The Journey to NaNoWriMo 2013: Using Character Arcs to Drive Plot Lines

Writer's block is something many participants of NaNoWriMo fear. Writer's block can crop up for a lot of reasons, though I'm usually a believer in that writer's block is a manifestation of someone not really wanting to work. Writing is hard work. Many people try to avoid hard work. If something doesn't come easily, it's tempting to roll over, play dead, and find something else to do.

Understanding how character arcs can drive plot lines can help make the process of writing a novel a little bit easier. It won't curb the difficulty level completely, but it can help take some of the strain off.

In short, character arcs are a little like plot lines. They're the progression of a character's development. Instead of events, character arcs track the metaphysical.

How does someone change due to the events in their life? This is the substance of the character arc. These arcs aren't as easy to plot out as plot lines. Sure, a single event might change someone's life. But, people often change due to the culmination of many events rather than just one event. This makes it much harder to track and plan.

You need to juxtapose your plot and character arcs. They're two different things, but they happen at the same time. Working on them in one document is, I feel, a recipe for disaster, but they're tied so closely together they need to be done in tangent.

So, how can you pull this off? It's tricky. I still have trouble with it.

What I do is set up goals for my characters. I list the things that motivate them, that bother them, that they like, that they dislike. I create a person. Once I have a person, it's much easier to see how the events I throw at them impact them.

These are consequences of events and decisions. They will tie in to the plot arcs, and form the foundation of my character's choices.

But these little thing aren't exactly a part of the plot. Plot is a sequence of events, decisions, and consequences.

Character arcs are a sequences of things which change a personality.

I'm about to simplify things for you significantly.

Don't try to plot your character arcs in advance. Be aware of its existence and its role in a novel, but don't cage your characters. It usually doesn't work out. The best writers let their characters develop naturally, changing as they face the consequences of their actions.

(Once again, I'm a firm disbeliever of the concept that characters are voices in a writer's head. They aren't. They're figments of imagination, and are controlled by their creators. Writers, however, do try to make their figments of imagination seem realistic when put down on the page.)

Instead of trying to plot your character arcs in advance, as you work on your outline, take notes on how you think your character should change as a result of the events in your novel. This should be a basic guideline to your character. It should be something you're aware of, but isn't actually set in stone. Characters are fluid. They change, they shift, they flow, and they make decisions based on the things happening around them at any given moment in time.

They change how they react to situations based on little things. Would diving out in front of a car to save one child put four other children at risk? That is something which might stop a sacrificial character or make them hesitate.

Is that child the child of someone they truly hate?

What factors could impact an otherwise easy decision for a character?

This sort of thing adds depth to a character, and it should be jotted down for future reference. In my opinion — and this is just my opinion, folks — character development is the layering of all of these little character depth things added together. Good character development, I feel, takes a character who fits into a nice, neat little trope type, and makes them real people by tracking their experiences and making them change as a result. The more depth and flavor a character has, the more developed they feel to me.

This method lets even secondary characters develop nicely, if they have enough screen time.

So, how can you use these character arcs to drive plot lines? There are a lot of ways you can capitalize on good character development. First, character development gives you a general guideline on character behavior, and the things that force your character to change. This impacts your plot lines, as it impacts how your character reacts to things.

If you're having problems with a plot line, consider adding catalyst events. Catalyst events are situations, events, and even dialogue, that change how your character perceives or reacts to something. Have you written your character into a corner, where they just wouldn't do a certain action due to how they developed?

Consider the events that would make the character change to take this certain action. Look at your plot line, and determine where you could slip in this catalyst event. Make a note about it, both in your plot line, and in your character arc.

Then capitalize on it.

Whenever you put your characters in a situation they don't know how to handle, backtrack through your plot lines, and examine your character arcs. Find the convergence point, where everything started to fall apart. Analyze it. See what small changes you can make to give your characters a fighting chance for success.

Just remember this: The best characters make mistakes. They fail. Sometimes, they die as a result of their failure. The story goes on. Sometimes the main character dies, and someone else has to pick up the banner where it was dropped.

What I will say is this: Avoid that Deus Ex Machina card. It doesn't do your characters justice.

Unless, of course, your characters are heavily involved in a world of Gods, Faerie, and other really big nasties who can throw around that sort of power legitimately. The Dresden Files gets away with the DEM card because Jim Butcher set it up so those cards could be played reasonably in the story line. After all, the entire storyline is based on the presence of these supernatural, extremely powerful forces.

And when it benefits those forces to save a character, so be it.

certainly am not going to argue with the Queen of Darkness. Are you?

I always try to remind myself of this one little fact: Underneath almost every type of plot event, there are characters driving it. Random events don't do your characters justice. For every random event you add, make sure you understand the who and the why behind the event.

Mark it down. Save it for later. When you're at a loss of what needs to happen next in the story, go back to these characters and ask yourself, “What have these people been doing while my characters have been handling these other situations?”

Characters drive plot lines. Even the characters who aren't directly on the page at any given point in time.

Side note: Man vs Environment plots may not have a character driving the plot event. For example, a volcano erupting doesn't tend to be due to the machinations of a character. There are exceptions to the rules, especially when the plot events are created by natural forces.

In short, don't forget about the small fry lurking in the background. They can drive your story as much as your main characters.

Good luck, writer!