I post this month’s writing advice article with a heavy heart. Whether by divine providence or cosmic coincidence, I actually wrote today’s article several months ago as part of a writing advice letter given to one of my dearest friends. Now, however, I find myself sharing a piece of writing both timely and sad given the recent death of actor/director Philip Seymour Hoffman from a suspected heroin overdose. I had saved this section of the letter dealing with dynamic character growth so that I could publish it in February for the benefit of my fellow story-tellers. Little did I know how poignant my character arc example was about to become. Here is the article:
A good story requires its characters to change and grow from the beginning of the tale to its end.
The personal growth of a character through her dealing with each obstacle in a story’s plot is called character arc. Character arcs occur in “good” characters and “bad” characters just as they happen in “good” and “bad” people in the real world. Good characters can become better or worse just as bad characters can become better or worse.
Often these dynamic changes are spurred by the character’s specific reactions to a certain set of circumstances. Is there some whisper of darkness that will tempt your “good” character to turn evil or, at the very least, rogue? Is there some spark of goodness that will tempt your “bad” character to try to redeem himself? To know your characters is to know their individual journeys and their personal arcs. Whether you prefer to work with your characters to hone the story’s plot or you like to use your characters as tools in service to your plot, please be mindful that different types of stories will require different types of character arcs. Make sure that your character fits the arc and the plot that you want to use.
For example, tragedies usually require that a “good” character be ultimately defeated by the events within a story plot. That character will still grow to overcome many of the obstacles she faces, but ultimately she will be crushed under her adverse circumstances. Such stories prove heart-wrenching because we as the readers become so invested in that character. We relate to that character in some way and so we cheer her on when we see how hard the character works to succeed. Her ultimate defeat feels like a slap in the face to us because the character came so close to triumphing over the hardship in her life.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the oft-mentioned literary example of a tragedy, but one of the best portrayals of tragedy that I know is a real-life example. It is the newspaper headline that reads something like: “Beloved Actor Found Dead in his Beach Home, Drug Overdose Suspected”. Here I see an actor who has proven successful enough in his career to have fame, fans, and fortune enough to own multiple houses. He has fought through the cattle-call auditions to achieve a chance at those starring roles that I love. He has won prestigious awards for his inspiring performances and gained the adoration of legions of fans like me who identify with his on-screen characters. And yet he cannot conquer one thing: the white lady. It started when he was younger; smoking and snorting was a way to beat back the frustration and loneliness of the job and to smooth out his nerves before the next audition. Now cocaine has become his personal nightmare, always dragging him back into its embrace and begging him to sink deeper into the darkness of its clutches. I am sympathetic to his plight. After all I have seen him voluntarily enter rehab clinics time and again to overcome an addiction that he just can’t seem to shake. He has been doing so well; he’s stayed clean for almost a year now! And yet on Monday morning, I scan the news articles and stop dead on his name. The words “drug overdose” repeat over and over in my mind like a scream. The police haven’t confirmed it yet, but I know deep in my heart that the coke finally killed him. I shake my head and whisper, “No, not another good one dead!” I crumple the newspaper and hurl it into the trash, too sick to my stomach to read any more.
Ouch, what a tragedy! What makes this tragedy worse is that it holds a lot of truth. After all, I have friends and family members who have wrestled with the same demon of addiction. But what if, after reading that story, I find a book the next day that details a woman’s rehabilitation from the same substance that killed the actor. In this book, a crack-addicted mother recounts how the loss of her children to CPS spurred her desperate struggle to get clean and get out of the projects. After several ups and downs and by the “grace of God”, this woman has been clean and continually employed for nine years! Then, after years and years of searching through foster agency records, the mother is finally able to be reunited with the children that were taken from her home more than a decade earlier. The book ends with her crying as her two-year-old granddaughter hugs her for the very first time. Instead of watching a mostly “good” person go downhill and die tragically young, I now get the chance to watch a “loser” overcome the bad in her life and find something beautiful.
There are many story arcs and character arcs to discover between the boundaries of the inspirational story and the tragedy. An important note to remember is that not all character-stretching circumstances are bad. Some are actually quite good. Let’s say that I have a character who is totally prejudiced against people of other races, but particularly with people of Asian-descent. What is the easiest way to grow her out of that bad characteristic? How about I have her car crash on the outskirts of Chinatown and she is rescued from the wreckage by a fireman who is second generation Chinese-American? The first situation is life-threatening, but the rescue is actually more stressful for our main character because her world view is being challenged by an act of kindness from someone whom she would have never trusted. Thus a good circumstance actually challenges the character to learn and change.
Have fun interweaving your characters’ arcs with your story plot. If you do this well, you will be amazed at how many events actually surprise you while you are writing a story. You might even end up with more plot twists and turns than you ever thought possible when you began the project.
Until our next meeting, may we each rewrite our world for the better!
P.S.-I give my deepest condolences to Mr. Hoffman’s family and friends. May you find God’s peace in this troubling time.
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