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The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

Fun With Arcs July 13, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 10:42 AM
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As I mentioned earlier, I like analyzing things. One aspect of stories I enjoy picking apart is the character arc. I’ll ponder what a character’s unconscious or unconscious goal and path of growth is. I’ll look at how their actions and the actions of those around them contribute and/or detract from that arc. Then I’ll use their progress to predict their eventual fate. I’ve gotten quite good at guessing the actions and demises of fictional characters, although I’m not 100% reliable.

Anyone with an eye for detail can track these arcs in contemporary fiction and utilize them in their own work.

What are character arcs?

In a nutshell, a character’s arc is his/her path through the story, typically achieving some shift in characterization. Actions done by or to them affect the way the arc progresses. The characterization shift can be positive or negative. Also, the hinted transformation may go to completion or fail to finish.

A classic example – and one that envelops almost all stories – is the hero’s journey. Someone must leave the life s/he knows behind, mature, and succeed in the face of adversity. Challenges will befall him/her, but s/he will continue.

A more specific example is Tony Stark in Iron Man. His experiences make him shift from a narcissist to (occasional) altruist. A failed example might be a boy who’s constantly encouraged to step up and take a leading role, who instead allows others to order him around and dies for it. However, these ‘failures’ are usually foreshadowed earlier and may contribute to the success of other characters’ arcs. It all becomes a tangled web of interactions.

Tracking arcs

Working out a character’s arc isn’t hard. It just requires paying attention. I look at his/her mannerisms, what s/he says and doesn’t say, back story, how s/he reacts to certain things… I guessed Harry Potter would die (albeit only temporarily) by noting his history of self-sacrifice, lack of foresight/self-preservation, and various comments made about him throughout the series. His eventual fate has a certain poetic quality and displays a character shift toward maturity and clear-headedness (relatively speaking). In previous books, he charged into danger because he wasn’t paying attention or he didn’t care. Every time, he hoped to come out alive. It’s only fitting that in the last book he knowingly walks to his death, planning not to defend himself.

Why does this matter?

After gleefully dissecting arcs from a comic (and slightly less gleefully learning most of my favorite characters will die) I realized something depressing. I might spend hours working out arcs for other stories, but I have no clue what mine are. I couldn’t summarize my MCs’ arcs if I tried. My characters don’t follow a clear shift or line of development. That’s perfectly normal in real life, but in stories you ought to put some effort into it. My next project is to start painstakingly mapping out arcs – for my main characters at least. It’s going to be great.

Why include arcs?

Arcs are important because your characters ought to go somewhere. The story is a journey. At journey’s end they should have changed somehow. A clear arc gives readers something to invest in and root for. It gives them an idea of what to expect. (Contrarily, you can play with an expected or traditional arc. In Star Wars, everyone in-universe expects Annakin Skywalker to be the hero they need. Instead he falls to the dark side. Later, the key to his downfall – caring too much about his loved ones and family – prove an asset.)

Overall, arcs help shape the story as much as the plot does. People who don’t change are boring. Don’t be boring. Take a look at arcs in works around you, and start mapping!


Backstory Headaches July 1, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 10:32 AM
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Character back story can be a pain.

Some people chart out extensive histories and genealogies for every bit part. (Tolkien, I’m looking at you.) Others simply conjure characters out of empty air, making them up as they go along. That’s probably unwise, but I tend to operate that way.

The problem is that characters are supposed to be people. People don’t blip out of existence when we turn our backs. They have their own lives, interests, problems… their own stories. Some awareness of this gives characters a touch more realism.

I’m very bad at this. To try to fix it, I forced myself to imagine a scrapbook of sorts of characters’ lives. What moments do they cherish, blush at, move beyond? What events shaped them? Sometimes, some detail stands out and I work it in. Other times, I tweak their background to explain their behavior in-story.

Back story building can be a thankless task because most of it won’t factor in to the story. What’s the point? I’ve been frustrated many times after constructing an elaborate personal history of a character that gives great insight into their mind and actions, only to realize there’s no place to add it in. I explained why the villain did a lot of what he did… and I couldn’t fit it in! Having someone launch into a speech about their childhood traumas in the middle of a fight scene doesn’t really work. At the other end of the spectrum, minor clues and comments scattered throughout the text might be misinterpreted or glossed over entirely. I can’t write a prologue entitled The Life and Times of Every Important Character Including Important Defining Moments That Will Come Into Play Later.

This is easiest to get around in third person omniscient point of view. Then the narration can include offhand comments about so and so’s past. Otherwise, you’re pretty much stuck with soul-baring rants. If you can’t fit one of those in… you’re in trouble. Maybe you should rethink tying so many important plot points to the main character’s sixth birthday party….


Escaping the Hive May 30, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 11:38 AM
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A while back, I read an Onion article detailing alarming events occurring in Indiana. Every citizen had begun to work and speak in unison, declaring in a single voice, “We are Indiana. All will be Indiana.”

While the hive mind scenario works well for satirical journalism or science fiction movies, it’s not something you want creeping into your writing. Too often, I’ve read over my dialogue and realized that my characters sound exactly the same. Characters are created by the writer, after all. If we’re not careful, our personality will show through too much. Having a unique voice is one thing. But when your characters start declaring “We are the author. All is the author,” you need to give them voices of their own.

This is hard. Crafting a separate voice for each individual and making sure they stay true to it is long, exhausting, brain draining work. (I’m going through it right now and it sucks.) You’ll have to rewrite dialogue. Tweak personalities. Maybe even alter the flow of the story. If you do it right, though, it’s worth it. Your characters will sound like real, three-dimensional people, not words you’ve put down on paper.

In  the work of a true master of dialogue, you should be able to look at a line of speech and identify the speaker. Your goal in the quest to avoid the hive mind is to give each important character a unique way of speaking. This will differentiate him/her from the other characters and make him/her more memorable.

A good way to learn how to do this is to study other works. What makes characters sound like themselves? When you think of them, what phrases come to mind? After thinking about different characters and their dialogue styles, here are a few tricks I’ve picked out. Try including them in your own work to break up the hive mind and bring your characters to life.

1. Syntax

I’ve often had to deal with people who never stop talking. They’ll go on and on: repeating points, tossing in anecdotes, or overusing transitions. I’ll eventually interrupt or make my escape. I have also run into people who rarely speak. Dragging information out of them is a chore, and their answers are always brief and to the point.

The structure of characters’ speech can help define them. One might talk everyone elses’ ears off. Another remains strong and silent. A third fires off questions. Everyone’s sentence lengths vary, but different people lean in different directions. Exploit that.

Looking further into syntax, punctuation can be played with. One person might string details together with commas or jump from idea to idea with hyphens. Another might have a fondness for lists or parenthetical asides. This can be overused, but if done sparingly it can help identify a character’s text.

2. Slang/Dialect/Jargon

Different people have different vocabularies. Their careers, backgrounds, and interests can shape the words they use in conversations. Mark Twain manipulates dialect masterfully in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to give characters authentic flair. In the Beka Cooper series by Tamora Pierce, Beka’s mix of street cant and guardsman jargon speaks to her complicated background. A british character speaking in a slightly different form of English or a foreigner who throws in the occasional bilingual phrase can spice up a monotonous conversation. However, if you’re going to borrow vocabulary from a real group of people or a real language, do your research and make sure you get it right. Don’t rely on Google translate, or actual speakers will be shaking their heads. Finally, don’t use gratuitous ‘unusual’ vocabulary to look clever. Only have characters use it when it makes sense in context and make sure the reader will understand.

3. Word Choice

Less specific than dialect, this focuses on how people say everyday things. Are they formal or casual? Knowing if a person says ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ is a way to get started. ‘Would you like to go to a party with us?’ and ‘You game for a bash?’ clearly come from two very different personalities. Maybe one character uses old-fashioned expressions or clichés. Perhaps another has a catch phrase like “Excellent” or “sweetheart”. (Would Haymitch from The Hunger Games sound the same without his patronizing use of the term?) Identifying the character’s style of speech and a few key words can be really helpful.

4. Figurative Language

This one’s tricky.  I’ve seen people horribly overdo flowery language and purple prose in an effort to make the protagonist sound smart or romantic. However, figurative or playful language in small doses – and used correctly – can give a character depth. It can also be used for comedic effect if a person always comes up with terrible or simply ridiculous phrases. (Karkat’s creative insults from Homestuck are examples of the comedy angle.)

5. Personality

When assigning syntax, word choices, expressions, and anything else, make sure that the dialogue fits. Shy, insecure characters would be more likely to tack on an apologetic “that’s only my opinion”. Confident people intent on getting their way won’t make many requests. They’ll make demands. Link your characters’ personalities with their dialogue and you’re well on your way to breaking free from the hive mind’s nefarious clutches.