Character arcs and why they’re important

I was editing a manuscript recently and found myself making the point that the author’s protagonist hadn’t changed much between the first chapter and the last. This protagonist had been through a lot and their circumstances had changed radically, but despite that, their emotions, outlook and behaviour had not evolved or been much affected by what they’d experienced. They’d taken everything on the chin and kept their cool from start to finish.

It took me a long time to realise how significant a character arc is when writing a novel. When I first started writing, I was so focussed on getting the general story arc right that I often overlooked the main character’s journey of development – mistake! One of the most essential ingredients of a novel is the emotional journey that the main character goes on. And that while conflict in any form is also an essential element, a protagonist’s feelings must at times be conflicted, too.

A main character needs to have a goal – something they want/need to have/do. They should also have some kind of flaw that holds them back – ie, fear or naivety, ambition or prejudice. The MC needs to be on a mission to achieve their goal (whether they know it or not). That mission needs to be a bumpy one, with various obstacles sending them on a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows until they reach their bleakest moment. Reaching this low point forces the MC to have a re-think and an epiphany. The epiphany leads to a change in their thinking and behaviour. By the end of the story, they must be a changed person in some way. They must see things differently to how they did before.

Why? As readers we want to go on a journey with the main character. We want to understand them, feel for them, root for them. If they don’t evolve or learn or grow, will the reader be able to feel as much for them?

I’ve listed a few examples of character arcs below – I found summarising them for this purpose was helpful to me, so I hope you find them helpful, too. PS These examples might contain spoilers so if it’s a book you intend to read, then look away! As for A Christmas Carol, bah humbug 🙂

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini:
As a child, Amir craves his father’s approval. He is jealous of his best friend Hassan who seems to receive more affection from Amir’s father than Amir does. When a horrific event turns Hassan’s life upside down, Amir selfishly distances himself from his friend but carries the guilt into his adulthood. Many years later, he realises he must confront the legacy of his past mistakes and redeem himself.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Christopher wants to find out who killed his neighbour’s dog and why. His investigation leads him outside his very restricted comfort zone and forces him to deal with situations he’d previously avoided. The challenges he faces help him to become more independent and lead him towards a far more significant truth.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor wants to find a boyfriend while blotting out her childhood trauma with vodka. But as someone who is socially awkward, she lives a lonely, rigid life. While most people write her off as weird, new colleague Ray tries to befriend her. Eleanor’s determination to bury the past and Ray’s attempts to get her to open up lead her to a lowest point, after which she finds the courage to talk about her painful childhood and start to move beyond it.

The Lives of Others (A 2006 German film)
Set in East Berlin in 1984, cold-hearted Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler is assigned to spy on a playwright and his actress girlfriend whom he suspects are disloyal to the Communist party. As he listens in on their every conversation, waiting to uncover evidence of their disloyalty, he begins to feel compassion for them. As a top government minister creates more anguish for the couple, Wiesler finds his own loyalties divided.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
For a long time, Scrooge’s goal has been to amass wealth. But he’s so obsessed with money that he’s lost all empathy and compassion for others. The ghosts of Marley and of Christmas past, present and future show him how callous and greedy he has become – a truth that shocks Scrooge and shames him into turning over a new leaf.

 

First Draft Blues

Finishing a first draft feels like a momentous achievement – for about five minutes until the angst sets in. Because when you read back through your manuscript, all the half-baked characters, plot holes, repetitions, inconsistencies, unnecessary details, missing details, superfluous scenes and general waffle will taunt you from the page, making you feel inadequate, unskilled, a FAILURE. Scenes and chapters are in the wrong order. Some things don’t make sense. Other things aren’t plausible. The middle sags. On and on it goes. First Draft Blues are harsh and can make you lose perspective, convincing you you’re not a good enough writer. But that’s not the truth. A first draft is a temporary, unavoidable stage that your manuscript must go through before it starts to take shape. And First Draft Blues are temporary, too. But to help shoo them on their way as fast as possible, I’ve written a little ditty to cheer you up and cheer you on. It’s called…

 

GO AND DO ONE, FIRST DRAFT BLUES

 

Your first draft is full of shit

And you feel like an utter tit

It won’t see the light of day

So you might as well chuck it away

 

STOP – in the name of fiction!

It’s a very common affliction

For what looks like a puddle of puke

Are the foundations that will form your book

 

Now allow yourself some credit

And prepare for a ruthless edit

There’s really no need to panic

You’re not trying to re-float the Titanic

 

When you compare draft one with draft two

That difference will be all down to you

By the time draft five’s in full swing

Your story will be starting to sing!

 

All those rewrites and revisions?

Just necessary steps on the mission

Be kind to yourself and stay bright

First drafts are supposed to be shite

#WriteMentor Summer Programme 2020

I’m really excited to announce that this year I’ll be mentoring for the #WriteMentor Summer Mentoring Programme – whoop, whoop! Here’s a bit of blurb about myself, my experience, and what I’m offering.

Agent: Lauren Gardner at Bell Lomax Moreton Literary Agency

Published books: Middle Grade comedy Clementine Florentine currently on submission.

Genre: upper MG/YA contemporary comedy

Bio: For the last 15 years I’ve worked as a copywriter for the graphic design agency I run with my husband. Before that I worked as a sub-editor on a variety of magazines from Vogue to The Sun TV Guide. I love writing attention-grabbing headlines – whether it’s for a fashion feature or a weekly Corrie update, or for an orchestra’s latest season brochure or a company’s new website. Work aside, I’m married with two mouthy teenagers, a lazy Labrador and an incontinent cat.

Experience: I’ve been writing fiction for nearly 20 years and have gained and lost agents, been on submission a few times and received hundreds of rejections – so I’m very familiar with the heartache of constant knock-backs! In the last few years, since turning from women’s fiction to writing YA and MG, I’ve been shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award (2017) and longlisted for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition (2018), and have found representation with Lauren Gardner at BLM. My current novel is out on submission so I’m mainlining Minstrels as I await the verdicts. I found the Curtis Brown Creative Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course and also the Society for Editors and Proofreaders Introduction to Fiction Editing course hugely helpful in honing my fiction writing and editing skills.

Mentoring package offered: I’ll provide a thorough developmental edit of your full manuscript. This means I’ll be looking at the structure of the story, plot development, characterisation, writing, presentation and marketability. I’ll flag up potential problems and brilliant bits alike in the margin, and write you a full report covering all of the above. I’m also happy to advise on your cover letter and synopsis, too.

Mentoring style: I won’t hold back from pointing out issues that may (or may not) need addressing, but I’ll be as tactful and supportive as I can. I’ll be cheering you on every step of the way.

Ideal mentee: I’d love to work with someone who is open to (gentle) constructive criticism. I’m open to all genres (of Middle Grade and YA) except fantasy.

Fave pastimes: Sitting in a cosy café with a cup of coffee and staring into space, or blasting out some favourite tunes and having a boogie (preferably not in front of my teenagers who are too young to appreciate the greatness of their mother’s iconic dancefloor swagger.)

Fave kids’ books: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, Noah Can’t Even by Simon James Green, The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr, Grinny by Nicholas Fisk, The Outsiders by SE Hinton, and anything by Lois Duncan (showing my age with these last three).

Fave adult fiction: Are You Experienced? by William Sutcliffe, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Breath by Tim Winton, anything by Liane Moriarty.

Fave TV: The Kominsky Method, Breaking Bad, Narcos, The Bridge, Fleabag, Atypical.

Fave films: JoJo Rabbit, Fighting with my Family, Blade Runner, Terminator, Edward Scissorhands, Jaws.

Please note: There’ll be a few weeks when I’m on holiday and not in touch, but don’t worry, I’ll let you know the dates in advance.

Rejection Sucks (a poem)

Sometimes I write poems and chicken out of sharing them online, but I’m pretty sure most of my writing comrades can relate to this one: Rejection Sucks. (Perhaps I’d better call it Rejection Sucks Part 1, as I have a LOT more to say on the subject that I couldn’t possibly squeeze into one poem…)

Rejection Sucks

 

You’ve written a novel and it’s taken you forever

It’s like you just climbed Everest – a momentous endeavour

You’ve researched agents and you’re ready to press send

Now here comes the bit that’ll drive you round the bend

“I just don’t love it enough” is what you’ll often hear

“There isn’t a market for this” – a legitimate fear

“It’s not the right fit for us” – bang – head – wall

No response, just SILENCE – the most torturous of all

The rejections sting, your confidence is sapped

Was your novel really such an utter load of crap?

Should you scrap that idea, start on something new?

Is repeating this experience what you really want to do?

OF COURSE IT IS! Because you bloody love writing

The rejections feel harsh, but they make you keep fighting

With every manuscript, your skills will grow stronger

So buckle up for the ride – cos it could take a bit longer