Writing Excuses 5.9: Character Arcs

John Brown joins us this week for a discussion of plot threads specific to characters. These can be the main plot thread, interesting sub-plots, or just things that shape characters. Sometimes they’re things we do deliberately, and sometimes we discovery-write our way into these arcs. We talk about how we do this, and how we know when it is (and isn’t!) working well.

We ran a little long, but there were four of us, and we put LOTS of nuts-and-bolts stuff in this ‘cast.

Writing Prompt: Your cast of characters is trapped on an emotionally-responsive roller-coaster that mimics their own emotional arcs. How do they use this knowledge?

This Tuesday: John’s first novel, Servant of a Dark God, is out in paperback!

ALSO This Tuesday: The polls are open for you, you citizens of the United States! Go vote!

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Amulet of Samarkand: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Book 1, by Jonathan Stroud, read by Simon Jones.

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29 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.9: Character Arcs”

  1. Character arcs. Very important to me with my current project. Project. I almost sound professional. Very interesting. And I’m sure I’ll listen to it several more times in the near future.

    Oh, and thank you for not spoiling Sazed for me. I’m still only half-way in Well of Ascension.

  2. Great podcast guys. I’m always glad to hear John’s input because he is that smart. Character arcs can ad a degree of dynamics to a story, but I agree that they are not always needed by all characters. I liked that John emphasized the importance of the problem, and how it can effect the character arc as they struggle to solve their problems.

    I’m about to start my NaNoWriMo story and with the problems I have planned out for my characters, I worry they might not want to get out of their warm comfy beds.

  3. Here’s a new excuse for you: I am not worthy of such an awesome story prompt.

    Andrew T.: The stuff said about the Sazed of book 3 is not actually a major spoiler. If Brandon had said why he’s so dramatically changed in the entirety of book 3, then it would be. Unfortunately, knowing the resulting state of mind may allow you to predict some of book 2. However, I was able to predict it without any inside information aside from Brandon’s general philosophy as a writer.

  4. This podcast was one of those i just kept on nodding and agreeing in genral trhoughoput in podcast, until i fell in love with something Howard said. The wonderful thing about identify the bit dialog that define the high point and low point. Omg! <3 I got to use this somehow, mayby not just in dialog but any sort of defining sentence.

  5. I am trying to buy seasons 2,3,and 4 for my husband but see no place on your website to do that what do I do?

  6. Tony,

    I use the bullet point method as well a lot of the time. You simply list out the steps of the plot in bullet points instead of full paragraphs. Some folks have very minimalist descriptions on each bullet, some have more compete ones. Whatever works for you.

    For example, at one point I used this list for section of CURSE OF A DARK GOD:

    • Bones
    • Madman (they leave, grub)
    • Redbacks
    • Tanglewood
    • Dreams and Wives—Harnock asks for her, has a bad dream, he has roamlings
    • Moon—sees her bathing, hears the full story
    • Servant of the Lore—talking about urges, bones are the key, crux of the binding
    • Beetles and Bats
    • Hope
    • Gnolum
    • Ally
    • On the Banks of the Lion

    Very minimal. But I knew what each of those scenes and sequences were about. At another time I had a list that held more description:

    o Talen wakes up, having been saved. Harnock is a bit crazy. He does want to kill Talen, smells Mokad on him. And has good reason for his caution. Talen is GRATEFUL and SCARED. Alarmed, worried, he’s going to be killed, but grateful.
    o Crows come. Crap! Harnock very resentful. They need to convince him to go to Hope, or he brings it up. DECISION to go to HOPE and get help.
    o Run into woodikin who want to kill them, see Mokad has already spoken, caught by enemy woodikin

    A little bit more in this one. Sometimes I’ve done bullet lists where a bullet might go for half a page. The idea is to list out the steps of the plot in bullet points with as little or as much info as you need to keep straight what’s going on and the sequence.

  7. RE: Katya, that’ funny. Here’s a SPOILER for all of Brandon’s books that I read. Everybody dies and someone becomes a God.

  8. @Tony: My bullet point method is different, in that I use what look like PowerPoint summary statements. The current Schlock book looked like this at first blush:

    Intro: Galactic core, power shortage, inciting incident
    Rewind, Cast intro: broken ship, limping into port, getting towed.
    Split into four commands.
    High olympus command: business micro-managing humor, Elf & Para. Punctuate with WWSD each Saturday. Four weeks.
    Rewind: Barsoom Circus command. Detective story at the circus. Murder mystery.
    Rewind: Credomar Command, Credomar turns out to be a giant gun.
    Rewind: Mallcop Command – Parkour gang war?
    Rewind: K-prime and General abducted
    Get all cast back together for the rescue. Big finish.

    From there I start adding additional sub-bullets, identifying which cast members go where, and which character arcs go where. Tailor, for instance, has an arc that got set up in one bullet, explored in a second, and paid off in a third.

    My final act’s outline began as a long checklist of things that I had set up and needed to deliver on. Promises to the reader must be fulfilled, after all. I’ll tell you now, not all of them will be delivered in this book, but most of the really good ones are. The ones that aren’t need to bake longer.

  9. Hey, just one point. I think someone mentioned some authors at the end who insist character arcs are necessary. Thankfully there are some writers out there who do workshops that teach things differently.

    I remember one blog about screen writing which kept saying “Arc? Who needs an arc? Indiana Jones never had an arc. Most mystery and crime novels don’t have an arc for the main character either.”

    Anyway, great podcast!

  10. Thank you John Brown and Howard Tayler,

    For your response to my question about bullet point outlines.

    Much appreciated.

  11. I had the chance to meet Dan Wells at World Fantasy this weekend, and one of the things we talked about was whether Writing Excuses was helpful when writing short fiction. It is, but this podcast reminds me that there are certain things that are very different in short fiction than long fiction. The character arc in 6,000 words is different than the character arc in 100,000 words. One solution, of course, is to have no character arc in a short story. But that’s hardly the only one, and I’ve seen very strong character arcs done in short stories, while still having room for a plot and world-building (which I think is actually the hardest thing to do in a short story). The key, I think, is integration. The character arc can’t be a small subplot in short fiction–it should be central to the story.

  12. I love that you go through the whole “what’s happening on November 2” bit without focusing on Brandon’s big event. Nicely ironic. I did indeed vote and buy a book.

  13. Thanks for the transcript Mike, you’re so awesome for doing these. Why is your current mood sinuses?

  14. Oletta — it’s the height of the fall allergy season here in Japan, and my sinuses are killing me. So… that’s the mood. Glad you’re reading the transcripts.

  15. Hmm the podcast cut off right in the middle of John’s statement on the Last Samurai and how Tom Cruise’s character went through an arc.

  16. Enjoyed the ‘cast, as always. This is timely for me. I’ve just finished the first draft, where I wound up concentrating more on the events, and now I’m in the second draft, making things deeper, and following the main character more, finding and deepening his arc, which seems to mean upping the conflict in some side plots for him.

    But yes, there are many books where there are no real character arcs and it works. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t change much, though there is a long subtle arc across the stories about the friendship between Holmes and Watson that I’m very fond of. And YES on movie sequels being ruined because they try to give the character the same arc! (Bad things done by Hollywood that writers should NOT do could be a podcast in and of itself.)

    Good choice on audible books – I love Bartimaeus (the latest Bartimaeus book has just come out).

    Thanks, and best of luck to John’s nose. ^_^

  17. Very interesting podcast ! Good surprise to me because some advices are exactly what I am doing with my characters : some dramatic heroism about the main character and choices that he will have to accept or decide not for himself but for the others and the plot… because in reality, he has no choice!! ^ ^

    I don’t think that all characters or stories need arcs but I am sure that it is necessary to epic stories, more that “6 000 words” (as Mr Crankshaw wrote it), and series with same recurrent hero. Because the readers have to like him and this type of development make him real. In that way, I am not sure that Indiana Jones had no arc…

    Guys said it : to move, in imaginary space and in the plot itself, make characters live for real, we can feel their personnality’s evolutions and that is important to make them like by readers and the story turn exciting.

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