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On Character Arcs

Firstly, whoo-hoo! This is the 100th post to this little blog of mine. I started it about four years ago and it’s grown and grown and now lots of people stop by and read it, and some comment, and it’s all faintly astounding. Consider fizzy wine and cake shared appropriately.

Which meant I had fun trying to choose the subject. I thought about (and will no doubt come back to in the next couple of weeks) including thoughts about questions and answers in SFF – that one needs a bit of research first – or another about ‘why I’ve stopped marketing and don’t think most of what authors do works’, but I need to muse on that one and do more research. Since mental illness is currently the focus of an awareness month, I thought about looking at why I write characters who are on the fringes of unbalance, and what challenges that offers, but I need to form that one a little more, first.

Instead, I’m going to write about character arcs and, specifically, extended ones.

I write both standalones and trilogies. Each of those represents a character’s journey – often more than one – and that journey frames the growth arc the character will follow.

Take John in Inish Carraig. His arc is straightforward – he needs to grow into the person he wants to be when the war is over. He needs to learn not just how to survive – he’s introduced as a survivor – but how to survive within the context of his evolving values.

Henry Carter, on the other hand, has less of an arc, partly because he’s the older and more developed character and partly because his growth-focus is around one specific area: his collaboration with the aliens and what that means to him. His support of John and his family is already an established character trait – he’s a policeman, and a good one, who has fought through the war to help others – it’s not a growth arc.

For me, in a standalone, character arcs are reasonably easy to see. Also, because timescales in standalones tend to be shorter, those arcs tend to be of less magnitude. There is only so much anyone, even a character in a book meant to keep the reader interested and engaged, can grow in two weeks.

In longer works, it’s more complex. I’m in the middle of editing book three of The Inheritance Trilogy (due out in the autumn, whoo-hoo!), and I’ve just listened to an audio of the first book to proof it (coming out soon, soon, double whoo-hoo!)

Which means I can see the contrasting characters well at the moment. Honestly, the Kare Varnon of book three is not the one of book one – and it took book two to get him to the point where the older and younger Kare make sense of each other.

I need to back up and talk briefly about trilogy arcs. This review of Sunset Over Abendau sums it up well.

“The traditional problem with second parts of trilogies is that they have to carry a story which effectively has neither a beginning nor an end, both bookends being dealt with properly in parts 1 and 3. It is no small feat, then, that Zebedee manages to make her second book in the Abendau world feel fully rounded and fleshed out in its own right.” (McNonk, Amazon UK)

In standalones, there is a complete story, one that asks its questions and answers them (mostly, I’m not sure SFF always does – or, indeed, should – answer all the questions it asks. But, hey, that’s another blog.)

In series, each book stands on its own and can be read out of order (although it often benefits from being read in order). That takes a special sort of organised mind, I think – knowing how much to include to keep the context in each. It can also lead to a certain amount of repetition. Every Vorkosigan book (Lois McMaster Bujold) will have a line or two to sum up Miles’s physical difficulties. The series reader learns to glaze over that bit – the new reader needs the information.

In a trilogy, however, each book supports the story arc of the next book – and the character arc. I probably have enough context at the start of Sunset Over Abendau that a reader could start with it (I was aware it had been a year since some people had read book 1 and wanted a quick and dirty reminder of past events within the narrative). But a reader will gain more from the book by reading book 1 first.

Each book, however, has to feel like a book in its own right, and that’s where the review is spot on – in book two, that’s a challenge.

Given that context, it becomes very complex merging multiple character arcs (because the secondary characters have arcs, too, their size dependent on how central to the story they are), with multiple story arcs, all within a made-up world. (Take note, George Martin fans who mutter about him not getting on with it. I’m wrangling 25 point of views over three books and it’s darn hard. Think of that over 7 books. With I’ve-lost-count-of-how-many characters….)

Which brings me back to my editing/listen-through moment. My trilogy represents 35 years of someone’s life, the last 20 or so in detail and followed closely. I don’t know about you, but I’ve changed a lot in 30 years. I’ve learned my values, I’ve learned new skills, I express myself differently, I have frailties that I never dreamed of when I was a teenager, and abilities I never expected to have. In the book of my life, I would, hopefully, look back on my 15 year old self and find only the template for my 40-odd year old one. That’s what should happen to a character in an extended arc – we should be able to nod sagely when we recognise the parts of them that are retained, and we should be able to see that when a change occurs it is based on the character we already knew. (For those wondering how I go about that, I wrote a blog about it here:

If the character I’m writing in book three hasn’t significantly grown from book one, I’m in trouble.

Why? Well, firstly, it’s unsatisfying for a reader. We want to see our characters grow. We want them to feel real. We want to go on a journey with them. Tolkien does this so well, in Lord of the Rings. We root for Merry and Pippin, for instance, who are already brave and bold (for hobbits) but as they learn more about the wider world, and have their narrow view both challenged and enhanced, we read on to find out where that takes them. And, in so doing, we learn something about ourselves and our beliefs.

It’s not just that it’s unsatisfying, though. If I read a good book, it affects my life-view. Much of my beliefs have been informed by reading. If the events make me think and absorb their meaning and the character doesn’t, I feel cheated. It’s fake. It’s not a true reflection of what that character should be – which makes the book a shallow pond to reflect in.

Which then takes me to the question of how much of a character arc a book should have, and that’s a tough one. Does Mark Watney develop a huge amount in The Martian? I’m not sure. He starts as a fairly mature (well, mostly) character and the focus of the book is on his survival and the plot to do that. I’m happy that the book didn’t feel the need to go into a great, developmental character arc.

But, something like The Time Traveller’s Wife? It’s all about the characters. The sf element is merely the framework for an intensely moving, personal story about two people. (Otherwise, it would just be The Time Traveller.) If there wasn’t significant focus on Claire and Henry and their developmental arcs, I would feel cheated. That’s what the book is about. That’s what leaves me a crying wreck in the corner everytime I go back to it.

I write big, bold books about characters. I often have them frameworked in action, sure, but the characters are the centre, my passion, and the reason I sit down most days and thump out some words. To do that, I need to know that they will grow and not stay stagnant. I need to know that a reader, coming to the end of their arc, will feel satisfied that they have followed something significant with that character.

I need to know that even more so in my trilogy. I want to get to the end of the last book, set it down, and say ‘that’s it. The characters have moved to where they needed to go. They’ve answered their own questions. My work here is done.’

Fortunately, so far, I feel like I’m doing that.