Guest Post by C.S. Lakin
The Character Arc in Six Specific Stages
As a writer, you’re probably familiar with the term “character arc,” but what does a character arc entail? How do you structure this arc? And what informs the way your character changes, from the start of your story to the end?
While all characters in a novel can have arcs, it’s the protagonist whose change should be the most significant. Depending on genre and plot, your hero’s change might be subtle or life-altering. A suspense thriller or cozy mystery may show little character growth by the end, when the bad guy is caught or the mystery solved, whereas a thoughtful women’s fiction novel or relational drama may showcase monumental change.
But, in all stories, arcs are about change or transformation. And the stories with strong arcs show a character starting in what Hollywood movie consultant Michael Hauge calls identity or persona.
What makes for a great persona is a character who has suffered in his past and has developed a coping mechanism over time. This is his face he presents to the world that keeps buried his pain, fear, or hurt.
It’s human nature to deny and avoid painful feelings. But when we suppress them, it creates problems. We are never truly happy in our persona. It’s like having a tiny (or big) thorn in our toe that is festering. We keep our foot in a sock and walk around trying to ignore it, but it isn’t going to go away on its own. At some point we have to pull off the sock, look hard at the infection, then extricate that thorn and flush out the wound.
This gives us a blueprint for the process of crafting a strong character arc. While we understand coming up with “a wound” for our protagonist is key, we don’t want to make up any ol’ wound. We need to develop one that is intrinsically tied in with our premise.
Your character moves from his persona to his true essence in stages, gradually and in a believable manner. People don’t change overnight. Events erode a person’s grasp on his persona until he can no longer hang on to it. By the end of your story, your character finds no safe haven in that persona any longer.
Let’s take a look at these six stages of transformation, using the movie Hostiles as a perfect example.
In Hostiles, Army Captain Joseph Blocker has spent the last two decades fighting Indians, and he’s witnessed horrific things the Indians have done. He hates the Indians and cannot see past his hate to imagine they have any humanity or worth. Before he retires, he’s commanded to escort the ailing Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk—his most despised enemy—to his ancestral home in Montana. He is fully in persona.
In Hostiles, Blocker’s hatred begins to crack when he witnesses Yellow Hawk and the other Indians quickly move to join in protecting their group, even killing other Indians in defense. This glimpse of integrity that he sees in Yellow Hawk sparks respect and challenges his core beliefs that all Indians, especially this one, are savages and nothing more.
In Hostiles, Rosalie, a woman whose family was butchered by Indians and who Blocker saved and has taken with him on this journey, has a deep talk with Blocker about life and spiritual things. This mirror moment gets Blocker questioning his life and values and begins to crack his hard shell.
Rosalie and the two native women are kidnapped by a group of fur traders who come across them as they wash dishes at a creek. Alerted by Little Bear, Blocker and several of his men, as well as Yellow Hawk and Black Hawk, track them down. They find the fur traders’ camp and witness one of the kidnappers beating Yellow Hawk’s daughter. When the kidnappers return to their tents, the men sneak down into the camp and attack the kidnappers and kill them. One of the rescuers is killed in the struggle. This intense event, which throws the opposing characters together, uniting them in purpose and morality, causes a further transformation of Blocker’s character. The Indians are people who strive, who suffer, who take care of those they love. He sees they are not all that different from him. He’s almost in his true essence.
In Hostiles, after a huge climax of death and mayhem, the group finally reaches Montana, and Blocker and Yellow Hawk, who is near death from cancer, speak. Blocker names some of the men he had lost fighting Yellow Hawk. Yellow Hawk responds by saying that he had also lost people. The two men shake hands in an apparent mutual act of forgiveness and friendship. When they arrive at Valley of the Bears, they bury the now dead Yellow Hawk using a traditional native burial scaffold. When white men approach and threaten them—mirroring the exact attitude Blocker had at the start of the story: hateful, racist, violent—we see Blocker take a stand, and he kills the leader of these men. Everyone in Blocker’s group is shot and killed except Rosalie and the young Indian boy.
At the end of Hostiles, Rosalie boards a train with the boy, heading home to where she will raise the young warrior. Blocker says good-bye, but because he is now fully in his essence, wholly transformed, he cannot leave the woman he loves. He is now able to do two things he could never have done at the start of the story: be at peace enough to allow himself to love this woman he cherishes and decide to help raise an Indian boy. He has broken through his racism and hate by way of experiences that taught him the lessons he needed to learn, giving him understanding that had never been within his grasp. A powerful story with a perfect transformational journey for the protagonist.
When you sit down to work on your character arc, consider using the Six Stage Plot Structure. Brainstorm scenes that will showcase the specific stage your character is in, for each turning point in the story. I also use this, and other, examples in my extensive online course on The 10 Key Scenes That Frame Up Your Novel. If you want to master this, take this course!
Using this framework will not only help you write a solid story, it will aid you in crafting a believable character arc for your protagonist that will engage and delight your readers.
Hope you enjoyed this guest post from C.S. Lakin. Her writers' blog is a great one to follow. Subscribe at: http://www.livewritethrive.com/
Has this article helped you in any way? Would love to hear your comments.
Elva Cobb Martin is vice-president of the South Carolina Chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers. She is a former school teacher and a graduate of Anderson University and Erskine College. She has two inspirational novels published with Lighthouse Publishers of the Carolinas. Summer of Deception, a contemporary romantic suspense, and an historical romance, In a Pirate’s Debt. Both have spent time on Amazon’s 100 Best Sellers List for Women’s Religious Fiction. She has indie published a Bible study on Amazon, Power Over Satan, on the believer's authority in Christ. Decision, Charisma, and Home Life have carried Elva's articles. She and her husband Dwayne are semi-retired ministers. A mother and grandmother, Elva lives in South Carolina. Connect with her on her web site http://www.elvamartin.com,on Twitter www.twitter.com/ElvaCobbMartin; Facebook http://www.facebook.com/elvacobbmartin; and Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/elvacobbmartin
Link to her romance novels and non-fiction works on Amazon: http://amzn.to/2pOgVHI