Writing Excuses 13.34: Q&A on Character Arcs
Q: How do you fulfill your promises about a character arc without being cliché?
Q: How do you subvert a common character arc without it feeling like betraying a promise to a reader?
A: How do you give them what they want without just being obvious about it? Use the predictability test: If at the beginning of the story you can predict the resolution, there’s something wrong. BUT some stories, readers, genres or subgenres, fulfilling expectations is the right thing to do. Name that tune, or sing along? Make sure the promise can be fulfilled in multiple ways, then pick a surprising one that is more fulfilling. Have the character wanting at least two things, and then give them at least one. Make the character original, unique, and their reaction will also be original and unique.
Q: Do you need to complete each character arc in the story? For a character in a series, should each book contain a complete character arc, or should the entire series cover one large arc? How do you tie multiple character arcs together when you’re writing the first book of a trilogy? With lots of character arcs, how do you interweave them?
A: If all the character arcs follow the same shape, that can feel artificial. However, if the arcs are staggered so that one person has a completely unresolved crisis at the end of the story, that may feel unsatisfying. Look for plateaus, stopping points along the arc, for individual characters.
Q: What separates an iconic character from a caricature? Or a stereotype?
A: Make the character unique. Caricatures are exaggerated and one-sided, while iconic characters don’t change from episode to episode. Separate iconic, not changing, from archetype. If a similar iconic character from another series can replace your iconic character, you may have a caricature.
Q: Have you ever had an iconic character, upon further exploration, become a character in need of an arc? How would you make that transition?
A: Comics are often forced to reboot because they are trying to do this. However, books often take iconic characters from one book and put them in a second book where they have an arc.
Q: How do you continue a character’s story after they’ve completed their original arc?
A: Think about your parents’ roles in your story. Put the character and what they’ve learned in a new situation. Make sure your character has enough depth and layers.
Q: How much does a character need to change in their arc? Does it always have to be a major, permanent, life-redefining change?
A: It needs to be enough to see a difference. Satisfy the reader that a change has occurred. Set up the right conflict and make the right promise. Some change, some growth, even if they’re not perfect at the end.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 34.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Character Arcs.
[Valynne] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Valynne] I’m Valynne.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We have your questions. Ian asks, “How do you fulfill your promises about a character arc without being cliché?” Good question.
[Dan] I don’t know.
[Brandon] Oh, come on.
[Dan] I’m a very cliché author.
[Brandon] Get on it, get on it.
[Dan] Okay. Fulfilling problems without being cliché. I don’t know if there’s a direct tracking line between those.
[Brandon] Okay, here’s another…
[Howard] Let me approach it a different way.
[Brandon] There’s actually another question… The next question is by Connor and… I think it’s the same sort of thing.
[Brandon] How do you subvert a common character arc without it feeling like a… Betraying a promise to a reader? That’s what they’re all getting at. How do you…
[Dan] Okay. How do you give them what they want without just being obvious about it?
[Brandon] Yes. That is the question.
[Dan] Subvert that without feeling like you’ve deceived them.
[Howard] There are so very, very many movies, stories out there, whatever, where the character arc for our main character is discovering the importance of their friends. We see that all the time. If, at the beginning of your story, you know that’s where you’re headed and you can predict it… If that is predictably the resolution, you may have cliché problems. You can still fulfill a promise along those lines, you just need to not… I use the predictability test all the time. If I can predict a line of dialogue in a movie, then something’s probably wrong. If I can predict, “Oh, this next scene, this is where they kiss. He’s going to drop something. They’re going to…”
[Brandon] Now, let me say, there are certain stories and readers where fulfilling the expectation in the way that you anticipate and want is the right thing to do. It depends on the story you’re telling, the way you… The promises you make. Some books will promise to subvert expectations. Some books will promise not to. In fact, I remember reading through several romance novel entries on Amazon where the description of the book says, in big bolded letters, this is a book with a happily ever after and no cheating. That was repeated on most of the pages I went to in this sub genre. Big, bold letters. That is a promise that that trope is not going to get subverted because the reader’s looking for it. So you really have to decide, am I trying to subvert things or not?
[Dan] I remember when we had Mike Stackpole on the show, and he talked about writing plots as playing name that tune with your readers, and you want to be just ahead. If they guess the tune too early, then you’ve lost them. But I do think there is another kind of reader that just wants to sing along with the song, because they know it so well.
[Brandon] Right. There’s nothing wrong with that. I would say this is something that I really enjoy doing, is playing name the tune with the reader. The way that you make it not feel like a betrayal, but not like a cliché either, is you make sure that this promise can get fulfilled in multiple ways, and that the one you pick is not necessarily the first one they’d pick, but is in some way more fulfilling. So you kind of have to identify what is the need and how do you fill it, and you promise you’re going to fill it in a certain way in the middle of the book, but then you give a better promise… You always have to do a better job.
[Dan] One of the things that I do a lot… We talk about the Hollywood Formula a lot on this show, and how you need to set out knowing what a character wants. I have found that if I can make sure my character really wants at least two things, then I can totally screw one of those up on purpose, and you will still be happy when he or she gets the other one. That’s a way of making sure that the character arcs are still driving this plot.
[Valynne] Well, I think if you’ve invested enough time in making sure that your character is original and unique, then the way that they’re going to solve that problem or get to… Or what we want fulfilled, will also be original and unique. You need to write a character that he’s not like anyone else, and so it makes sense that character would solve the problem this way.
[Brandon] So, we’ve got multiple questions on a similar topic, so I’m going to kind of meld them altogether. This is from Ben, and from Jessica, and from Anthony, and they’re asking about multiple character arcs in the same story. Do you need to complete each character arc in the story? Like, Jessica asks, “For a character in a series, should each book contain a complete character arc, or should the entire series cover one large arc?” Then Ben’s question… Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, Ben’s question is, “How do you tie multiple character arcs together when you’re writing the first book of a trilogy?” A lot of questions about lots of character arcs, how do you interweave them? What do you do?
[Howard] If they all form… And when I think of a character arc, I think of the narrative curve, that bump shape that drops off kind of sharply at the end. If all of the character arcs in the book follow that same shape, it’s going to feel kind of artificial and kind of weird. If, however, all of the arcs are staggered to the point that one person is in crisis at the end of the story and you can tell it’s completely unresolved, that may feel unsatisfying. So what I try and do is find plateaus, stopping points along the arc, along a character’s arc, where, for this story, I can park them there… Maybe for the whole story. Their arc is not complete, their arc is six books long, but I can park them there, and we’ll be happy. So thinking of it as tiers along this arc, and within a given story, which steps are they moving between? That model works really well for me.
[Dan] As an example, the original Star Wars trilogy, Luke and Han each have an arc in each movie. It goes and it’s complete. Whereas Leia has one larger arc that takes all three movies to fulfill.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week is Fat Angie.
[Valynne] Fat Angie, by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo. One of the things that I love about this book is that it’s both funny, but just really has some tender moments. It’s about a girl who is overweight in high school. Her older sister is in the military and missing. She’s the only one who thinks that her sister is still alive out there somewhere. So I think that for a lot of military families, this is… Might have a lot of meaning for them. She, in the beginning of the book, has tried to kill herself, commits suicide in front of the entire school, and is working through a lot of those issues of just learning to figure out the kind of person she is, the kind of person that she wants to be, what she wants to be known for, and that is not this act that she is currently known for. It’s a wonderful romance, in terms of the fact that she’s trying to figure out her sexual identity. I think that the way that the author handles this book is just perfect. The mix of just being so realistic, and having the teenage angst of dealing with these really important issues, but handling them very realistically.
[Brandon] Excellent. So it’s called Fat Angie?
[Howard] By e. E. Charlton-Trujillo?
[Brandon] All right. Questions. Back to questions from the audience. There are several questions about iconic characters. John asks, “What separates an iconic character from a caricature? Or a stereotype?”
[Dan] Oooo… Interesting.
[Valynne] Well, I think that you’re still going to make that character unique in some ways. I mean, not everyone is Superman and has the powers that he does and can… Run as fast as he can and has the superstrength. He’s an iconic hero, and so is James Bond. They have completely different attributes. So, I think what defines an iconic character is, and we’ve discussed this in a previous episode, is just the situations that they’re thrown into, and the way they react.
[Dan] Well, I think that a caricature is arguably much more exaggerated and one-sided than an iconic character. You look at… If I say Capt. Kirk, most people are going to imagine a hotshot who just sleeps with weird alien women and disregards the rules. You look at the original series, he is definitely an iconic character. He doesn’t change from episode to episode. But he is much more layered and nuanced and interesting than what we tend to think. He is an iconic character. Our vision of him now, looking back, is very caricatured.
[Brandon] Right. I think it’s good to separate iconic, meaning not changing, from an archetype, which iconic character can totally be. But Mr. Spock is also iconic. He’s not changing through that series. But also very layered, very interesting, very in conflict with himself. So separate those two things in your mind. If you’re worried about clichés and stereotypes, you can build a character who is not one who still doesn’t change, if that’s what you’re interested in doing.
[Howard] If your iconic character can be, in your book, replaced by an iconic character of similar skill set from someone else’s series, it might be a caricature.
[Dan] That’s… Yeah.
[Brandon] So, next question on iconic characters is, “Have you ever had an iconic character, upon further exploration, become a character in need of an arc? How would you make that transition?” Now, this is dangerous, because we’ve talked about how comics basically keep trying to do this, and then get forced to reboot and things like this. I totally think it’s possible. In fact, I see a lot of books, what you will see people doing is there will be a series where there’s a main character and kind of several iconic individuals around them. The main character has an arc. Then they write a second book that takes one of these characters that is maybe… Was a little bit… Didn’t have an arc in the first book, didn’t change, and then they get an arc, and then they get an arc.
[Dan] You can see this in a ton of webcomics in particular. Sluggy Freelance, that was just a joke a week, and then turned into a long story. Same with Sam and Fuzzy, same with Dr. McNinja. Same with, I think, Schlock.
[Howard] Yup. I gave him a character arc. He’s an iconic hero, and then I gave him a character arc and established a new baseline for him. Because it’s not a brand like Frosted Flakes or DC Comics, I am allowed to keep those changes. I don’t have to reboot. I think better examples than comics are Death in the Terry Pratchett books. For most of those books, he is always the same character, and he’s delightful when he shows up. Then we have a book in which Death decides to retire for a while, and becomes, I think, Bill Door. It’s beautiful. He gets his own little arc. Hogfather kind of gives him his own little arc. So, yeah, this… Totally, you can do it.
[Brandon] All right. How do you continue a character’s story after they’ve completed their original arc? I love this question.
[Valynne] So are we talking about sequels or… Okay.
[Brandon] Yes. I think a sequel. You’ve written a story. This one didn’t have a name on it. Whoever asked this question, good question. You’ve written a story. The character’s had a big, complete arc. And then you’re going to put them in the next book. What do you do?
[Howard] What are your parents’ roles in your story? Because when they were teenagers, they were very distraught individuals who were the heroes of their own story. Probably every bit as self-absorbed as the average teenager. But now that you’re growing up, or that you’re an adult, what are your parents’ roles in your story? Because fundamentally, I think that’s the question that’s being asked here. When you… When we emerge from our period of change and stabilize, what do we become to the next generation of heroes?
[Valynne] Or, even if you look at it in terms of a shorter timeframe, for like a young adult book, you’re looking at maybe just like a few months sometimes from beginning to end, but the arc suggests that their character starts in one place and grows and becomes something else, so I think that you just look at what are the nat… Like, this person is now not exactly the same person they were before. They are… You take that character and what they’ve learned and then throw them in a new situation and see how what they learned can affect whatever they’re going into next.
[Dan] A lot of the time when this is a problem, it’s because the character was originally designed around one specific conflict, and there’s not enough depth to keep going. You look at what happened with Data in the Next Generation movies. Once he finally got emotions, the writers had no idea what to do with him. Compare that to say Oz in the Buffy series who went through tons of different phases of his life and completed long character arcs, but he was an interesting enough and layered enough character that the writers were able to say, “Well, what can we do with him next?”
[Howard] That’s why I used the parent example. Parents are not… It doesn’t have to be that kind of a timeframe. It can be a fairly short timeframe. They are, for many people, sources of stability, sources of rescue, sources of advice. They are, for other people, sources of continual conflict because they disagree with them. When you have a character who has completed their arc, if you want to tell a story about a character arc, you’re telling somebody else’s story, and the character who has completed their arc features into that in some way that’s critically important.
[Brandon] Last question comes from Kalika. They ask, “How much does a character need to change in their arc? Does it always have to be a major, permanent, life-redefining change?”
[Valynne] I don’t know if that’s always realistic, but I think it needs to be enough that you can see a difference.
[Howard] Satisfy me. If you promised me that this person is going to be changed by the experience in this book, I have to be satisfied that a change has occurred. It can be a tiny thing, it can be a big thing. I guess it depends on the conflict, it depends on the character, it depends on the length of the story.
[Dan] I think figuring out what you want to do, so that you can present the right conflict and make the right promise… If you set us up where this person’s conflict is that they are a terrible person who can’t connect with everyone else because they’re mean all the time, and then they end the story still a terrible person and mean all the time, you haven’t resolved the conflict or kept the promise you made in the beginning. If you present that same character, but give us a different conflict that is smaller and less life-changing, then, okay, I’m willing to go along with them still being a jerk at the end. Because you’ve still resolved the thing you told me you were going to resolve.
[Valynne] I don’t think you… I don’t think everything has to be magically perfect in the end, I just want to see some change. Some growth.
[Brandon] All right. We are out of time. Thank you guys so much for sending in your questions. These have been great questions. Dan has a writing prompt.
[Dan] Yes, I do.
[Brandon] Did you forget?
[Brandon] I warned you ahead of time.
[Dan] I know, I know. I don’t have a writing prompt.
[Brandon] Howard? Do you have a writing prompt?
[Howard] I did at the beginning of the episode, but then Dan assured us that he…
[Dan] I assured no one. I merely said okay.
[Howard] You said, “I’ll have this by the end. I’m on this.”
[Howard] I felt very reassured.
[Dan] Dear listener. We actually before recording this talked about how we use to blindside our guests with writing prompts. So, Brandon is taking great delight in now doing it to us.
[Dan] Even though it’s not even technically blindsiding, because he told me. I want you to write, dear listener, a story in which Brandon asks someone for a writing prompt, and that person is unprepared, and Brandon receives great karmic justice.
[Valynne] Ouch. Pretty savage there.
[Brandon] All right. I guess I’ll…
[Dan] I didn’t say which side of karma Brandon was on.
[Howard] Alternatively, do an image search on mountains. Trace a mountain onto a piece of paper. Now make that outline the arc for your character.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. I hope we didn’t give you any excuses. Now go write.