Posted in character, General

Emotional Arcs

In every scene of your story, your characters should want something. What they want can vary wildly and often contradicts what other characters want. This is a part of creating conflict and tension. Today however, we’re talking a little bit about actions and reactions. More specifically, we’re discussing how emotional arcs work in scenes.

With the exception of a few characters, most of your characters will have some form of emotional movement. As people, our emotions often change in response to external stimuli. Within the context of a scene, that means your characters should have emotional responses as their scene-level goals are blocked, both by obstacles and other characters.

Keep in mind that there’s not a clear cut spectrum of emotions. Rather, they work more or less like a color wheel: shifting and blending into each other almost imperceptibly. Fear can turn into anger just as easily as it can give way to affection. The change is a result of the stimuli from outside.

For example: Your standard ‘monster under the bed’ complaint from many children. Their goal is pretty simple: get rid of whatever is under their bed that’s scaring them. Mom or Dad’s goal is to get some sleep. How the parents handle the complaint often affects the kid’s emotional arc.

Mom or Dad could easily get upset, scoffing at the complaints and dismissing their child’s statements. Kid eventually gives up, fear giving way to hopelessness, or perhaps even anger as they feel unprotected and unloved. This is a good place to ask how that might impact the character arc—do they lose trust in their parents at this point?  

Alternately, Mom or Dad takes a moment to check out the under the bed, reassuring the Kid. Based on the response, the kid’s goal is satisfied, and their emotions taper into love and happiness, leaving them (hopefully) with pleasant dreams. Mom and Dad however, now have to deal with the regret of an half-hour of lost sleep. How would that effect the next morning?

Because each action causes an emotional reaction, this gives you an opportunity to build your scenes off one another and helps tie your character arcs directly into scenes of your story.

As an exercise: Take a scene from your story and label it with the emotional changes your characters go through. What causes their emotions to change? How are they feeling at the end of the scene? Then, when you’re finished, look at the next scene. How does the end of the previous scene impact the next?  

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Inserts

Characters are often the first thing a reader falls in love with. Building a detailed and dynamic character can be difficult. Thankfully, there’s plenty of ways to practice.

As an exercise: Pick someone you know in real-life. Describe them as the main character in a story. Think about how they act, walk, talk and any habits or quirks they have. You can also try writing them as a villain for an added challenge.

Then: Insert them into a short story. Try rewriting a fairy tale to feature them or even putting them in the place of a character in a show or book you enjoyed. How does the story change to accommodate them? How do they solve some of the conflicts of the story?

Posted in writing

Character vs. Plot Driven

When it comes to moving your story forward there are usually two driving forces: plot and character. Because each one drives the events in a story a little differently, this gives us plot-driven and character driven stories.

With plot-driven stories, the events drive each other forward. High taxes from the king cause a famine in the kingdom, which leads to bandits stealing from the rich nobles to help feed the poor. Cause and effect directly affect what happens next.  Often, plot-driven stories have a predictable outcome. The murder is solved, the couple gets married, etc.

Plot-driven stories often feature static characters.  Arguably if you replaced any of the characters in The Lord of the Rings you’d have largely the same story. The ring would still be destroyed, Aragorn (or his replacement) would still take the throne. This is because the events happening are more important than the character development.

With character-driven stories, the reactions to each event drive each other forward. The high taxes cause anger which causes riots, which causes a civil war, which leads to the division of the country. In this case, emotions and motivations push events forward. Endings can be a little harder to predict because they’re often focused on internal goals instead of external conflicts.

Because the focus on character-driven stories is heavier, they rely heavily on character arcs and development. In The Hobbit, replacing any of the characters gets a little trickier.  Replacing Bilbo leads to a few less questionable incidents (the trolls, anyone?). Replacing Thorin probably avoids the fight over the Arkenstone.

The main difference between character- and plot-driven stories is where the focus is. A story focused on external conflict lends itself more to a plot-driven structure. The conflict must be resolved in some manner, and as a result, events push forward to that inevitable resolution.  A character-driven story is less about the end goal and more about the changes a character goes through during the course of a story.

If you’re wondering which one is better, the answer is neither. As a writer you may find yourself preferring one style over the other, but neither character- nor plot-driven stands firm as a ‘better’ option. Nor are they mutually exclusive. Going back to The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit you can see that a character-driven story like the Hobbit gives way to a plot-driven story such as the Lord of the Rings.  If Bilbo never steals the ring, then the ring never needs destroying. And, as above, with high taxes and a famine sweeping the land from our plot-driven example, it makes sense for a motivated Robin Hood to start stealing to help his community.

Which storytelling style do you prefer to write?

Posted in Exercises, worldbuilding

Building the Backstory

For most stories, we don’t get to see every moment of a character’s life. We certainly don’t get to see every moment of every single character. Often the parts of a character’s life we don’t see are referred to as backstory. That is where they came from, what their home life was like, their personal biography up to the point of the story.

Backstory is a powerful thing. It informs character actions and helps us as writers figure out how, why and what makes our characters tick. It’s also rife with other smaller stories we might not consider.

Take your main characters parents. Even if they don’t know or never met their parents, they had to come from somewhere. How did their parents meet? What made them have a child together? What were their hopes and dreams for their son or daughter? Are they proud of them or dismissive? In the case of those who grew up with their families, what did they struggle with when raising your main character? For those who were orphaned or abandoned, what made their parents do it?

Those are all questions that can be answered by looking at the backstory of the parents. Even if it’s just a brief summary, having that on hand sometimes helps when trying to help develop and flesh out your characters.

It might also help to think about other people your character would have interacted with outside of the main story. Childhood friends, teachers, extended family members, neighborhood bullies—all of these are people who might have an impact on your character before they come into the story and before your readers meet them. While they most likely won’t show up in the story, it bleeds into your writing.

The nice thing about backstory is that it’s not limited to people, especially when you’re attempting to world build. Think about particular holidays or events your character would witness during their lifetime. What makes those holidays important? How did their traditions come about? If there’s a particular event such as an annual balloon race, how did that come about? How long has it been occurring? What significance does it have for participants today?

As an exercise: Take fifteen minutes and write out a biography for your character or characters from birth up to the start of the story. Then go through that bio and highlight people and events that don’t show up in the story. Work out brief biographies and histories for each item.

Posted in character

Using Negative Traits for Arcs

Like real people, characters should have flaws. After all, Nobody is perfect and your characters need to be Somebody. Hence, they need to have flaws and negative traits to help balance out their strengths. Having a negative trait in their character also helps provide conflict and gives you as the writer a place to build their arc.

Take a look at your character’s negative flaws and ask questions. Are they quick-tempered? Stingy? Vain? Perhaps they have low self-esteem or they care too much about what others think. Once you know where their shortcomings are, ask yourself how it impacts their ability to resolve the main conflict. Does an inability to listen to others cause a miscommunication? Does their timidity cause them to keep quiet when they have a perfect solution?

Their flaws should impact them in some way.  Use those negative traits as an obstacle to getting what they want. This forces your character into needing to make a change and gives them a motivation for their character arc.

As the arc progresses, ramp up the problems caused by that negative trait. As the results become worse and worse, your character is forced to try a new tactic to get what they want. This reinforces the idea that their negative trait needs to change.

Not every character arc will end with a complete turn around. Change is hard to do, especially when it’s something like a bad habit or a negative trait. Rather than forcing your character through a full reimagining by the end of the story, let that negative trait remain—but tone it back. Show they can still be just as stubborn, stingy or selfish as they were, but that their instances of doing so are lessened by the impact of their past actions.