• How to Resolve a Character Arc

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Character     Comments 1 comment

    Character ArcRecently we’ve chatted in this space about methods to help you start writing and methods to help you stop writing. Oh, but what about that meaty middle? A successful piece of writing, both fiction and non, depends on so many elements–setting, plot, character, detail, scene, pace, on and on and on.

    Today we’ll take a look at one of those: character.

    WriteByNighter Joe G. writes in with the following question: “I’m sure you agree that the Resolution of a character arc is difficult to get right. Any advice?

    We do agree, Joe. Your characters are your chess pieces, and you can’t hope to play the game without them. Though unlike the cold stone of the pawn, characters in order to be believable and engaging must live and breathe. They must come alive. One way we encourage them to do so is with character arc.

    A character arc describes a character’s journey over the course of a story, how he/she changes from beginning to end. It includes both the external (what happens to a character; events) and the internal (what happens within a character; thoughts and emotions). Character arc is closely related to character development, of course, as one couldn’t exist without the other.

    As Joe rightly observes, resolving a character arc can be tricky. There are a lot of moving pieces and it’s hard to see how all those pieces might eventually fit together. If they don’t, if an arc is left unresolved, a reader may come away feeling dissatisfied. Have you ever closed a book and thought, “That ending sucked”? Well, there’s a pretty good chance that ending sucked at least partly because the main character’s arc was a dud.

    All of this is to say that character arc is a big deal. It’s also a big topic, so for the sake of brevity, I’m going to do my best to boil it down to its essence. Here goes:

    The key to resolving a character arc is the satisfaction of expectation.

    Think of a story as being divided into three parts (as we do with the standard three-act narrative structure): the beginning, or Act I; the middle, or Act II; and the end, or Act III. Act I is the aptly named setup. In it, we set up expectations for the story to come.

    Take Ebenezer Scrooge, for example, from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a wonderfully drawn character with whom most of us are familiar. In Act I, he’s presented as a cold, miserly, unfeeling man. When his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, pays Scrooge a visit from beyond the grave, he warns him to change his ways or else. This is the setup. The expectation is that Scrooge will change his ways.

    Act II is the home of conflict. It’s where the struggle happens. In Act II of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who attempt to show him the error of his ways. Scrooge’s activities with the spirits are defined by ambivalence. In one moment he feels a prick of shame or regret or even love and in the next, he’s pushing those feelings away, settling back into his cold, unfeeling self again. This interior struggle plays to those expectations set up in Act I: will he change or won’t he?

    Act III is the resolution. Here at the story’s conclusion, our expectations will either be satisfied or undercut . . . the latter of which is in itself a form of satisfaction. For Scrooge, Act III delivers salvation. Lo and behold, his nocturnal journey (was it all a dream?) has shown him the error of his ways and he leaps from bed a new man: kind, giving, and gracious. It’s a happy ending because our expectation that Scrooge would change has been satisfied. If Scrooge hadn’t changed, if he had come out of Act III just as miserable as he was in Act I, it would be an unhappy ending because our expectation would have been undercut, but oddly enough still satisfied because Scrooge spent Act II struggling with our expectation. Literary proof that it’s the thought that counts.

    So there you have it, Joe, as uncomplicated as I can make it. For perfectly resolved character arcs, set ‘em up and knock ‘em down.

    What are some other tactics for bringing a character arc to a satisfying conclusion? What works for you? Let us know in the comments below.


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    […] on the blog Justine laid down some truth on “How to Resolve a Character Arc.” Her main rule boils down to this: Satisfy your reader’s expectations. But character arc […]

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