Growing a Character
By Dave Butler
When I look back at the posts we’ve written and hosted at Free Range Writers since we began in June of 2019 (this is # 50!), I cherish the range of topics we’ve covered, and the range of perspectives we’ve brought to those topics. I don’t think Greg, Pam or I could have envisioned where this would lead us.
I noticed, however, that few of us have tackled characters or character development in any overt way (see my December 2019 posting on “a few good challenges”). So, I offer this as a start to fill that gap.
In the environmental mysteries that Pam, Greg and I write, action is often a key component. But what makes a story memorable, at least for me, is not the action itself, but what the action does to the characters. As readers, we react to a character who changes because of what he experiences, who changes in response to the conflicts and challenges she overcomes (or not…), who is different at the end of the story than at the beginning. What deepens the stories we create is when a character grows from the first page to the last (or in the case of our respective series, from one book to the next…), either subtly or in significant ways.
As opposed to a story arc or a plot-line, the growth of a character is often called a ‘character arc.’ Every book on writing will have some definition of that phrase, but they all share some common characteristics:
· A beginning point, where the character exists in what might be called an ‘ordinary world;’
· A doorway through which the character passes. This is also known as the defining moment, or the call to adventure, a call that the character might ignore once or twice before realizing that they have no choice but to leave that ordinary world…;
· Inciting Incidents – characters are tested and challenged and impacted, they face conflicts and challenges and their consequences; they must decide who is friend and who is foe;
· A deepening disturbance – this is the rising tension that is the hallmark of all good mysteries; it makes us turn one page after another to discover how the character will respond;
· An epiphany, an awakening, a climax, a time when the proverbial light bulb comes on, when the character transforms, shifts his or her view of the world;
· An aftermath – this is commonly called the denouement and is where the character’s actions show that he/she truly has changed his/her view of the world. Here, the character’s actions are indisputable evidence of that change.
In his chapter called “The Arc Within the Plot” (*), suspense novelist James Scott Bell writes about the concept of a ‘core self’ in a character, and how that core self is surrounded by layers – beliefs, values, dominant attitudes, and opinions. The core self is what the character protects, what prevents (or perhaps protected) them from changing. However, he suggests that the layers become increasingly soft as you move away from the core … and the outer layers are easiest to change.
But what is fascinating is Bell’s idea that there is a ripple effect from one layer to the next. If a character changes her opinion about something – such as an environmental issue with many nuances – because of a conflict or challenge they’ve overcome, even if only marginally, then readers might perceive a corresponding shift in their attitude. If that continues to happen over time, perhaps the character’s values and or even her beliefs might change. The circle of layers is a fascinating way to think about the arc of that character.
When Jenny Willson traveled to Namibia in In Rhino We Trust, she believed she could
change the world there, that rhino poaching was a black-and-white, right-or-wrong issue that could be dealt with by kick-ass enforcement techniques. But after experiencing first-hand the role that poverty and international poaching rings played in the situation, and after meeting young men in NW Namibia who were caught in the middle, simply trying to feed their families, she realized that her colonialist attitude was not only inappropriate, but in fact, counter-productive to sustainable solutions to the very problem she went there to help solve. She grew, became wiser and more self-aware, changed not only her opinions but her attitudes and some of her beliefs.
Developing a good character involves everything from back-story to emotion to strong dialogue to motivation, but pushing that character along a plausible and compelling arc, through their changes in response to actions, will deepen any story.
(* “Creating Characters; The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction” by the Editors of Writers Digest; Writers Digest Books, 2014)