters grow and change or gain insight, we cheer for them (and ourselves).

And lastly, if you’re writing an historical character, be true to that time period. Women of a hundred years ago faced different problems and situations than women of today. What we consider “strong” may not apply to an earlier time period. And what was considered strong back then may be “weak” today. But what is consistent is that the desire and effort of characters (people) to grow, change and overcome is considered strength in all time periods.

Thank you, Carolyn, for asking about character arc.

Carolyn Howard- Johnson is the author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and two how to books for writers, The Frugal Book Promoter: How To Do What Your Publisher Won't and The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success. You can also find her on her blog, Sharing With Writers, or on her website.

When I emailed Carolyn to tell her I was going to use her comment for another Ask The Editor post, she made a great point:
Movies have the same problem. They open with a character you don't like or feel lukewarm toward. Then as the Arc proceeds, one is glad one didn't leave the theater. The trick is, just how do we keep people in their seats until the character starts to see the light.
This is a great topic for all writers to think about. Let’s see if we can get a discussion going here in the Comments section. I’d love to hear what you have to say.
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Helen Ginger is an author and freelance editor. You can visit her website and blog, Straight From Hel, follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to her free newsletter, Doing It Write, now in its eleventh year of publication.


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19 comments :

  1. One trick to help readers or movie audiences engage better with a character is to utilise relationships with other characters to show why this character is worth staying for. Our opinions of people - real or fiction - improve if someone else appears to like them, and vice versa.

    Great post Helen.

    Elle

    HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

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  2. Interesting! I'm learning all the time here.

    Had to check out the term "character's arc" in Wikipedia, it was basically what I thought.

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  3. Very true Elle. Make your characters as real as you can - and real people have real friends and acquaintances.

    ColdAsHeaven, we could do a week's series on character arc!

    Thanks Elizabeth.

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  4. Helen: Yes, I bet you could easily spend a week on the arcs. I just wanted to understand the basic concepts. Your post was great for that purpose. Thanks!

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  5. I have a similar issue- my MC is an empath who identifies with other's feelings so deeply that she takes on their motions, which makes it very difficult for her to stick to her guns. But if I let the reader know what she WANTED to do, but wasn't strong enough for yet, that they would be able to identify with her.

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  6. I think the flaws help to make the characters sympathetic to the reader. But still, it's difficult to do very early in the story, when we really need to engage the reader. It often takes time for that development. I've found that seeing the protagonist through another character's eyes helps to develop the protagonist and her flaws early on, adding an early necessary layer.

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  7. Valid points and excellent tips, Helen!

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  8. Great post and comments. Cbaracter arc is probably something we all struggle with, especially at the beginning of the story. It's a fine line, I think.

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  9. Great discussion here.

    Kelly, it'll be interesting to see what growth your empath character makes. Is she developing as you write, or do you already have her story mapped out?

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  10. Sorry, no women in my book, but the men do possess their share fair of weaknesses.

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  11. Thanks Helen. I'm going to invesigate more on character's arcs as a result of reading this.

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  12. I'm thinking a bit about character arc and the amount of time transpiring in any given novel. For example, I find Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series less satisfying from book to book, because her time is so compressed. The protag just doesn't seen to change much - and how could she unless she experienced huge significant emotional events in each installment? That's what it takes for a character to really make dramatic inner progress. So a writer has to be careful about striking a balance in that regard, and one has to be aware so as not to stifle the character development in a series through self-limiting scenarios as mentioned above. It's a balancing act, just like life, I guess. The bottom line is it has to be believable to the reader. We could really talk more about that, too.

    Good post, Helen.

    Dani

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  13. Excellent post and discussion here, Helen. Since I am in the beginning stages of writing fiction, this is extremely helpful to me.
    Karen

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  14. My critique partner and I have been discussing this topic lately. I've had to go back and tone down my main character. I intended her to have weaknesses, but I like her so much I didn't want anyone else to know about them. Thanks for the post. It's a help.

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  15. Character weaknesses can be comforting to the reader and a way to make the story real and believable. Without them, conflict would be harder to establish. And without conflict of some sort, there isn't a story.
    Great post, Helen.
    DL Larson

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  16. Kathy, sometimes if a character has no weakness, it's difficult for the reader to relate.

    Helen

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  17. If the character starts out completely strong there is no room for the arc. I just read Searching For Tina Turner by Jacqueline E. Luckett and at first I wasn't connecting well to the central character as I found her incredibly weak. She was married to a controlling, emotionally abusive man and put up with him for much longer than I would have. What hooked me right away was the fact that she wanted to do something, and the whole book became her journey to find the courage to become totally self-actualized. So that set up the drama. Would she?

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  18. I could talk about character arc all day long. I agree with you, Helen, about weakness. There has to be some, because we all have them. They just can't be unforgivable weaknesses, and usually, the weakness becomes a strength in the end... or something like that ;)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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