7.28.2016

Inscribing a Character Arc

As the most important aspect of your novel, the lead character must be compelling enough to make readers care about what happens to him. That means you must create compelling personal issues. Without obstacles, a character is bland or, worse, Superman. These issues can be tied up in the book’s plot, but you may find they are more moving if they’re a private concern. After all, any soldier returning from Afghanistan knows how to fire a rifle.

The two keys to making a personal issue matter to the reader are: it should keep occupying the heroine’s attention as the novel proceeds; and it should be tied up by the time the novel is over. That means essentially that the personal issue is a subplot of its own, reaching its own climax.

As an editor, I enter the picture usually after an author completes a draft. If I see the lead character is not distinctive enough, I will suggest basic issues that will round him out. Let’s say I suggest: give the soldier a mother who badgers him to write about his military experiences. A double whammy, right? The reader gets to see how he interacts with his mother, and we learn how the war affected him personally.

Yet what I often get back after making these suggestions is a few scattered scenes. The mother shows up early—and the issue is dropped for a few hundred pages, until she lamely shows up for a few paragraphs. Just sticking in a few inserts is actually worse than not doing it at all. You raise the reader’s curiosity but then leave her hanging.

You need to be strategic about personal issues. The mother should appear at regular intervals, like any subplot character. His struggle with her badgering has to escalate over time, like any plot thread. If the soldier develops an interest in a female partner, the mother will weigh in on that too. You see what’s happening: I’m learning a lot about the guy through how he acts with his mother. (By the way, for “mother” you can substitute “spouse,” “lover,” “friend,” etc.)

As for the book the soldier is writing? That also needs to ramp up as time goes on. Perhaps writing it causes lurid memories to return, causing him to become more unbalanced. Maybe a terrible secret that he’s blocked out comes to the surface. As a reader, I don’t want diary entries. I want a kick-ass story that has a great ending. Just like any story element, the personal issue must be strategic.

Exercise: Planning really helps keep an issue vital as the novel goes on. Write down a list of things that could happen around that personal issue. Put the more crucial ones later, building up to them. Plug the scenes into the novel at defined intervals. Now see if it’s doing its job: making the heroine stand out from the crowd.

“I don't want to be a genius—I have enough problems just trying to be a man.”
―Albert Camus

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine




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