“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
As I said in my last post, On Character Arcs: Part 1, The Psychology of Character Arcs, when a character changes in response to an event, it is incredibly important because, very often, it is the change that shows the importance of an event in the first place. What I didn’t say is that, if your character’s arc is a direct result of the events alone, it is going to be incredibly weak - even if the events themselves are strong.
Here are other important points to consider when creating your character--
An Active Arc Is Better Than a Reactive Arc
A character arc that is based solely on reactions is a generic arc because it is one that any character would have in that given situation. If you, personally, were running from assassins for the course of 300 pages, you too would be wary and mistrusting of those around you… it’s what’s expected! When a character is directly shaped by events, he is part of a reactive character arc. That’s not what you want. You want to show off your character’s most interesting traits and remind your audience why he or she is worth writing about in the first place. An active character arc does exactly that. It shows a way of being different from the way most people live their lives - and it is difference in writing that stands out.
Your Character Is Driven By Motivation
To quote Kurt Vonnegut a second time, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Ask questions before you begin writing a story. What does my character want? How will their motivations change as the story progresses? Your motivation drives your character into the obstacles that change him. Frodo’s desire to protect the shire is what causes him to volunteer to destroy the ring. It is what drives him to say ultimately, “We set out to save the shire, Sam, and it has been saved - but not for me.”
This is an important distinction because it means that motivation is the best tool for bringing about character change! If my character wants to get that water really badly, he will go through some pretty nasty things to get it - and that can cause him to question the value of life in the first place.
JUST REMEMBER: Motivation can only drag your character through these obstacles. How they adapt to these obstacles is what makes them unique.
Personal Growth Isn’t Always One-Sided
Too often characters finish a story by rising to the top by overcoming all adversity and becoming the best version of themselves. That’s fine, but the best fiction emulates life. Very rarely do people become simply “better”. A person’s growth is a multi-faceted thing. A nerd might become good with women by caring less about them than he did before. Uplifting stories are great, but not every story is a story of victory. It’s more important to write something genuine than something peppy.
Your Character’s Personality Should Shape Their World
The strongest of stories intertwine story and character. As I talked about briefly in my post What Could Go Wrong, characters are the driving force of tragic plays. It is Hamlet’s inability to take action is what keeps him spiralling to his doom. Had he taken arms against his sea of troubles and killed his uncle/stepfather, Claudius, as he knelt in prayer, the play would have simply ended. If Hamlet were replaced with John McClane from Die Hard, the play would have ended very differently.
Your Characters Are Made for Their Stories
A character arc should reflect the essence of the story. Take The Godfather for instance. One of the key points of the story is, “You can’t turn your back on family”. The irony is that, in Michael’s attempts to protect his family, he hardens his heart to the point that his wife becomes afraid of him and leaves. Not everyone would become as cold as Michael does throughout the story, but his transformation is perfect for adding a touch of irony into the film.
Guide your characters toward the conclusion that resonates the most profoundly with your readers. Do it elegantly and in a way that shows off your character’s unique personality, and your work might stand the test of time!