Today brings the 7th and concluding post in our series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization”
Part 7: A Sum in Excess of the Parts
One of the reasons writers get confused about these separate elements of storytelling is that, at the end of the day within a story that works – and let’s be honest, that’s what we, as consumers, spend our time reading – the lines between them blur.
Rest assured, the creator of that work reached clarity through one of two processes: they understood the elements and separate processes of development, and knew how to blend them… or, they either got lucky or they’re intuitive enough to make them work without knowing how. Good luck with that.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to leave my storytelling, or my career, to luck. And while I’m often intuitive as hell, I sleep a lot better knowing there’s a structure, a process and a paradigm for storytelling that – contrary to the belief of some pantsers – doesn’t remotely compromise the creative process.
I am often asked to clarify the difference between concept and plot, between concept and theme, and between character arc and story structure. There are plenty of posts here on Storyfix that directly address those issues, but I’d like to offer a powerful mental model for the last one: the melding of character arc and story structure.
When done right, they mirror each other.
Earlier we’ve discussed story architecture as a 4-part structure, with significant milestones within and between each part. All of that remains true: Part 1 is the set-up… Part 2 is the hero’s response to their new quest… Part 3 is the hero’s proactive attack on the obstacles that stand in their way… and Part 4 is the resolution in which the hero applies what they’ve learned and overcome (which is character arc, pure and simple) toward the solving of problems, the slaying of dragons and the out-witting of the bad guys to create an ending that satisifies on multiple levels.
Endings don’t have to be perfect. But they should be perfectly satisfying.
All this remains gospel truth. Don’t mess with it. But you can swap out some words and view it through a character-focused lens and see that this sequence is nothing other than character arc applied to a series of story points.
So rather than think of structure as Parts 1 through 4, think of the four sequential “realms” of your story as discreet segments of character status, presence and growth, which become the mission of those four segments/parts/realms as they relate to the storyline.
Now, with this new perspective, each part has two congruant missions. Which is plenty of guidance for you, the storyteller. The plot-driven approach to structure – parts 1 through 4 – has four seperate missions in place, as does character-driven structure, thus allowing the writer to understand the critical context of what goes into them… what scenes need to appear within those sections, and how they are written contextually, now from two seperate perspectives.
Let’s see how this looks. Remember, this is story structure with a new coat of paint, one that focuses on character context as well as plot-exposition.
Part 1 becomes the Orphan stage.
We have defined Part 1 as the set-up, wherein we meet our hero and see what she or he is doing, what she/he is pursing in their life, before the introduction of the primary conflict-driven quest unleashed at Plot Point 1.
Think of this as the hero being detached – or orphaned – from their old life in the face of the task they are about to be given. What is ahead for them will be a shift, a change, a new life, propelling them toward a new home, a new existence, a new life. In Part 1 they are loose and unconnected to the forthcoming story, orphaned from their destiny.
Part 2 is the Wanderer stage.
After Plot Point 1 falls from the sky to end Part 1, the hero now faces a whole new set of problems, objectives, obstacles and needs. A new quest. During this stage, per our plot-driven definition of Part 2, they are responding to this new situation, reacting to it, running from it, investigating it, challenging it, disbelieving it… but not really attacking the problem yet, at least in an informed manner.
It could be said that the hero is wandering here, disconnected and unsure. This is where their old patterns and inner demons – the starting point of their character arc – bite them in the butt. They learn that what they’ve been doing won’t work anymore, at least not in a way that is sufficient to meet the need at hand.
Something needs to change, and quickly, or they’ll fail. In many stories, they might even die.
Part 3 is the Warrior stage.
What changes in Part 3 is that they evolve from a wanderer into a warrior. Which blends perfectly with the plot-driven context of Part 3, which is to become a proactive attacker of the obstacles that block their path.
Ever seen a warrior who is not ready and willing to attack? Didn’t think so.
Here again their inner demons may hinder them, but because they are now being proactive — frankly, they’re just plain smarter now — they begin to recognize what it was about their old ways that haven’t been working so well. Realization kicks in – they need to change, to step it up, to be better than they were. This is where they learn, which is the essence of character arc.
Part 4 is the Martyr stage.
So now, here in the concluding context of Part 4, the hero is better equipped to square off with the antagonist and its inherent obstacles, because they’ve learned their lessons. They’ve changed, grown, evolved. They have courage where once they were cowardly. They engage where once they were isolated. They’ve conquered inner demons that had tempted and haunted and filled them with doubt and dread, and now they’re prepared to apply that learning toward the implementation of heroic decisions and acts – even to the point of martyrdom – to save the day.
Blend and Stir, Cook Until Done
Like a great recipe, all the parts reside as separate as they sit on the kitchen counter awaiting the attention of the cook and the heat of the oven. The person preparing the meal has the latitude to change and add nuance, all within their responsibility to observe the major principles of the meal at hand.
Certain rules still apply: you can’t serve the meat raw if it’s not sushi, and if that’s your creative choice, then I hope you enjoy eating alone.
At the end of the storyteling day, all the arguments about character begin to sound the same. Story is plot. Plot is character. Character is theme. Story is structure.
Yes, yes, yes and yes. Because the heat of your story melds theme into one seamless narrative.
Just don’t think for a moment that the cook had no clue how this would happen. A real cook beholds all the ingredients set out before them… and where the masses see a bunch of groceries and raw food, she or he envisions a glorious, multi-faceted feast.
Image credit: Country Boy Shane
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