The Art of the Arc
An effective, engaging novel has several moving parts. Most people are familiar with plot. It’s usually the external circumstances you describe when someone asks, “What’s your book about?”
But even the most exciting plot can fall flat without well-developed characters who impact it in ways uniquely their own. The journey each character takes in a story is one-part plot, the other arc. This post will focus on the arc, for main and secondary characters.
Before you can dive into your character’s arc, it’s crucial to know who they are as a person. How they react (or don’t) in various circumstances will make a pivotal impact on your plot. It’s worth your time to know who your characters are at the outset, as well as have a general sense of what will happen in your story. A socially anxious tween will react differently to a world-altering disaster than an extroverted socialite.
Think about who your characters are and also what they want. What they want may not necessarily be what they need, but it will help drive their actions at the outset of your story. You won’t know what unless you do some initial character development.
Exercise: Write 5-10 childhood memories for each of your characters. They don’t have to be life-altering events, just things that may have shaped their current selves. Consider also writing a short history for the handful of characters you’ll be writing about most. Maybe this information will get referenced on the page, maybe it won’t. But it should help flesh out your story and make both your plot and characters stronger.
Converting Your Character Reactions into Beats
Some writers are plotters, others pantsers. I’m speaking from a perspective of a pantser who always wrote myself into a corner until I learned to loosely map out where I wanted my characters to be by the end of the story. This can be a physical or mental space, but your character must change from the start of your story to the end. They must make a change of some sort. Even characters who end up in worse places than they started took a journey to get to that state. It’s your job to take them there, to carve out their arc.
But even if you have a general idea of every single plot point in your story, do you know how your character’s going to react during each of them? Character action drives plot in most stories. This is why the Save the Cat! beat sheetscan be helpful for people unsure about what needs to happen to introduce the types character reactions that will keep readers reading.
While beat sheets are a concept more often employed in screenwriting, they’re helpful to novelists because they force writers to think about how character decisions impact the story narrative. Save the Cat! has several different sheets that are modified to fit into various character arcs (e.g., superhero, golden fleece, rite of passage, etc.).
One of the biggest eye openers for me was the realization that my character needs to make some sort of decision based on their circumstances. Whatever they choose should propel them into the novel’s middle, where they’ll subsequently face a set of obstacles. Whether they succeed or fail in overcoming these stumbling blocks will determine the shape of their arc until the big climax of the story, where the character either gets everything they want or hit rock bottom.
As you consider each beat in your story, think about what your character is feeling and what they’re learning. They’ll take these emotions and this information along with them to the next stop on their journey.
Exercise: Take a look at the beat sheets (linked below), choosing the one that fits closest into the narrative of your story. See if you can write a few lines under each beat, focusing on how your main character may react to what is happening within your plot.
Making Secondary Characters Shine
Like a movie, your story is nothing without the supporting cast. These characters will help or impede the main character throughout your novel. Absolutely none of them should exist in a vacuum.
Let’s say you’re the main character’s best friend in a YA contemporary romance. Reader-you knows that the point of the story is whether or not the main character ends up with their love interest. Secondary character-you might want to support your best friend too, but that’s not your only goal, right? You’ve got your own life, family drama, crushes, and high school classes to pass.
Your goal as a secondary character may differ from the main character’s. It may pull you away from the primary plot for a few chapters, where you’re only mentioned in a passing thought within the narration. Whatever you’re doing during that time will still impact your emotional state, which should be reflected on the page the next time you appear on-screen.
In the same way that the main character changes and goes on a journey during your story, secondary characters take their own literary road trips. Being secondary to the main character, not everything will make it onto the page for them, but you as an author should always be aware of these sub-arcs, particularly when they intersect with your main character’s arc and might consequently impact the star of your novel—or derail their efforts to get what they want.
Exercise: Create a visual roadmap of your character arcs. I am the least visual person I know, but I still found this exercise helpful. I created a chart on a big piece of poster board. My character’s physical journey was tracked on the x-axis horizontal line by chapter numbers. My character’s emotional arc was the y-axis, with successes marked near the top (high points in the character’s life) and dark feelings/failures closer to the bottom.
Once you’ve mapped out your main character’s arc, do the same for your secondary characters. Use a different color for each character and pay attention to where each secondary character’s emotional arc is headed compared to the main character’s. If one character is high when the other is low, and both are in the same scene interacting with another, this should be reflected on the page. Not only that, but pay attention to ensuring you lay sufficient groundwork to justify your secondary character’s moods. This will help your secondary characters feel like real, three-dimensional people with their own lives and goals and less like convenient props made solely to support or foil your main character.
A.J. Sass is a fiction-writing figure skater, inclined toward adventures of a traveling nature. He is autistic, non-binary, and keen on exploring how gender identity and neurodiversity impact character narratives.
A.J. is represented by Jordan Hamessley at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. His middle grade debut, ANA ON THE EDGE, will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in Fall 2020. You can add it on Goodreads here.