Part 6: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em


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Today’s post is the 6th in a 7-part Series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization” 

Part 6: Crafting an All-important Character Arc

Last time we introduced the notion of inner versus outer conflict, the inherent demons of personality and psychology that affect the hero and prevent her or him from doing what must be done, squaring off against what is blocking their path toward accomplishing the mission at hand.

What are those inner demons?  Cowardice, selfishness, addiction, fear, conceit, arrogance, hatred, bias, lack of confidence, heritage, poverty, ignorance, a lack of honesty, naiveté, a spotty moral compass, sexual deviance… in general, any aspect of humanity that isn’t in line with the expectations of others or the requirements of success within the boundaries of this story.

Great heroes have one or more these.  They aren’t perfect.  If they were, they’d be boring.

Character arc is the process of conquering those inner demons.  Pure and simple.  Of learning.  Of gaining strength and insight.  Of acquiring that which is lacking.  Of shedding that which is hindering.  Of making a better decision when it counts.

For example, the thematic mission of a story is rarely about how to conquer alcoholism, but rather, how to save a marriage that is being destroyed by alcoholism.  The hero’s quest is to save the marriage.   His alcoholism is merely an obstacle in his way.  The outer conflict is that his wife has filed for divorce and is seeing someone else, so the clock is ticking.  But the inner demon — of the stuff of the real drama in a story — is the grip that alcohol has on the protagonist as he tries to win her back.

Two levels of conflict, inner and outer.  In some stories the inner journey is every bit as dramatic and powerful as the exterior journey, which is the stuff of bestsellers and smash hits.  

In the movie Top Gun, almost all of the inherent conflict in the story was in Maverick’s inner realm.  Very little else happened, which is why this particular movie is not considered a model script.  Just model box office.

In The Davinci Code, not so much… the appeal of that story was conceptual and plot-driven.   Landgon showed us very little in the way of inner conflict, and therefore, there was little inner drama or potential for character arc.  Langdon was pretty much perfect from page one. 

As you can see, commecial success doesn’t often hinge on how well you execute the basics.  If you allow that to rationalize your approach, much anxiety and pain await you.

And, it just goes to show how powerful a strong concept can be (The Sixth Sense is another example), even in the face of mediocre performance elsewhere. 

In The Cider House Rules, though, the characters move through spheres of personal challenge and growth in a way that rivets the reader every bit as much as the plot itself.

Notice that Top Gun and The Davinci Code weren’t up for any writing Oscars.  The Cider House rules won one for best adapted screeplay, based on John Irving’s #1 bestseller (note: he also wrote the screenplay).

Where inner demons come from is the role of backstory.  How they affect the story is the realm of character arc.

Conquer inner demons, and you have character arc.

Your hero should exit the story enlightened, enriched, evolved and enabled in comparison to how they entered the story.  This learning cannot occur in a vacuum, it should be result of trial and error, of action and consequence, literally of learning a lesson from the hero’s experience within the story. 

You’re familiar with the age-old principle: show, don’t tell.  Character arc is the most critical element for which you need to apply it.  We must see and feel the character bettering their weaker self, rather than simply reading the news of it or have it spring from no logical, discernable source.  They can’t just wake one day and suddenly get it.  (This is where some paranormal stories fall flat — the hero learns via a sixth sense, rather than experience.)

With hard-learned lessons well in hand, the hero will come to a place where she or he will make better decisions when it counts, which is in Part 4 of the story.  Where they – by definition – become the primary catalyst in the overcoming of the obstacles that results in the story’s conclusion.

In Top Gun, Maverick learned to work within the system, to not leave his wingman when it counts (his new wingman; he’d already killed off the first guy by being an idiot), and in doing so he got the girl, saved the day and protected America from the bad guys, all without a hair out of place.

And if that isn’t heroism, I’m not sure what is.

Image credit: Seiho

Next post: Character — A sum in excess of its parts.


Filed under Characterization Series

10 Responses to Part 6: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em

  1. How does character arc apply to a series?

    the way i see it, there might be smaller inner demons that will be addressed in each volume, but the major character arc should exist over the whole of the series, or you risk shortchanging your readers at the end, or having the end of the series be anticlimactic because the MC has already completed the character arc.

    How would you look at character arc if writing a 3-6 book series about one character?

    Great information in this series, and it has really opened my eyes to what a few of my characters were missing. Thanks!

  2. I just read Adam’s comment and thought of Harry Potter. His demons change as he moves through puberty and deals with external circumstances that change him – deaths, traumas etc – but they all shape his emerging personality and add to the strengths he needs to deal with Voldemort and save two worlds in the finale. He didn’t have that strength at the beginning because he hadn’t learned enough and wasn’t old enough.

    The West Wing was great for enjoying character arcs, too. I loved how the main characters evolved as they dealt with a range of personal and public tragedies, humiliations and triumphs.

    Nora Roberts’ trilogies, especially the ones that deal with the paranormal, are all based on thirds: three characters find three spouses and each of the first two books ends in a triumph that contributes to the grand finale in the third book. I find the formula tedious now, but millions love it, and for her it works.

    Thanks Larry. You always get me thinking.

  3. Adam and Janice — this series question keeps popping up, and it’s a good one. Usually it concerns plot, and my answer there is that each book needs to offer a stand-alone story that resolves itself. What is left hanging, and what bridges each book in the series to the next, is, in fact, character arc.

    Within each book you should address one aspect of the hero’s arc and have her/him move toward resolution, while applying that to the meeting of the goal and solving of the problem. I think the idea is to show them moving forward in confronting a particular demon, perhaps rising to meet the need at hand within a single book but without completely conquering that problem (like, someone sobering up enough in one book to win the day, but in the next book the demon is back). Each book in the series becomes a demonstration of the hero’s learning curve, but not necessarily the conquering of the demon completely… until the end.

    These are all judgment calls, never an exact science. The more you adhere to all of the criteria for a successful single story/book, without allowing the fact that the series will continue to compromise the story at hand, the better off you’ll be. As Janice says – and we should always listen to what Janice says, by the way 🙂 – Harry Potter is the model for this — each book-specific storyline resolves itself,
    leaving the “master plot” (nailing Valdemont) open-ended.
    Harry conquers some inner fear within each book, yet the Harry that returns in the next book is still on a path that he hasn’t completely mastered.

    Hope this helps. Sound like you have an ambitious project on your hands… enjoy the ride! L.

  4. Dale


    Your comments about the character having to learn and thus grow by learning triggered an ah-hah moment for me. I’ve been working hard on learning character transformation-for some reason I’d never really considered learning itself to be the key thing I needed to grasp. Wow.

    So, as a hero wrestles with a conflict and tries to solve it, she’s really learning how to do so, and in the process, changes herself. At least, that’s how I see this now. Does that make sense?

    Thanks for another great post.

  5. Thank you Janice and Larry for your insight.

    ambitious, yes. its been fun so far, but i’m only halfway through the first draft. i’m enjoying the process, and feel much more confident about my directions since finding story architecture and the six core competencies. i’m finding that the more i learn, the more i don’t know, but that’s kinda fun too.

    Thanks for another great blog series Larry! very helpful to me

  6. JV

    Huge Praises for Parts 5 and 6 Char. They are a boon to my rewiting, if I can pull it together. I realize I wrote wrong psychology into my stories which left the backstory weak. The demon as you explain it carries enormous weight that simply refused to come out on my pages. Now I understand why backstory is a touch of color in a painting rather than a backDROP. My writerly life took on greater possibilities when another author suggested
    You were so right about Langdon in the De Vinci Code. In the Lost Symbol, Brown makes it obvious Langdon has a flaw, then puts it to great use. Sincere thanks. Hi to your wife. I’m one, too. JV

  7. Mary E. Ulrich

    I’m wondering about how to set up the character arcs of villains.

    Is it the same as setting up the characterization of the hero/heroine? It doesn’t work the same for me–not sure why. All suggestions appreciated.

    ps. Re: Nora Roberts’ trilogies
    Janice is right that each book has a hero/heroine romance with the happily ever after for the couple, but… there is always a thread of mystery or adventure that began in the first chapter of the first book and isn’t resolved until the last chapter of the last book. My favorite Roberts’ series has multi-generational couples whose stories are interwoven and who all add skills and sacrifice to the resolution.

  8. @Mary — great question. Unlike our protagonists, whom we meet prior to the introduction of the primary conflict and antagonist in a story, we usually meet the bad guy more suddenly (not always, though… a Part 1 character can emerge as the bad guy at Plot Point One). Which means, their character arc isn’t as dramatic or even necessary as that of the protagonist.

    In many stories the antagonist doesn’t experience a character arc at all. In thrillers and mysteries they usually get captured or killed, in fact. While the arc of the hero is pretty clear, the arc of the baddie is your call completely.

    More important to arc in an antagonist is their backstory, some glimpse into whatever conspired to bring them to where they are in the story, their values (or lack thereof), their goals, their resentments, their skewed world view.

    Watch some movies and read some novels and pay particular attention to the antagonist’s arc… my guess is, you won’t see much of one. Hope this helps.

  9. Mary E. Ulrich

    I will never be able to enjoy a movie again.

    I really appreciate when you walk us through the movie with the plot points defined. It seems so simple when you do it.

  10. tuxgirl

    This struck me as amazingly interesting, and explained something to me that had escaped me previously.

    Major admission: I enjoy the Twilight books.

    Yes, I know… That’s heresy in the writing world. Sorry. However, I have to say I never cared that much for Bella. I was more interested in the rest of the characters in the story. Looking at it after reading this, I think I understand why. Bella doesn’t have much of an arc. She doesn’t have any internal conflict. Edward, Jacob, Jasper, and so many of the other characters have internal conflict, things they have to move past. They are fighting their internal demons, in some cases more than they are the external things they are dealing with. They are the characters I want to model my characters after…