Developing Character Arcs

My favorite books are ones where characters grow or are revealed throughout a book. Even if a character doesn’t grow, when I learned more about them as the story flowed along I was much more interested in the story as a whole than I would have been if I had learned everything about that character at the beginning. So of course I felt it was important to have good character arcs in my stories.

Which is why I was so frustrated when I read through a novel I wrote, and found a number of problems with my character arcs. Often I’ve found that I can fix things best if I figure out whats wrong first. To that end I sought to isolate the characters stories from the main plot so I could see them better.

Authors definition: a beat sheet is also known as an outline, story map, or even plot outline. It distills the most important parts of the story down onto fewer pages so that the writer can see the story’s threads easily and generally speaking I make several as I write a story.

Basically I took my beat sheet and marked down each of the scenes each character showed up and made a new beat sheet of each characters arc. Each beat being what the character did and why they did it in each scene. After I had their arc drawn out on a new beet sheet I could more clearly see the story through their eyes. Also because I had marked the characters in different colors on the big beat sheet I was better able to see where my characters were showing up in the story.

I did this for at least ten different characters. Not only was it time consuming but I really hated the story when I was finished.  I learned some very important lessons from this activity.

I focused too hard on the main action and forgot that characters off screen were doing things too. Some scenes had characters in them that never even got a mention and I often had not bothered with developing characters motivations enough. I realized that a good character arc needs to be carefully thought out and does not happen by accident. It also has a lot of influence over other character arcs and the plot at large.

I also found that it is very difficult to make changes to a plot after 250 pages have been written. I spent a lot of very frustrating hours working out some complicated knots and ended up realizing the whole thing needs to be rewritten. Every last word of it.

Meanwhile I have been building an outline of a totally new story. It is amazingly easy to fix character motivation and plot issues in an outline. Even when I ran into a complete dead end I could very quickly find the old thread make some new decisions and find my way back to the story without having to endure nearly the aggravation that I did while working on my other novel. It was like night and day.

Although I know that that I put in a lot of hours of work with no actual novel as pay off. I think the work was worth it. Actually having the hands on experience of mucking about in a story line, has really helped me with learning how a story works.

While characters may seem independent of the plot. I have learned differently. Character arcs are essential for the structure of the story and need to be flush with the story plot so they don’t stand out or trip up other aspects of the story. And hopefully I will never again have to pull out more than one character arc that is giving me trouble, because I will have built both the plot and the characters together seamlessly the way they should be.

Has anyone else run into problems with trying to fix characters and plot problems after the story had already been written? What did you end doing to fix it?

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