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Back to structural concerns this week with some thoughts about how primary characters work. By this stage, with a finished novel, you should know your main characters pretty well. It’s time to make sure your characters are actually staying in character.
In this fortnight’s lesson we are looking at character creation concerns that occur in a completed manuscript. Through a series of videos, lessons and exercises we will examine how to get a consistent character arc, make your characters’ motivations solid and their reactions believable. You’ll refer a lot to your scene map in this section as it will help you identify many of these problems.
TOPIC ONE: Primary Characters – A Video From Kim
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TOPIC TWO: Character Arcs
Short of graphing a character’s actions and reactions, constructing and checking character arcs is a good way to see if primary characters have gone on an emotional journey. A reader needs to connect on an emotional level to the main characters. For that to occur they need to see the changes happened plausibly and consistently. The take home exercise below will help track the character’s emotional change and its plausibility.
Go through your scene map. In every scene told from your main character’s viewpoint, list on a separate piece of paper two words to describe exactly where they’re at emotionally and physically. Do this for ten, evenly spaced points in the story, then read it back and trace the arc.
Take for example this character arc:
- Curious and naïve,
- Curious and brave,
- Frightened and unsure,
- Determined and brave,
- Overwhelmed and desperate (near the middle of book here),
- Depressed and withdrawn,
- Angry and determined (coming back from defeat…),
- Challenged and brave,
- Triumphant and happy (this ending is not a requirement!).
These words will give you an idea of the journey your character has been on. Now you have the list for your novel, consider these two questions:
- Is this consistent?
- Has it happened over enough time that it makes sense?
A switch from frightened, to brave, to frightened, to brave, is not a very consistent arc and shows no growth in the character’s personality; these need to be evened out. If you find inconsistencies, make a note about where any changes to the character’s emotional state should take place.
There are two types of characters in particular that can prove problematic. One is a character who doesn’t change at all. It’s more than a little boring for the reader, especially if the character is all powerful, as the reader doesn’t have any indication that something might go wrong for the hero. This reduces the impact of any conflict in the story and is known as the Superman problem.
Superman’s story is pretty boring as he’s indestructible in almost every situation. But that’s why Superman has a weakness – kryptonite. This allows for scenarios where suddenly the reader is in doubt if Superman can triumph. If you find your character is so fantastic they can beat any challenge, you need to find or build in their kryptonite, which you can exploit, giving the reader doubt about whether or not they can achieve what they set out to do.
The second type of character to watch out for is one so horrible, so bleak or impossible to deal with that the reader can’t identify with them and turns away in revulsion. Note we are talking about protagonists here, not antagonists, who in many cases should be established as horrible or hard to deal with.
Note the points at which a Superman problem or unlikeable character reaction appears and fix them in your next edit.
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TOPIC THREE: Character Motivation
Look at your first two to three scenes in your scene map. Are you able to say what the protagonist’s motivation is? What’s at stake? The stakes must be fully articulated at the start of the narrative. It must be so clear that a reader could, to a certain extent, predict what the character might do next in a given situation.
For example, if your character’s motivation is the desire for revenge against the warring tribe that killed her mother, then when a member of that tribe comes along the reader should immediately say, ‘Oh, this is going to be interesting!’
That’s not to say that characters don’t do unexpected things from time to time. But there’s a difference between acting in an unexpected way and a character’s actions being implausible. If the character’s motivation is not present, then the tension is abstract and only arises from the plot. The below take-home exercise will help you determine whether your character’s motivations are present and identifiable:
Select two or three significant scenes from your novel where there is a lot at stake, or a turning point in the narrative. Now ask yourself these questions:
- Do you need to sharpen that motivation? Make the character’s motivation more evident? Be careful not to overdo this, as it can get boring if you repeat the character’s motivation too often. Just make sure it’s present in the key scenes.
- How evident is it that the character is acting on these deeper motivations? Remember, motivations can change subtly over the course of the book due to various plot events and secondary character actions.
- How early in the piece is the protagonist’s motivation revealed? Is it clear and tight? The goal is to lead the reader into the book with a fairly clear idea of what is driving this individual.
- Finally, is that motivation plausible? Do you believe in this character? More importantly, will the reader want them to achieve their goal?
If you find this aspect of characterisation is a weakness for you, make sure you look at the first two to three scenes in that character’s viewpoint and determine what they can do, say, or think that will reveal what drives them.
The above exercise also applies to antagonists, especially if they have their own viewpoint scenes and are driving the majority of the conflict. They can’t just be ‘evil’. What do they want? What’s driving them?
It’s when a reader can see this clash of motivations between protagonist and antagonist that they really get a sense of the conflict that is driving the narrative.
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TOPIC FOUR: Character Reaction
Related to character motivation is character reaction. Are the characters reacting plausibly? When things happen to real people, they react. Sometimes in fiction drafts, especially when there are lots of big or outlandish events taking place, the author can lose steam and the characters stop reacting or don’t react sufficiently. It’s understandable; it can be exhausting for a writer to run the final gauntlet while tracking how characters are reacting to things.
When examining high action scenes always remember that real people react. So stay honest. If Jane sees a ghost outside her window on Monday night then goes to school on Tuesday and is not thinking about it, then she hasn’t reacted sufficiently and the reader doesn’t believe in the character because of her lack of reaction. A reader will believe that if she saw a ghost she would be trying to figure things out in her head while she was getting ready for her biology class. Because that’s exactly what they’d be doing.
This is particularly relevant for narratives with supernatural elements. Take the time to make sure your characters have reacted to the big events.
As authors we may run out of steam, but as editors one of our jobs is to put some of that energy back into it.
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Constructing and checking character arcs will highlight the primary character’s emotional journey. A reader needs to connect on an emotional level to the main characters and must see the changes happened plausibly and consistently.
This activity will:
- Solidify your character’s motivation and impact on the story,
- Show you the gaps in the 3D model you have built of your character and,
- Help you identify how to fill those gaps to create a character readers can’t help but connect with (or be repulsed by!).
WHAT TO DO:
Draw up a ‘character arc’ list for each of your main characters. Then determine:
- Do you need some more scenes in that character’s viewpoint to show how the story is changing them?
- Do you need to rewrite or delete scenes where characters are acting inconsistently or without motivation or reaction?
Post one of your character arcs in the Primary Characters Forum along with your analysis of the problems you have discovered. Take a look at your peers’ posts and help at least one of your peers brainstorm fixes for their problems.
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