Is Your Character Stagnating?

This week’s video points out two ways in which your protagonist’s arc may have stalled.

Video Transcript:

Your character’s arc of personal growth is what drives your story. Without that, he’s going to end up stagnating like the water on the inside of an old tire. Not good. ’Cause what that means is that he’s also going to be boring. Characters who don’t change are characters who have little to offer readers in the way of interesting action and thematic resonance. Worse than that, they can quickly become repetitive.

There’s more than one way to let your character lapse into monotony. The first and most obvious way is to simply neglect character arc altogether. If your character is the same person at the end of the book as he was at the beginning, you need to start asking yourself some hard questions, chief among them, “Why?” It’s true some stories purposefully leave their characters unchanged in a changing world to underline a point. But these are exceptions, usually written by masters of the craft. Most of us are going to want to make certain the fires through which we force our characters cause them to learn hard truths and grow in perhaps painful, but definitely necessary ways.

The second possible stagnation is actually much easier to fall into. This is one in which our characters do change in the final third of the book. Hence, they do have a character arc. But the problem is that the change happens like that, instead of being a gradual evolution. Instead of using of dominoes of change to gradually progress the arc, we instead end up harping on the character’s original state (whether that be anger, fear, denial, or whatever), until it becomes nothing but a boring broken record. If you find your character reacting to similar situations in the same way over and over again, it’s a good sign you’ve allowed him to slide into stagnation.

Tell me your opinion: Does your character have a pronounced arc?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. yes, very much so! And I usually don’t care much characters who don’t change because to me, that’s what life is all about: evolving.

  2. Exactly. How boring would life be if we never changed? Same goes for our books.

  3. Anonymous says

    My character (a mental case) begins the story confident that he will become sane and live a normal life again by the end. However, certain things happen that, in the end, force him to have to accept and embrace his insanity (to save a life). He has to accept that he will never be able to be normal. Does that sound about right?

  4. My character’s have arcs but sometimes getting all the arcs right is very challenging.

  5. @Anonymous: Sometimes a change in the character’s mindset (in your character’s case, reaching acceptance) is all that’s needed. His physical surroundings can stay the same; it’s his inner self that needs to change.

    @Tasha: If we can get the arcs right, everything else just falls into place!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Sorry. I didn’t mean to delete the above post. Anyway…

    I stumbled upon this blog and I like it a lot. It’s filled with useful information. This post made me realize that one of my “lesser” main characters hasn’t really changed at all. Also, my book is the first in a trilogy. Is a smaller character arc necessary for the first book or is it alright for a character to be temporarily stagnant until events in future books cause them to change? Thanks!

  8. This is a very important point that I’m going to have to take a look at through my book to make sure the character is changing gradually and not all at once. You’re right in that it shouldn’t be the latter, it would end up being too forced perhaps. Thank you for bringing my attention to this!! I want to make my book the best it can be and your blog really helps me in that effort!!

  9. @Jake: Good question. You’re going to want to include a mini character arc in every installment of a series. The character won’t achieve his overall change until the final book, but his progression to reach that change should involve smaller evolutions in each previous book.

    @Traci: That gradual evolution is one of the trickiest parts of the character arc. Since we write our stories so much slower than people read them, we can sometimes lose sight of how the tone and flow is happening in “real time.” This is another reason I like to use the “50-page edit,” which allows me to look at the my incomplete manuscript at various intervals and check its progress.

  10. I follow the Christopher Vogler Character Arc – though not tenaciously, adapting where necessary.
    Even minor characters should surely show some ability to change and grow. Plot must affect how characters behave in given circumstances and alter their feelings/attitude towards the next event.
    Great to have found you. Will follow blog.

  11. The Hero’s Journey can be a great guideline, since it’s a character arc most people resonate with. But I agree it’s best to adapt it to the needs of your particular story.

  12. Great tips, Katie. Thanks for taking we newbies under your wing. All advice is appreciated.

  13. Thanks for reading!

  14. I am so glad I read this – it’s very thought provoking.

  15. Thanks for stopping by!

  16. I realized that yes, my character does, but I haven’t really sat down and written it out. I have it outlined, but I think I need to examine my outline and just make notes on who she is at the beginning and who she is at the end. I’m still drafting my WIP but this is the most i’ve ever been into writing my story so I’m excited and inspired by this blog post!

  17. One helpful thing to do is to figure out your character’s core need and the one thing he’s doing that’s standing in his way of achieving that need (i.e., the false belief that is blinding him from the truth). Then create a scene at the beginning that shows his false belief in action and a scene in the end that shows him making an opposite decision. A while back, I used the movie Thor as an example of how to do this.

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