Character Arcs Demystified

Internal conflict is a jewel for better understanding your character’s arcs and the spine or theme of your book. Now most of the time words like “character arc” and “theme” strike fear into writers, but there really isn’t a reason for that fear. The bottom line is whether or not you intentionally put it there, there is a theme running through your book (see, your 10th grade English teacher was right!), knowing this theme, though, can really work to your benefit, especially with revisions. Just like GMC, character arcs and theme are all pieces to the same puzzle and when you have them all sitting before you, you are better able to create a cohesive and tightly written book.

A character’s arc is nothing more than character growth.

“Oh, right. Sure,” you may be thinking. “Character growth. That’ll be easy.”

And you’re right. It’s hard to make your characters grow. Let’s face it, no one likes to grow as a person. It’s hard work. We’re all very set in our ways. People (and characters) naturally resist change.

That means, for your character’s growth to be believable, it has to be gradual and they have to fight it a bit. But readers love to read about the struggle to grow as a person. They love seeing the character arc.

I know that for me when I was a newer writer I was trying to better understand character arcs and I must have tried every method out there – 15 step arcs, trying to apply the hero’s journey and nothing worked. I was convinced that the character arc was an unattainable thing I was just never gonna get. My characters were gonna just have to do it on their own because I wasn’t smart enough to guide them through it.

But then one day I was talking to my critique partner and things began to fall magically into place. I knew that my characters needed to start the book with one issue and by the end of the book they needed to have worked through that issue in order to achieve their HEA. Okay so move character from Point A to Point B. Got it.

Okay, I’m about to give you the key to character arcs, I really should charge for this because it’s evidently a big, bit secret. Okay we have a point A and a point B, for those of you who are good in math, that’s two steps. That’s right, I said TWO steps. Not as big of a deal as the term character arc makes you feel.

So what are these points?

Point A – Error in thinking – The error in thinking is something the character believes about themselves or their world that is both wrong and preventing them from resolving their internal GMC and thus happiness (love). Our characters can’t be really happy (or in a healthy relationship) until they give up their error in thinking.

Now, keep in mind, this error in thinking isn’t completely illogical. The character must have a good reason (motivation) for believing that their error in thinking is actually true. Something (or preferably many things) in their past have lead them to this firmly held belief.

Point B – The Lesson – This is what your character must learn before they can overcome the crisis in the big black moment. And, yep, the lesson is often related to the character’s error in thinking. It’s also worth noting that often in romances the hero and heroine’s lessons (and therefore their character arcs) are mirror images of each other. For example, if your heroine needs to learn that it’s okay to lighten up a bit and lose control every once in a while, then your hero’s lesson might be that he can still enjoy life even if he’s a bit more responsible. Or maybe she needs to learn to trust herself more and he needs to learn to trust others.

So you identify your heroine’s error in thinking – she believes that she has to change herself in order to be accepted by others. Then you use the correlation for her lesson – she needs to learn that she’s lovable just as she is. Point A to Point B. Character arc. See how easy that is?

All that stuff in the middle is your plot which repeated makes her deal with the error in thinking, confirming it, questioning it, requiring her to change so she can learn. That’s the job of your story, to push your characters and make them earn their HEA. On your handout I have some more information you can use to help guide key scenes to achieving the character arcs.

Initially we state the error in thinking early on in the book when the reader is getting to know the character. This isn’t usually one of those “Gentle Reader…” moments, typically you want to be a tad sly with how you slip this info in. But this isn’t like the internal conflict in the way that the character isn’t aware of it, they know the error in thinking they don’t know it’s an error, but they know it, they believe it with everything in their little imaginary bodies. So get it out there on the page early on so the reader knows ah-ha here we have a character with trust issues.

Then you move to an internal call to adventure which is often the same as the external call, afterall the external plot should be challenging their internal issues. Then we have refusal to change, external events make status quo impossible so this is when the fun stuff starts to happen, our characters, much like ourselves try to cheat. Think of it in terms of dieting, how many of us have tried every get thin quick plan out there? That’s cheating, it doesn’t work long term, it doesn’t fix anything inside that is probably what’s causing the weight issue anyways. Think about the Biggest Loser, any of you watch that? Every season we get to see one or more of those people’s errors in thinking brought to life and challenged and we see them try to cheat and cheat until finally they have to just recognize they’re gonna have to change to get what they want. Character arc!

So where does theme come in to all of this? When you’re dealing with romance, you really need to look at both your hero and your heroine’s character arcs in order to identify your theme. Let’s backtrack just a bit and define theme to make sure we’re all on the same page here. Theme is the basic emotional conflict of your book. Almost always it can be boiled down to one word. So you could say “this book is about TRUST,” or “this book is about REDEMPTION,” or even “this book is about RESPONSIBILITY.” If you find yourself trying to explain it, “this book is about a woman who…” then that’s not your theme, that’s a synopsis.

The other thing to keep in mind while dealing with theme is that you probably won’t, no matter how long you write, deal with more than a handful of different themes. Like I mentioned earlier about only using a handful of archetypes, all of this stems from your voice. Our own individual writer’s toolbox is unique to us and we’ll find that you can often put new things in the box, but sometimes there are just some permanent fixtures in there you’ll have to learn to work with.

So theme, you’ll revisit the same ones over and over again. No, it’s not about writing the same book over and over again, but theme is deeply connected to an author’s voice. Writing is intensely personal, so it stands to reason that our themes are going to be our own personal hot buttons. Take a look at books you’ve written or even books on your keeper shelf – they all have themes and chances are the themes are similar. Once you’re aware of these hot button themes, it makes defining the themes in your own books easier since you’ll tend to gravitate to the same things each time you go to write. I tend to gravitate towards themes of “self-acceptance” and “responsibility” and “trust”. So while I’m working on character development and GMC I begin to see the theme emerge because I know what to look for. Although as life continues, perhaps I’ll trade in some of those for some new ones. The point being, while there is an endless number of themes out there, most of us have a group of personal themes that we’ll use.

This might sound like a bad thing and I’m sure some of you are disagreeing with me (which is totally fine), but in actuality, having author’s themes is a good thing. It’s scary at first because it can make you feel as if you are limited or that you’re writing the same book over and over again, but this simply isn’t the case. Embrace your themes, being familiar with them can really help you when you sit down to work on your book because you’ll have a narrower list in which to look at to determine what the book is about.

Okay, so now we’re on the same page with our definition of theme, let’s see how we can identify it. Now when I’m doing character development, I tend to start with one character and do all the GMC and character arcs and whatnot on them before I begin the other. For me I nearly always start with the heroine because I’m such a heroine-driven writer. Once I have her figured out, I can start working on the hero and thinking about what kind of man will be both her knight in shining armor and her worst nightmare (only in that he makes her deal with that internal bag of junk she’s been hauling around).

So if I create a heroine who thrives on her own independence, then chances are she’ll be paired with a man who threatens this. He’ll probably have a few children, and his internal conflict might deal with him not understanding the need for independence. If he’s been a single dad for a while, then he’s the primary care giver and might not have time for anything on his own, so he probably thinks the heroine is selfish, and she might think he’s self-righteous. They both need to find balance. But are you seeing a common thread within their character arcs? Independence. He might not have any and she might crave too much, so they’re different, but at the end of the day, it’s the same emotional issue. See, cohesion, that’s the beauty of theme. It ties everything up with a nice, tidy bow.