Tag Archives: Scarlett O’Hara

The Character Arc

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968A number of writing instructors refer to the character arc, or the path a protagonist takes from the beginning of the story to the end, as a tool for the novelist. In many respects it is an artificial construct best recognized after the fact. Except, what happens to the main character really is the story.

Some novels or visual stories, to be sure, have heroes who change little. Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV show exhibited little change week after week. The Lone Ranger, first as radio drama, then as a 50s black and white TV favorite, centered on a similar unchanging hero.

Some might consider those types of stories to be plot driven. Except, characters around the iconic protagonists often changed. Each episode, then, was about the growth or character arc of a secondary figure: the woman trying to make a go of a stage line, the creature who lured passing star ships into his prison, the sheriff accused of murder.

Nevertheless, the eye of the reader or the viewer is on the protagonist who does not change. Generally he has a set of values or a code of conduct which guides him from start to finish. He may have flaws, but he is true to his own standards which neither improve nor deteriorate. They are who the character is. Other such characters include Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond.

One writing instructor identifies these types of characters as having a flat arc. (And I’m wondering about the geometric possibility of such a shape! 😉 )

By far the greatest number of stories depict characters who exhibit growth throughout their story. At the beginning the protagonist has a problem or story question that drives her actions forward. But she also has an inner life that dovetails with these outer circumstances. By the end of the story, the character has learned what she needs, made what changes her circumstances require, commits to a new course of action, and thus answers the story problem which confronted her at the beginning.

This is obviously a simplistic sketch of the character arc, but it shows an important aspect—the inner life of the character and the outer events of the plot are integrally entwined.

The need for character growth can sometimes be caused by the inaccuracies a character believes about himself or the world or both. These beliefs drive him to make decisions and to act as he acts.

Sometimes his actions bring success, but not permanent change, and he is forced to come up with a better plan. More often, however, his actions fail because they were built on those erroneous views.

Poster_-_Gone_With_the_Wind_02For example, in Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara believes she’ll be happy if she can win Ashley Wilkes’ affections. She makes great plans only to hear his announcement that he will marry someone else. She believes she must get him alone and declare her feelings for him, but when she follows through with her plot, he spurns her advances.

Other problems intervene—the Civil War, his marriage, his wife’s devotion to Scarlett—and yet she persists in believing that she would be happy if only she could be with Ashley.

As events unfold, the reader begins to understand that Ashley is not the answer to Scarlett’s happiness. At long last, Scarlett herself comes to realize the truth. She is, in fact, in love with Rhett Butler, and has been for some time. However, when she makes this discovery and declares her love, he tells her she’s realized the truth too late. His love for her has died.

More common are stories in which the protagonist realizes the truth, takes the necessary steps in the right direction, and is rewarded in the end with what he actually needed. However, as with Scarlett, he may not accomplish his goal in the end, though he may find what he needed.

Not every character arc is built upon the character believing a lie. Some show a character’s struggle to overcome a flaw. Initially he may not realize how devastating his character weakness is, but as the story progresses, he has a moment of self-revelation that either pushes him to change or to despair.

Still other characters might believe something true though no one else in his circle does. His story arc, then, might show how his beliefs are tested, how he himself is tempted to doubt in the face of failure after failure. At some point, however, after facing his greatest fears, he chooses to cling to his belief, no matter what.

For example, a boy just out of his teens wants to be a writer. He completes a novel and sends it out to publishers but receives rejection after rejection. As years go by, his friends laugh at his “silly hobby,” his wife encourages him to find “a real job.” He takes odd jobs to make ends meet, but every spare moment he works on another story and another and another. His rejections pile up, but he believes he has the talent, he knows he has the love, and he keeps trying. Eventually his hope wanes.

At last, he experiences the turning point. His wife is threatening divorce. His friends no longer come around. He’s out of money. Again. And he’s no longer a kid. He must get a better job to keep his house and show his wife he cares about the family, or he must publish. Here is his dark night of the soul. What will he do—cling to what he knows is true, that he was born to write; or cave and abandon his life’s work.

What he decides and how the events of the plot resolve in the face of that decision, complete his character arc. He will have either ditched his long held beliefs or held to them more tightly than ever.

Must those stories resolve happily? Clearly not. The character may make a decision to cling to his faith, but dies without seeing a positive result.

However, death should bear out that the character made the right choice. In the case of the writer, he may become famous and receive awards posthumously. Or in a different story, a young girl may end up dying so that others she has lived for go free.

If the character dies and his view of the world or himself are not validated, his character arc makes him out to be a fool. I’m not sure many readers would care to read a story about a character who held firmly to his beliefs only to be proved wrong in the end.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley came close to utilizing this character arc. Savage, the main character, dies and his beliefs are not validated in the story world, but they are validated in the hearts and minds of readers. At least they were validated in part in the heart of this reader.

To sum up, the change in the inner life of a character from beginning to end forms the character arc of a story. A handful of iconic characters don’t show change, though others around them will. Stories begin with a character believing a lie, struggling against a flaw, or clinging against all odds to a truth he believes.

Not all stories resolve happily with the character making positive change and finding success because of it. However, if the end resolves badly for the character, his character arc may still be positive if what he believed or learned is validated as the right course for him to take.



Filed under Character Developmet

Characters Can Be Cliches Too

When I was growing up, westerns dominated the small screen. As my experience expanded, I realized that it didn’t take much to figure out who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.

Good guys — white hat, shirt neatly tucked in, guns riding high and often two strapped to the belt (they were always extremely good with guns), friendly, polite (especially to women, old men, and children), law-abiding.

Bad guys — black hats, rumpled shirts (also often black), guns riding low, black horses (usually slow), a five-o’clock shadow or a couple days growth of beard, surly, chews and spits a lot, leers at women, mean even to friends, cheats at cards.

Stereotypes. That’s what the characters in westerns became, and I suspect part of the reason the public lost interest in westerns was the predictable nature of the stories told about these stock characters.

The thing is, it’s easy to fall into producing assembly-line characters. When we think about villains, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t “lovable.” So we shape them to fit the need at hand. They are mean-tempered, ugly, squinty-eyed, fat, rude, selfish. Whereas the good guys … Well, you see the problem.

How can a writer steer clear of stereotypes?

First, each character needs to become an individual. No two of us are alike, nor should the characters in our novels be alike. But more than our different looks, we show ourselves as individuals by our actions. Hence, the characters that stand out as memorable are the ones that act in ways that are unique, unexpected, and homogenized.

Often the things that make a person unique are considered quirky or weird by others. The TV program Monk became popular in part because the brilliant detective who solved crimes a la Sherlock Holmes was plagued with obsessive compulsions and a long list of fears. He was unforgettable.

Quirkiness doesn’t have to be that extreme, though. A kindly June Cleaver-ish stay-at-home mom could be dyslexic and unable to read. A successful car salesman could be inept at handling his own finances. The star high school quarterback could hole up in his room on the weekends with a book.

Where does the writer come up with quirks in a character? From real life. As a starting place, think about people you know and the ways they do things differently from others.

Quirks can also lead to unexpected qualities which create unexpected actions. The dyslexic mom, for example, refuses to help out in her son’s classroom even though she’ll volunteer her time at the homeless shelter and participate in walk-a-thons for breast cancer research. She’s involved, civic minded, but steers clear of her son’s school.

Sometimes, however, the character may violate his own list of taboos which creates another kind of unexpected.

Again using the main character in Monk as an example, from time to time one of the people he cares about — his brother, the captain who hires him, his assistant — gets into serious trouble and he has to climb a ladder (he’s afraid of heights), go into a sewer (he’s afraid of germs), or pay a ransom (he’s cheap). Of course each trait deviation is clearly and properly motivated, but the fact that he does what he fears is unexpected.

Sometimes, however, he doesn’t come through, or does so only because of incessant nagging prodding from another character. Thus, his change in his routine way of living remains fresh and unpredictable.

A third way to make a character memorable is to homogenize them — stir together both strengths and weakness. Notice, this is not the same thing as saying they need to have a mixed bag of good traits and bad traits. Strengths simply mean that the character is very good at something particular. So the villain might be a better swordsman than the hero, or he might be a master at manipulation and control (think The Godfather).

In the same way, each character needs to have weaknesses and fears. Even Superman had a physical vulnerability (his “allergy” to kryptonite) and a fear of putting the people he loved in jeopardy. Creating characters who are a composite of qualities makes them much more interesting.

Scarlett O’Hara was an obnoxious flirt and didn’t know her own heart when it came to men, but she was resilient and strong-minded and determined. Was she a heroine or a villain? Sometimes she seemed like one only to show herself to be quite different a few chapters later.

What about Bilbo Baggins? He was reluctant, timid, and enamored with ease . . . except he was also clever and adventurous and trusting.

When an author avoids cliches in writing, his prose takes on a freshness that makes it a delight to read. When he peoples his fiction with fresh characters, they take on a life of their own and become memorable.

What memorable characters can you think of that show uniqueness or the unexpected or the homogeneity of strengths and weaknesses?


Filed under Characters