As you may know, I occasionally like to go back through my blog to freshen up on the topics I’ve covered and keep an eye out for typos. Sometimes when I do this I realize I was an absolute nut job when I first started this blog, and I find myself issuing apologies to make up for it.
Yes, I still feel awful about the juvenile writing and “advice” that I dished out in my first few posts. But at least one good thing came out of it: I thought up a new post. I’m going to revisit a topic I already “covered” way back when. Even though I already sort of revisited that post already.
The topic is character development. Or rather, the character arc. See, when I think of an arc, this is what I imagine:
But character arcs aren’t that simple, because characters aren’t simple. That got me to thinking about the different forms or “shapes” that character arcs can take that regular arcs won’t. They can look like this:
Or even this:
This isn’t an arc in the traditional, mathematical sense, but it can be one in the literary sense. I shall show you what I mean, because that is what I do. First I’m going to put some letters on it…
Ok, so Point A is on a dotted line, which represents the part of the story that is not included in the book. Instead, points A to B represent the character’s backstory that is intermittently revealed throughout the book. This backstory represents a low point that climbs to a high. So say our character is a rich CEO. Points A to B would represent the part of his life when he started out in the mailroom and clawed his way to the top. The book doesn’t start with him in the mailroom, but we get glimpses of that part of his life from time to time in the narration.
Moving on to Point B. That’s where the story starts. Rich McBoss is a CEO with swimming pools full of money. He’s happy, he’s got a trophy wife and two spoiled kids, and he has about a thousand underlings at his beck and call.
From points B to C, we get a good part of the plot. Everything that goes up must come down, and our rich CEO finds his life spiraling out of control. He makes some bad decisions, nearly goes to jail (or does go to jail?), drives his company into the ground, etc. We’ve all seen this story before, yes?
C is the lowest point. He has hit rock bottom, which means it is time to begin the process of healing and starting anew. There’s nowhere to go but up. Up to Point D. Not as high as Point B, but higher than C. This is where the story ends. Rich has learned the error of his ways, cleaned up his act, and come out of the ruin a better man. (I could get into the fact that putting D lower than B goes against the very lesson this character is learning, which is that being happy with little is a better place to be than being falsely happy with a great deal of excess. Thus it could be argued that Point D should be higher than Point B. But I won’t get into that. Too time consuming.)
See? Arc. Looks like math, reads like a story.
Just so you know, a character arc implies that a character starts out one way and ends up another. Rich McEveryman up there started out (in the book) as a rich CEO who had few scruples and lived in the lap of luxury, and ended up an honest man who was content with what little he had.
I remember when I was in high school, every year there would be a film assembly where a selection of student-made short films would play. One assignment for the film students that year was to present a character arc – where a person started one way and ended up another. A film started. A homeless man was sitting by the side of the road “drinking” from a clearly closed bottle of “liquor.” He collects some money from passersby, and then a car drives up and he hops right into the passenger seat.
“See?” he says to the driver. “Told you I could be homeless for a day.”
This was not a character arc. The student had taken the parameters literally – his character had started out one way, as a fake homeless man, and ended up a different way, as a guy who was admitting to pretending to be homeless. The character himself had not changed or learned anything. No arc had taken place. All the film had depicted was a character straight line. This is something you probably want to avoid, unless (because this “unless” always crops up) you are making a statement.
Comic! (We’re back to clicking to enlarge)
Word of the Day: Scruple (n) – a moral or ethical consideration or standard that acts as a restraining force or inhibits certain actions.