Character Arc in Best Selling Fiction

Jake Sully and his avatar - ready for his character arc
Jake Sully and his Avatar – all ready for his character arc – Image Copyright 20thCenturyFox

Transformational CHARACTER ARC

The Mystery Man on Film and Joshua James have been engaged in a fascinating dialogue on the concept of ‘Transformational Character Arc’ as opposed to ‘Emotional Connection’ – that unique aspect of story telling which we, as readers and viewing audiences, find so compelling and compulsive, but which may not, necessarily, involve a deep, visible, character arc.

There are a huge number of articles online about to create character arc, including excellent notes from my pal Julie Cohen, but for me, some of my light bulb moments have come from studying screenwriting, where character arc is seen as a fundamental component of any screenplay.

For an expert, comprehensive and thought-provoking series of articles on ‘The Transformational Character Arc’ – go here, to the Unknown Screenwriter, who has been generous enough to offer the complete series as a download.

Brilliant. Opinionated. I love it. All praise. [ I am looking at the print-out on my desk right as I type].

Will I use it?

For me, like all training material on character development and story development, you take what you need at that moment, from the information provided, and allow what remains, rattle around inside your poor crowded brain like a stick in a bucket, and let it work its magic.
Lateral thinking.
Extrapolation thinking, if you will.

These are the tools you need to challenge your work –have you generated enough emotional power and drive in the characters you have created, their emotional motivation for making the decisions they make, and the actions they take? Their emotional truth.

Why should a reader/viewer care if the character does not achieve their goal?
What happens if they don’t make it?

Many screenwriting coaches appear to have an obsession with Character Arc of the protagonist.
What is missing in the main character’s life, which will be fulfilled by the end of the story? Their need. And if possible, at the same time as they complete the story action line/ external conflict.

I have had the pleasure of attending a number of weekend screenwriting courses, including Robert McGee and John Truby, both on rare visits to London.

A key leaning point for me from the John Truby weekend was this;

There are many types of Protagonist/Hero who do NOT undergo a Character Arc through the story.

 Yes, they may learn a great deal, and they might get the cash, or the girl, but essentially they are the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning.

A Few Examples.
The Trickster Hero. A fun loving character who comes up with a plan that involves deception to achieve his goal. This hero defeats his opponents by out-talking or out-smarting them. Think Indiana Jones, Beverley Hills Cop, Crocodile Dundee.
The Detective Hero. Often this is an extreme character who uncovers the crime of the individual to help the group preserve itself – but that group largely excludes him. Think Sherlock Holmes, Columbo.
The Travelling Angel. Causes change in others, not themselves. Mary Poppins, Shane, Santa Claus.

 These are, of course, the dominant characteristics, and I would suggest that one of the reasons these names are memorable, is because in each case, the writer has created a complex, dynamic, surprising, multi-layered version of an archetype which we found compelling.

So. No. I do not think that you MUST have an up-front, in-your-face, transitional character arc for your hero.
But here is the sting.
I am working to create accessible, commercial fiction which will take my readers on a journey.
And to do that, I need to create a protagonist [ and an opponent] who the reader can walk with on that journey and share their experiences.
And for me, that means I have to create the emotional connection to the very deep personal internal conflict which is causing that character very deep pain, and show how she confronts that conflict while achieving her goal/external conflict.
Creating an emotional experience for the reader on the way.

Forget crack cocaine and crystal meth. I am a Catharsis dealer.

Sigh. The shame….


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