Sunday, March 17, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Who Are You?

What's the worst thing that ever happened to you?

Who were you before that?

Who are you now?

How did that transformation happen?

You don't have to tell me (I'm certainly not going to tell you mine!), but you should tell yourself. Because that's your character arc. If you don't understand your own, how can you be sure you understand those of your characters? And you're already using it anyway, just as you use everything in your life when writing because your life is the handiest mine of material.

I don't know why the elements of a story are called arcs. I should try to find out. When I use the term in presentations I spontaneously delineate a curved line in the air with my finger, and I tend to think of them as structural arches holding the story up, but I don't know how the term originates.

Character arcs aren't absolutely necessary for telling a good story, but most modern fiction includes them, or pretends to, as a matter of course. It's one of the artistic problems that serial fiction has - writers and audiences feel incomplete if there's no character arc, so the writers of superhero comics, sitcoms, cartoons, and soap operas write stories involving them - but the series bible doesn't change, so the next episode puts the character right back where he was before the life-changing events of the story. Wise artists in serial formats accept this and use it to reinforce the character - Charlie Brown has learned the hard way not to trust Lucy, but he can never resist making another try for that football, and each annual football event through the run of Peanuts revolved around his increasingly elaborate mental gymnastics in overcoming the lessons learned in past football seasons. If he ever held true to his intention of not kicking the football this time, he'd grow up too much to be Charlie Brown any more.

So you need to make your peace with character arcs - you'll be writing them, or writing around them, for your entire career. And the fact is, you're probably going to be writing around your own for the duration, too.

By tradition, the first novel is expected to be autobiographical, and a lot of writers never get past it. They have one story to tell and then they stop; or they think of new ways to tell the same story, in different kinds of fancy dress. Which may be artistically sterile, or may drive an increasing richness and subtlety of imagination. That's up to you.

You have more than one character arc in your life, though. The worst thing that ever happens to you may not have happened yet, and isn't that a cheery thought? But in addition to that - your character arcs intersect with those of everyone around you. One reason I'm not telling you mine is that it's inextricably bound up with that of my husband and I'm not discussing the details of my marriage with the entire internet. So when you examine your own character arc, ask yourself about those of the other people in your life. Odds are good that the time you got hit by a car was the start of the driver's character arc, too; your divorce had a profound effect on the life trajectories of your children; the bully you learned to walk away from needs a character arc if she's not to be stuck in bully mode for the rest of her life. And those character arcs are a part of you, too.

Where does that take you?

And if you're thinking that all this is too much, your character arc hurts too much for artistic treatment, go read some Nancy Werlin. I don't care what your character arc is, it does not hurt more than hers, and she's been dealing with that for several books now.


  1. Interesting blog post. I used to write stories in my journal; however, my stories were more plot-driven than character-driven. This post has really got me thinking of writing a story that is more character-driven, focusing on the "inner change" of the characters.

    I also like books that portray the so-called antagonists as the "misunderstood characters". They mean well, but they are sorely misunderstood by the people around them. Such is the case with Louis Sachar's book, Holes. There is this character named Kissin' Kate Barlow who started out as a kind and sweet schoolteacher but later turned out to be the most infamous bandit in the American West and who stole Stanley Yelnats' great-grandfather's luggage on his journey to the West to seek his fortune. Personally, I feel sorry for Kate Barlow. Instead of seeing Kate as some sort of "evil person" that should change, I see Kate as a misunderstood person who has suffered a tragedy that has caused her to become the person she is in the novel. In the movie "Mirror, Mirror" (2012), the viewer (well, I can only speak for myself) feels sorry for the seven bandits and the monster-that-lived-in-the-forest, because these characters are viewed with prejudice by the other characters that they are untrustworthy, but once the viewer hears their story, the viewer feels sorry for them. If people have their own "character arcs" in real life, then I would try to understand those persons' viewpoints instead of making them conform to my own expectations of good behavior or trying to take revenge them by making them suffer the same suffering I have gone through. I would try to work with them and counsel with them. Everybody makes mistakes, but to take revenge on the people who make the mistakes, I am afraid, will cause a downturn spiral of more hurt and anxiety. In short, I view it as a vicious cycle. There was one time when I attended a Mass session at a hospital before, out of curiosity. The Catholic priest told his congregants that if they treated people with love and grace, then people would say, "Why are you doing this to us? After all that we have treated you, why are you treat us with love, kindness, dignity and respect that we don't deserve?" The mindset really left an emotional-intellectual turn in my life, which led to attend Mass every week to hear more of what the priest had to say about ethics and how I should treat other people. It really goes with assuming good faith of others even though they have wronged you. And if you have done something that violates your conscience, then you apologize, not because you want to appease others, but because you sincerely feel the need to repent (change). Personally, I think it really goes well with the Wikipedian ethics I have become accustomed to. Good works cannot be forced. Some people think that they can force a person to apologize for something that they have done by denigrating them as a "bully", "slut", "whore", "faggot" or whatever, and the person, not knowing how he/she may have offended the other person, feels the emotional pain and says an apology that is empty as an appeasement for the person's feelings. Personally, I disagree with this sort of mindset, because it forces guilt upon the person, forcing them to repent or change. I believe that change is not observable, and when change is done, only the person who experiences change and God know that the person has truly made a significant landmark in his life.

  2. Will you relax, Extensa? I'm not mad at you, I'm not directing my posts at you, and I certainly don't want revenge on you, because you haven't harmed me.

    I am, however, beginning to feel stalked. This is the third time you've approached me under the guise of casual internet conversation and then gotten verbosely huffy and irrelevant; and it's the second time you've tried to pretend you've never done it before. You seem to want something from me, but I can't figure out what it is and I doubt very much I have it, so I can't afford the time to worry about it.

    If you're in middle school, grow up. If you're fully grown, please seek counseling, because this behavior mimicks paranoid schizophrenia disturbingly closely (though to be fair it also resembles office politics when played against someone in the office who doesn't play office politics).

    Either way, please write me off as a loss. I'm just a middle-aged author with health crap and a tendency to talk too much, not - whatever persona you're projecting onto me.

  3. If it really pleases you, then I am going to confess that I am Extensa____. The main reason I post in this blog is that I want to respond to these blog posts and give my inputs and thoughts about what is said. No, I don't have anything personal against you. Sheesh. Something tells me that you feel uncomfortable in my inputting posts here. Again, I think it's due to my irrational preference for anonymity. Not every single behavior must have a reason for it. Please bear no mind. If you feel uncomfortable in my posting here, please just say so bluntly and I will stop posting here.

  4. I have given much thought about this, and the principle reason why some people dislike me is that they don't understand my character: that I just like teasing people that I like or be around with. Some people don't like the teasing and view it as "harassment" or "bullying"; yeah, I read on Wikipedia for the article on "teasing", so I think I got it right. Well, how would I know when we are talking on the Internet and you didn't give me any facial cues? In real life, when I see someone upset, I would usually stop teasing them and start treating them seriously. You, on the other hand, didn't give me any facial cues. In fact, you just ignored me and I couldn't talk to you for a while. Along with the fact that you posted something erroneous about two-parent families while I had my Extensa5420 account, I figured that you had a thing against two-parent families or something. If this is bullying, then I would rather stay a bully for the rest of my life, because I am just being myself. At least I'm a bully who does not intentionally cause harm. The teasings are mostly playful and sometimes reciprocal. I tease my parents, and they tease me back. We make fun of each other's weaknesses. There was one time when I teased a red-headed girl (not giving any names for privacy reasons) in my class that I really like, and she'd tease me back too. Then there are some people who don't like teasing, so I stay quiet and serious around them. And then there is you, who really don't tell me any cues at all, because we were talking on the Internet and only had words.

    I also confess that one weakness that I have is that I fail at reading between the lines. I find it extremely difficut to read implications of people's words, especially if it is online and there are no facial expressions or gestures. I am not good at making implications, which is why I actually don't read a lot of fiction, and usually I make the wrong guess.

    If these characteristics are indicative of a bully, then I'm proud of being a bully, and I will keep being a bully until the day I die!

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