The Power Of A Good Character Arc

“This story isn’t working,” I told my critique group last night, after hearing their comments.  “I wrote it the wrong way, and I need to tear it up and start all over again.”

Which was true.  I’d written the story in all-dialogue for some reason, a technique that’s inherently clumsy – you have to have people speak in clunky exposition to show what’s happening (“Why, you’re sprouting wings, Margaret!”), and there’s no good way of putting in vivid description without having poets spontaneously composing prose to speak aloud to one another, and if one character is concealing something then it’s difficult to show their side of things without even clunkier monologues.  So basically, I had a great story about a sexually dysfunctional warship – but doing it as a radio play for something that needed the visceral pleasure of military fiction was inherently distancing.

The interesting thing is that after my critique group had convinced me this wasn’t the way to go, some of the members still liked the story very much, and expressed concerns about me tearing it to pieces and starting over… Even though some of their complaints about the story were what had convinced me this all-talky approach wasn’t working.

That’s the power of a good character arc.

Which is to say the story was flawed, but the character’s journey was extremely potent – you had a body-dysmorphic woman who’d left her meat-shell behind to transfer her consciousness into a warship, and she had to come to acceptance with her new and far weirder body in order to be comfortable in her new existence.  That’s a really potent lesson to be learned, and as such the story is kind of guaranteed to work on some level for many folks.

Stories are, in some ways, a lesson learned by the reader, as experienced by the character.  That’s what the character arc is – the person within it has discovered something new (usually courtesy of a try/fail cycle or two where they demonstrate how their old approach wasn’t working), and proceeds to integrate that lesson into his or her life.

If you have something really universal that the character learns – a bold statement on love, or loss, or whatever – then everything else about the tale becomes easier.

A good character arc is like a sketch from a brilliant artist – you can rough out a few lines, and it has power and emotion even though many other aspects of it may be lacking.  In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my most-beloved (or at least my most-discussed) stories are also the ones that have the strongest character arcs.  You have Lizzie learning huge lessons about warfare and friendship in Sauerkraut Station, and you have Irena learning what she really needs to do to save her brother in “Run,” Bakri Says, and you have poor Stewart learning about his significance in the place of the universe in Riding Atlas.  Whereas I have stories that I think are better written, but the lessons the characters learn within them are smaller, less interesting – and so they don’t connect with an audience as deeply.

In many cases I have tales I can’t sell, and I think that’s because the lessons the people within it learn are fractional – an incremental notch forward on their personality.  Whereas the easiest sales I get are the ones where the characters wind up totally transformed by the end of it, learning that everything they know is wrong: Lizzie facing the unfairness of battle and emerging scarred, Irena getting a different take on who her brother is as she loops through his time machine, Stewart seeking shallow intimacy but discovering the real intimacy after he faces down the entirety of the universe.

For me, the best thing I can possibly do with a story is to have a great character arc – a really significant lesson.  If I do that, then everything else can be forgiven.  And in this case, what I have is a character arc so great that people are responding, I think, to the potential of it, even if the shell that arc is currently carried within artificially stunts its impact.

The problem is that, being a pantser, I don’t know what the character arc is in advance.  Sometimes I get to the end and go, “Oh, that’s not actually that much of a change.”  And then that story tends to be a more difficult sell.  (Not impossible; just difficult.  Smaller lessons can resonate more deeply with smaller audiences, in much the same way an in-joke isn’t for everyone but those who get it often laugh harder.)

But this dysfunctional warship story is interesting, because I think what people are reacting to is more the potential of a story unlocked.  The word “important” was said more than once about the tale.  And I think if I was a pre-Clarion writer, the kind of guy who shrugged and said, “Eh, close enough,” I’d probably try to refine that clunky dialogue methodology down, and maybe switch a few scenes around, and eventually I’d come up with something nice.  The tale would be heartwarming to some no matter how I phrased it, because a) I’m a decent enough writer to make bad approaches look decent, and b) the pulsing potency of that character arc would resonate with some just because they want to learn the lesson that’s unlocked by my protagonist.

Yet I’m me, now.  I’m willing to say, okay, the central plot is great, but the housing is bad, and find some way to back off and rewrite it in a fashion that it not just harnesses but amplifies the strength of that core, until I get something that explodes out of the gate.

That may mean I write five more drafts until I get a good start on how to approach this, and then several more drafts until I refine the story’s elements so they all work in harmony.  That’s okay.  I have a good start.  And post-Clarion, I know that “good enough” isn’t good enough; I’m battling with much more popular writers in a queue of hundreds, and so I’d damn well better be the best.

But I’m heartened.  What I have is a tale that some loved in a very raw format.  That gives me hope that I can break it carefully out of the shell and put it in something more suited to it.

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