How To Arc Characters, Not Break Them
I’ll be writing about the video Arcing your characters not breaking your characters – writing advice for writers, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
When you are writing your story, you might find that you get to a point where you realise it would really suit the story for one of your characters to do something that’s really convenient for your story, but completely out of character for that person. I’ll be talking about how and why we arc our characters, and the differences between arcing and breaking them.
If you’re writing a story where you want a character to do something dramatic for the sake of the plot, such as kill somebody, you need to foreshadow that as a possibility for them. If you don’t foreshadow it, you’re making your character behave in a way that is atypical to how you’ve previously established that person to be, which will throw your audience out. They don’t need to like your character but they need to believe your character will do what you make them do.
If you want to send your character on a journey towards killing, you can do it with absolutely any character. Even the most innocent and gentle character can be pushed into circumstances where they would kill, and if you want to show a character was supressing or hiding a desire to kill you can do that too with their behaviour. But it has to be foreshadowed. You have to let your audience in on the experience your character is having.
In TV shows you often find they need a romantic relationship for drama and conflict, so they decide to throw two characters together. You might get a couple of episodes where they start checking each other out, and then bam, they’ve shoved them together. It alienates audiences when it doesn’t need to. If you build up more slowly, show them interacting and making one another feel good, show them having tension between them build up, you’ll find audiences much more willing to go with a love interest, no matter how abstract it might seem at first.
Sometimes you’ll find you will be careful with their Protagonist and Antagonist, their main characters, because you might have put a lot of time and energy into planning their personality. You know who they are and they’re consistent and moving through the story as solid people in your mind. Your character breaks will happen in with people circulating around them, your secondary characters, who you create as devices to help move the story along and for your Protagonist and Antagonist to interact with. Because your secondary characters are less important, you might have them behave in ways that are just convenient, perhaps pick a fight with your Protagonist for scene level drama, or flirt with your Protagonist’s love interest. Again, any of these scenarios are fine as long as you treat each character like the Protagonist in their own story and ensure any behaviour is either consistent with the character from the beginning, or arced to with experiences or foreshadowing.
The build to a plot twist or development, such as a murder or a relationship, via foreshadowing or the gradual change as pressure builds or tension grows between characters, is known as arcing. You’re taking your audience with you on that curve between one emotional or mental state to another, and showing your audience why your character is behaving in a certain way. As I say, with a well constructed character arc you’ll have your audience accepting even the most extreme circumstances you decide to put your characters in. Breaking your characters will lose your audience because if they don’t believe in your characters, they won’t believe in your story.
You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get!