Character Arc — Is It Necessary?

Character arc — or how your character changes throughout the course of your story — is critical to developing compelling fiction. Believe it or not, I have read manuscripts where the writer seemed to ignore character arc completely and came up with an almost entirely static character.

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Are your characters changing with the events in your story, or are they a static character despite what you throw at them?

Your Character Arc Should Be a Journey

This is a huge question, with an easy answer. First, consider this quote:

“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”

Dunk that in your morning coffee.

Without any kind of change or narrative arc, you have a passive character. They do not change, they do not learn, they do not care, and therefore, it is very difficult for the reader to care. However, your number one job as a writer is to make readers care.

More practically, you are asking readers to invest hours of their lives in your story. If your character arc goes from point A to … point A, readers may not necessarily feel like they’ve gone on a satisfying journey. Sure, there’s something in fiction called the “antihero,” who seems almost stubbornly against changing. Isn’t a passive character one of the evils of modern life, after all? But this type of characterization is a big risk, because antiheroes tend to come off as bored (and therefore boring) or too misanthropic to be truly relatable.

Character Arc in Children’s Books

The antihero tends to be more of an element in adult fiction, anyway. Since young people, young readers, and therefore young characters are living in such a dynamic period of their lives, they almost can’t help but change. Take this to heart.

A passive character might play in moody literary fiction or short story, but it’s a tough prospect in most children’s books. The obvious exception is nonfiction picture book, for example, where the character arc isn’t the main point of the story. Otherwise, you’re on the hook for putting some a dynamic protagonist on the page. Sorry! Dig deeper into what makes a great character here.

Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll guide you towards creating characters that readers will connect with.

What Happens Here?

Every once in a while, I stumble upon a dead scene. One where, technically, nothing happens. It usually involves either an author who is brimming with information or really loves writing witty banter.

In two manuscripts I’ve read recently, I’ve encountered dead scenes. These dead scenes occurred for two completely different reasons. For one, the author felt compelled to outline the bulk of a fantasy world in the form of a more-experienced person filling a newbie in. The second MS, the author had established some good tension and a compelling plot with potential danger, then spent about 40 or 50 pages writing: witty banter at a family dinner, a witty scene at the best friend’s house, witty banter at another family dinner, witty banter at the coffee house, witty banter by the lockers at school.

Are you getting my drift? What do the two above mss. have in common? What’s that? Did you say “lot’s o’ blabbing”? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!

When you find large places in your MS with nothing but dialogue, you’re most likely in trouble. *cue wails of distress, cries of “but my MS is different!”* That very well might be, but editors and agents are looking for story, they’re looking for plot. In most cases, even a literary, character-driven masterpiece will only be half the package.

I’ve never met a publishing professional who wouldn’t also want to know: “What happens next?”

Authors usually either write long conversation scenes to serve as a) an info-dump (about a world, a situation, a threat, a character, etc.), or b) to bask in their own wit/wordplay/writing.

Both of these pose huge revision problems. Huge. Make-you-want-to-eat-a-sheet-of-tiramisu-from-Costco huge (I know from experience… I can still taste the powdered chocolate dusting my tear-stained cheeks). The first author wails: “But how else do I introduce all that information??? It’s the crux of my story!!!”

The answer is: you layer it. Introduce one thing. Then add another layer to it. Add some backstory in another conversation. Better yet, make your explanation triggered by something. Your characters find something and it starts a story. Or something happens and a character explains something. Instead of having a conversation triggered by your urge to world-build and spill the framework of your concept, have it be triggered by action. And don’t give it to us all at once. Put the pieces together as they arise naturally through plot.

The second writer will balk at this advice: “But this is hilarious. It’s so fun to read!” Sure, you wrote some funny stuff. And I’ll probably enjoy reading it. But most writers can’t keep a book in suspended plot animation for long before a reader gets antsy. If you want to showcase your wit, punctuate it with action. Have a witty moment discussing something that happened. De-stress after a long day of ACTION by hanging out with your BFF and bantering. Don’t let the witty banter be the entire book, though. That’s the grave mistake.

As you can see, the answer to both situations is action. Something happening. Plot. Every scene and every chapter must not only develop character and story and world, they must also move the plot forward. Another reason to avoid long dialogue scenes without plot is that dialogue leads toward telling, not showing.

Are you worried about this? Good. If you’re the fantasy writer in my examples, start with the chapters you loathe re-reading the most. The ones dense with info you already know, the ones you tend to skim in revisions. That’s where your problem lies. If you’re the second writer, start with the chapters you love the most. The ones that make you feel the most satisfied. The ones where you’re showing off. My guess is that they’re the witty banter ones.

Neither is easy. But when you’re revising, ask yourself about every scene, every chapter: “What happens here?”

Honesty is important. If your honest answer is: “Two characters walk into a room, sit down at the table and talk,” that’s trouble.

Reductive Revision

There’s almost nothing harder than “killing your babies” and axing chunks of your writing. Everybody loves their writing. It’s always hard to lose a word here, a line there, sometimes an entire paragraph. But cutting makes for a leaner, meaner, more amazing manuscript.

I’ll be posting some craft articles on revision in the next few weeks. Maybe because I’m revising stuff myself right now, it’s on my mind.

At my MFA program, my teacher, Lewis Buzbee of Steinbeck’s Ghost fame, makes the class do reductive revisions. We turn in a manuscript of 20-30 pages, then everyone in the class takes two to three pages of that week’s submission and cuts, cuts, cuts until only one page remains.

It’s a lot easier to cut through the fat and be merciless when it’s someone else’s work. However, to be a successful revision expert, you’ve got to develop that sort of keen ruthlessness toward your own precious manuscript. Especially after your First Draft Goggles wear off and you have to streamline.

One of the biggest problems some writers have is redundancy. They’re not sure the reader gets what they’re trying to do so they explain it. Then they explain it a different way. And then, just in case, they introduce another way of saying the same thing.

This is all fine and good. Maybe your subconscious is spinning all these repetitive statements so that you, the writer, understand the scene better. But the reader doesn’t need them. When I’m looking at a manuscript, redundancy is the number one thing I axe for the reductive revision exercise.

Exercise:

Let’s do a reductive revision together. The objective is to halve the length. Let’s give it a try. I’ll do my revisions and then you can do yours in comments, if you want, to see how ours match or don’t match.

Edna looked Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs. Her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
“I know, me too.”
“If we don’t find this book soon, the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the shelves. “But where could the book be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open.

Okay, so this scene is serviceable as is. But notice some redundancy issues. The characters are sneaking around and they’re nervous. We get it. We can convey it in a much simpler way. Our word count is 93. Let’s see if we can’t come in under 50.

Edna looked at Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs, H her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
I know, me Me too.”
“If we don’t find this book it soon… the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the forbidden shelves. “But w Where could the book it be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open with an ear-splitting creak.

And this is how it reads without the delete lines:

Edna looked at Chris, her back to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around. “I’m scared,” she said.
“Me too.”
“If we don’t find it soon…”
They scanned the forbidden shelves. Just then, the door flew open with a ear-splitting creak.

All I did was delete things the reader already knew, with the exception of rearranging the last sentence. Now, I was pretty ruthless. Notice, I took out all mention of the book and the library. That’s because they’re worried about the librarian and they’re scanning the shelves, so “book” and “library” are implied. I also got rid of all the emotional but cliched heart/eye/blood stuff that writers tend to lean on too heavily.

You might not want to go so sparse, but notice how much quicker the scene moves. We still get they’re scared and we still get a sense of danger. But guess what? Word count 49!

Have your own version of this revision? Post it below. More memos from the office of repetitive redundancy office coming soon.

A Magic of Convenience

There are tons and tons of manuscripts out there whose main characters have magic powers, which is always fun and interesting. The more I read of them, though, the more a strange habit rears its little head. And it’s difficult work to make magic believable and compelling, since it is, by its very nature, fantastical. But sometimes, characters’ magic powers are a little too, er, convenient. Not only does this affect the integrity of your fantasy wold-building, but the plot, too.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Lizzie’s powers were absolutely ineffective against the charm-locked door. Not even her Open Sesame spell could break the lock. Conveniently, any wizard of the Caldecott Bloodline, which Lizzie just happened to be a descendant of, could breeze right through. Luckily I remembered that! Saved me a lot of trouble, Lizzie thought as she jumped through the enchanted doorway.

This is, obviously, an exaggeration. But note a few things here. First, we go from a situation with tension and potential danger (a door locked by magic) to a situation with no tension whatsoever. Instead of making it hard for the character, instead of making the character work, the author (in this case, me) has given the MC an easy way out. Also, every time you catch yourself using words like “conveniently” or “luckily” or “just happened to…” take another look at the structure of your scene. See if you can’t scare up some more danger or tension.

We don’t pick up fiction to read about characters in easy-breezy situations. We don’t read read to see a magical coincidence at work. Sure, there are coincidences and happy accidents in life. And sure, sometimes we’re getting chased by werewolves and realize that our blood is powerful lupine repellent, just as their jaws close around our throats, or whatever, but fiction isn’t life transcribed, it’s life enhanced and structured to bring out tension and high stakes.

Luck, accidents, coincidences and other “Whew! What a nice surprise!” moments feel…cheap to the reader. Like the writer ran out of ideas and needed to get out of a pinch. That makes the reader think two things: “Wow, all the tension fell out of this scene,” and, possibly, “Why should I bother getting invested in the next high stakes scene? The author might just whip out another magical coincidence.”

Some much wiser writer once said that the crux of good fiction is getting a character in trouble, getting them in deeper trouble, then getting them in the deepest trouble of their life. There are too many manuscripts where the character’s magic helps them out right when they should be getting into trouble instead.

Like I mentioned above, this is a rules and boundaries issue. Every time you have fantasy/magic/magical realism in a manuscript, you’ve got to set rules and boundaries for how the fantastical elements function. When can a power be used? When can’t it be used?

Sometimes an author will pull a character out of danger in a very contrived way. Other times, the author will land a character in the very lap of danger by convenient means instead of raising stakes realistically. Neither is a good strategy. An example of the latter:

Our valiant hero, Lizzie, squinted up at the cave opening. She was trapped so far down in this underground hole that she thought she’d never get out. Then she remembered her pole-vaulting superpower! She readied her pole and prepared to vault when her shoulder grazed part of the cave wall. Oh, no! Was this limestone? Her grandmother had repeatedly told her, when she was a child, that only limestone would make her pole-vaulting magic fizzle. Lizzie was stuck again and the leprechauns could be heard drawing ever closer!

Next time you work with fantasy or magical powers, make sure you’re not doing anything for the sake of writerly laziness or convenience. Outline the rules and set boundaries for the magic throughout the manuscript. Give us, if not the powers in action, a taste of every power that your character will have throughout the story in the first 100 pages. That way, your character, and the reader, will know their strengths and limitations as they head into the rest of the story and, especially, the climax. Ideally, once the character gets in a certain situation, the reader will already know the rules of their magic. And I’m talking rules here. Like, the reader should be able to articulate and detail when magic can’t and can come into play in your story.

Introducing a new rule about magic right when the main character can either benefit or suffer from that rule is not usually a very provocative technique. It will be much easier to get your character out of trouble using convenient magic than it will to win your readers back after such a stroke of luck.

Novel Revision Tip: Fooling Yourself

If you’re finished with your first draft and are wondering what to do with the mess on your hands, I have a quick and easy novel revision tip for you.

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Feeling stuck? Here’s an easy novel revision tip: printing your WIP in a different font may help you look at it with fresh eyes.

First Draft Goggles

Writing the first draft was so free, so easy! Discovery at every turn! That process is what I like to call First Draft Goggles. Like beer goggles, that first draft euphoria can sure make everything look great.

Then comes the crushing hangover: revision. You’ve got to look at the thing you enjoyed so much during the first draft. You feel sick. There’s a bile taste creeping up your throat. “Did I really just write that?”

And here it comes, the big question: “Am I really just fooling myself with this writing thing?”

Novel Revision Tip: Look at Your Work with Fresh Eyes

Well, here’s a nifty trick that I learned from David Morrell, a very seasoned writer. He took me under his wing at a conference one time and gave me a very simple, very effective novel revision tip. It truly was a “duh!” moment:

Every time you think you’re done with something, change the font, print it out and read it again.

This is a novel revision tip I like to use when I’m fairly far into my revision process, but I’ve found it helps with anything that’s getting you stuck. When you change the font, you’re more likely to slow down and read it more carefully, since your eyes aren’t as used to how the words look on the page or screen. Glaring errors and things that don’t sound right tend to stand out much more.

Some writers like to read a page bottom to top for much the same effect. That gives me a headache, so I just change the font. I like to go from Times New Roman to Courier New or, if I’m feeling extra frisky, Arial.

Try it and see what you think. This is literally a way to fool yourself into paying more careful attention and not getting complacent with your draft. Sometimes, fooling yourself is actually a good thing!

Feeling stuck on your WIP? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll offer a fresh perspective on your work.

Minimizing Past Perfect Tense in Your Manuscript

From my study of past tense manuscripts, it’s become clear to me that there’s a serious grammatical issue snaking into some otherwise very readable work: overuse of past perfect tense. (Of course, you want more than just “readable” work, but, hey, fix the small stuff and then move on to the big stuff, right?)

past perfect tense, grammar, manuscript readability
Go back through your WIP and weed out some past perfect tense. You’ll achieve a cleaner and more streamlined manuscript.

In my experience, this is an instance where your Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler is incorrect. Sure, it may make your sixth grade English textbook happy if you pepper your manuscript with the past perfect tense: “had been,” “had thought,” “had said.” But it’s not necessary. In fact, it grates on a reader.

What is Past Perfect Tense?

When writing in the past tense, an author can choose to include a flashback or a memory or even a moment where they need to delve even further into the past. This is what the past perfect tense is for.

To a modern ear though, especially when you’re writing for children and young adults, the past perfect tense sounds stilted. And yes, I’m going to argue that too much past perfect tense — even when you’re writing historical — will clutter your manuscript.

Example of Past Perfect Tense

She remembered him well. Eric had just gone to the pool, so his hair had gotten wet and even cuter. After toweling off, he had settled down under the oak tree with a sandwich…

I’m exaggerating, for sure. But some things I read really do sound like this. Here’s a word of advice in the “had” department: trust your reader to follow you.

When I see a writer relying too much on the past perfect tense, it seems like they’re shouting: “Hey! Hey reader! I’m using past tense but I’m even more in the past, so stay with me while I keep reminding you!”

Minimizing Past Perfect Tense

The solution? Really ground your reader. Make sure they’re really clear that you’re disappearing into a different time. Then, use the past perfect tense once or twice, to satisfy Old Schoolmarm Grammar-Stickler, and off you go. Stick with good old paste tense. You’ll be fine. I promise.

The Revision

Amy thought back to last summer, to the lifeguard. Eric had just come out of the water and his hair was still wet. Fat, slick drops dribbled down his back as he toweled off. Before she could open her mouth and say one word to him, he slumped against the oak tree and tore into his sandwich. He never did find out how she felt.

She chased the memory away now…

Start in the narrative present, locate your reader, dip into the past, return us to where we left off and we’re good to go. There’s no need to keep using the past perfect tense if you frame the memory/flashback in a way that’s easy to follow.

Go back through your WIP and weed out some past perfect tense. I’m going to bet that, unless you’ve worked on this consciously before, there will be some stuff to revise.

Are you struggling with past perfect tense or other grammatical issues? Hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work through it together.