Monday, April 18, 2016

The More You Know, The Less You'll Pay: Part II - Character Arc, Flat Characters, & Motivation

by Alycia W. Morales

We all want to save money, but are we willing to spend the time to clean up our manuscripts in order to save the money? Over the next few months, I'll be sharing a series of editing tips. If you're willing to spend the time implementing these as you self-edit your manuscript's rough draft, you'll be able to save money on a professional edit.

Let's start with the substantive elements of an edit:

Substantive Edits (also knows as content edits, deep edits, structural edits, etc.) dig deep into your manuscript and look for issues with plot, character development, point of view, conflict, resolution, saggy middles, and so much more. Each post will cover a different element and go over a few points for improving each element. I'll discuss issues I see across the board and others that pop up once in a while when I'm editing.

This week we'll take a look at some elements of character development.

Character Arc
Your protagonist must have a character arc.

I always imagine this as starting at point A, where he or she thinks they're doing okay. And then something rocks their world. This is going to start the internal struggle (where the character deals with a character trait they need to work on or a personal belief that's been challenged - it's personal) and the external conflict (where something or someone turns life as they know it upside down). From here, it's an upward climb for the character. They will need to don their hiking boots and make the climb toward "better."

The problem is, just when they think things are going to change for the good, that they've overcome that hill, something will come along and knock them down a few notches. And this will send them tumbling down the other side of the mountain toward a final, desperate attempt to get it right. The internal and external conflict will push the character toward their black moment, where things just couldn't possibly get any worse. This is also when the character must make a decision as to whether or not they want to change or achieve that goal. And that decision brings about the point of no return. The character will not go back to point A. He or she will push through that black moment and finish the hike, landing on point B.

And point B is usually a sunny place, unless your story has a dark ending.

Regardless of whether you're writing a romance where the hero and heroine fall happily-ever-after in love or you're writing about the woes of life and a character (or both) dies in the end, your character must have an arc. Otherwise, he or she will fall flat with the reader, who will move on to another book.
Flat Characters
Flat Characters are also known as cardboard characters. These are characters that are simply underdeveloped. They're the cardboard-thin, 1D character instead of the well-rounded 3D character.

Maybe they lack personality. Maybe they never say anything important. Maybe they're too focused on their past to be present in the here and now. Maybe they're perfect and need a flaw.

You can tell if you have a flat character. You'll recognize something is lacking. They aren't what you want them to be yet. Or your critique group will tell you how much they don't like that character, and it's not because he or she's the villain of the story.

Another sign of a flat character is one without a character arc.

To correct the lack of a character arc:
- Figure out what Point A is. Where is your character in life? What's "normal" for them?
- Figure out what could happen to rock their world. Could they find out they've just inherited a million dollars, but it comes with a price? Did they get a diagnosis that limits their time on earth? Did someone just accuse them of committing treason when they know they're innocent?
- What internal conflict will they face? The desire to do what's right when they could really use a million dollars? A fear of death that could keep them from living life to the fullest? Self-doubt in the face of a lie?
- Give the character a Point B to get to. The inheritance, but because they opted to do the right thing, and that's what the benefactor wanted all along. A clear prognosis, but not until they've discovered the true meaning of life and overcome their fear of death. Freedom, but not until they've spent time in jail for a crime they didn't commit while the bad guy almost got away - and law enforcement figured it out because one person on the squad believed the protagonist.
- Now, get them there. With a lot of conflict and resolution.

To improve a flat character, consider giving them a flaw or something beyond their control, like an illness. Spice up the dialogue (but don't overdo it). Give her something intelligent to say that no one is expecting from her. Take his animosity toward the heroine and tone it down three notches. Put some grace in his DNA.

And make sure his or her motivation is clear.

Your character's motivation needs to be believable. There are many things that motivate people: fear, desire, need, peer pressure, religious beliefs, and more. Make sure that whatever is motivating your character lines up with what they're trying to achieve. Ultimately, whatever it is will be the result of your character's desire to gain something or to escape something.

If we take our examples from above, the beneficiary could be motivated by her strong Christian convictions. She would not do something immoral just to gain a million dollars. The cancer patient would be motivated by a fear of death until someone enlightened him or her to the joys of a full life well-lived. Their basic motivation would be to remain alive. The treason suspect could be motivated by a fear of looking bad to others. He'll do anything to prove his innocence.

Before you send your novel off for an edit, go through it one more time. Ask yourself if your character's arc has been fulfilled. Are there any characters who could use a little something more? Did your hero or heroine's motivations line up with their goals? If the answer to any of these is no, go back and do another rewrite and self-edit. I know, it's so much work. But in the long run, it will be well worth the effort.

What's something you need to work on based on today's post? Feel free to let us know. We'd love to hear your thoughts.

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  1. I've heard (or read, rather) a character has to go through 2 or three setbacks, that seem to be unrelated from what I can tell, before they get to point B or reach their goal. Is that the case or is it possible to have just one obstacle they come up against?

    1. Hi Ellen!
      The character must have one internal and one external conflict to overcome throughout their character arc. Those setbacks you're talking about are things that get in the way of them resolving those conflicts. They may appear to be unrelated in some cases, but generally they are related to the goal, because the setbacks make them want to achieve the goal even more. Too often in life, we just give up. But our characters can't do that. They have to reach the goal by the end of the book. Otherwise, we leave our readers disappointed.

  2. That clears it up. Thanks Alycia!


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