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Writing Excuses 5.9: Character Arcs with John Brown

Writing Excuses 5.9: Character Arcs with John Brown


Key points: Character arcs are about character's change, growth, learning. Often either as a problem in the plot or to provide a key to unlock the problem in the plot. You can either plan where you want the character to go, or throw an issue at them and see what they learn. Watch for being bored with a character -- often a sign of a failing character arc. Make sure they have highs and lows, pits and dilemmas and tests, learning and decisions.

[John] And I'm John, with my nose.
[Brandon] We welcome John. We're glad that he brought his nose with him, what's left of it.
[Dan] [garbled -- parts of his nose?]
[John] It was dicey. I almost didn't make it.
[Howard] Did you say dicey?
[Brandon] Poor dice. John braved cancer and surgery today, didn't you? And is still coming...
[Dan] To be here with us.
[Brandon] Fortunately, it wasn't the kill-you type of cancer, he explained to me.
[Dan] This is the opposite of most of our guests who get cancer after being on our show.

[Brandon] Character arcs! Yeah. Okay. We want to talk about what we do when we're building an actual arc for a character. Let's define it. What's a character arc? Howard?
[Dan] Dang it.
[Brandon] Oh, I'll give you the next one.
[Howard] Okay. It's that character's plot line. The path that they take from the beginning of the book to the end of the book, and the shape of that path. When we say arc, we're usually talking about the narrative curve, the structure of a narrative curve. A character arc is that character's narrative curve as it climbs to...
[Dan] How they change and how they grow... if they change and grow at all.
[John] I'd just like to add there's... if you look at it... well, at least when I look at character arcs, there can be kind of two varieties of character arcs... well, I guess maybe three. One is, it is The Problem. You see this in like the movie about a boy where there is a romance plot, but it's The Problem. It's the central story concept and they're overcoming that. Another is it's the key to unlock whatever the central story problem is. Character's got to make a change. Luke, trust your... trust the force. Then that solves the story problem. Then sometimes there are character arcs that are just subplots, they really don't add up. But it's always something where they're learning something.

[Brandon] Okay. So do you guys do this intentionally? Do you put this intentionally into your books? Like...
[Dan] Sort of.
[Brandon] Do you... when you're planning, do you say, "This is going to be my character arc?"
[Dan] No.
[Brandon] No? Okay. Just shoot me down.
[Dan] But I do sit and I think what is going to be interesting for this character to deal with. I know that if I start off with an issue like that, or a question or a problem, that it is going to change the character. That is going to create an arc. So I don't necessarily look at it as what do I want my character to learn, but what do I want to throw at him and then he'll learn on his own.
[Howard] I take it from a slightly different standpoint because I'm working with the same ensemble of characters day in and day out.
[Dan] Only in an excited way.
[Howard] Yeah. Only with funny and action. When I start a book and I begin putting characters into play, I look at them and I ask myself, "Do I want this character to end this book in the same place or in a different place?" Emotionally or spiritually or structurally or whatever. That immediately informs my decisions as to what that character is going to have to deal with. Sometimes I introduce a character early in a book and I look at him and realize I don't really care whether this character ends up in a new place. Therefore, they were just a walk-on for this joke. I'm not going to worry about developing a big arc for them.
[Brandon] Something I've noticed about you, though, Howard, if you don't mind me putting you on the spot. A lot of times it looks like when you'll build a story line, you'll say, "I'm going to take one of these characters who was just kind of standing in the background or walking on for jokes occasionally, and now they're going to have an arc." That's when they blossom into main character territory.
[Howard] Yes. I can't do that with everybody for every book. If anything is... something that I've identified myself as a weakness, is the inability of the form I'm working in, which is a serial comic strip, for me to make it a little more real worldy, so that all of these people are having their lives in parallel, instead of...
[Brandon] Yeah, but then nothing would happen.
[Howard] Exactly. Then nothing would happen, and it would be an epic fantasy.
[Dan] Oh, burn.
[John] Body blow, body blow. I like that.
[Brandon] John, do you do this intentionally? Do you write boring... I mean...
[John] Yeah, I go for boring every time. Quotidian. I do kind of two things. I do what Dan does. I say, here's an issue, and then if the character learns something from it, great, and if they don't, I don't care. Because I don't think that has to be in every story. Then there are other times, that I'm like, no, the effect that I want is I want them to have to face this thing, make a decision to change or learn something, and then have that be tested. So there are like redemption stories that... and redemption things like with... in the second book that I've got, one of my main characters, it's a redemption story for him. He has to make a specific decision. He starts one place, he has to make the specific decision in a dilemma type situation, and then has to be tested. So that was something that I consciously plotted out and said I know I need to have this scene and I need to have this and this and I gotta look for things that would force him along that way or lead him to that decision and so... I kind of do both.
[Dan] Yeah. I do that same thing. I need to look for events and choices and whatever that's going to lead my character along. I specifically... when I sit down, I will write out on pages and brainstorm, "What are things I can do that will touch this nerve? That will force this character into action?" Then I'll just throw them into the story.

[Brandon] Okay. Here's a question for you. This is something I run into. The number one thing that will ruin my ability to work on a story... when something is going wrong, it's when a character arc is failing. How do... does this happen to you guys? Do you recognize if something is going wrong?
[Howard] Okay. The first sign is if I made the decision early in the book that this character is going to end up in a different place, and halfway through the book, I start writing that character and realize that I no longer care. We've talked about that before. When you're writing something and you're bored, the reader is doomed.
[Brandon] That is a good point. Though as a writer, I like to reinforce to new writers, learning how to decide when you're legitimately bored and when you're just... it's hard work sometimes to write books. Distinguishing when it's boring and when it's just hard... those are two different things, and that's really hard to figure out. So... but for you, it's when you're bored with the character?
[Howard] Well, yeah. Let me rephrase it then a little bit, because there's the hard part in the middle, which again we've talked about at length. I'm talking about when I'm writing the hard part in the middle and I realize that whatever the payoff is that I thought I had planned, I no longer care about it. It's not that I don't care because it's too hard getting there, it's that I've lost interest in it.
[Brandon] That's actually a very good description for what happens to me when a character arc just isn't working. I think about Sazed in the third Mistborn book. This character needed a major overhaul, and it was basically because I was kind of bored and annoyed at the character, and also my writing group was bored and annoyed with the character.
[Dan] I remember being greatly annoyed at the character.
[Brandon] Yeah, thank you for your annoyance, Dan.
[Dan] Yeah, no problem. But then it worked very well in the final version. So what did you do?
[Brandon] What I had to do is I had to essentially rip the character out and start from scratch, where they had been. Because as we have discussed, I'm mostly an outliner, except when it comes to characters. I grow my characters, I'm more of a gardener or a...
[Howard] It's an organic process.
[Brandon] I had to start him over. The really big difference for me was giving him steppingstones of progress. Something he could be working on, that he could slowly be progressing through, even if it was actually kind of a downward progress. Because what he was doing, was he started looking through all the religions of the world to see if he could find one that he thought was true. He's eliminating them one by one, and his depression was mounting as he eliminated each of them. But there was still progress. That was different from starting the book majorly depressed that there was no truth in the world. Slowly stepping toward it makes for an arc for the character. Again, it was missing that are. The problem was I started with him in a place and he just kind of spiraled around that same place for the whole book. Even though he was going places, emotionally it was just the same person. He needed to have something... he needed to actually start and slide down into that hole.
[Dan] That's why we call this an arc, because the character actually physically needs to move, they need to change. There needs to be something moving them from place to place.
[Howard] It's an arc, not a spiral circling the plane.
[Dan] A character spiral? I need to write one of those.
[John] Well, and you can look at it... there can be two types of progress. If you're looking at it... as a character arc where it's the character doesn't... the character is ignorant of something. I don't know if you guys are considering this, but there's a character that is ignorant of something, so they're learning as they go, and then, "Oh, no, I'm not ignorant of that anymore." Then there's a character arc where it's you're making the progress by deciding to do a different thing. I think of the Last Samurai. Did you guys ever see that with Tom Cruise? Okay. I loved that movie. He made it... that follows perfectly the character arc that I'm talking about, where he was... he had made a terrible decision, you saw that and the results, but in the end, it was all these events that helped him then make a new decision. It was... but you're not going to get that progress until you start seeing him go towards that decision. I think the decision's a critical thing in that, so... with Sazed, was it... it wasn't a decision, it was... was it a decision? A decision for hope, or was it something else?
[Brandon] It was a... I can't give it away without really spoiling the book, but it was a sense of progress. It was steps that he could move toward.

[Brandon] But let's do our book of the week. John, you are going to promo a book for us this week?
[John] Oh, yeah. I love Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand or Samarkand or however you say that, read by Simon Jones. It's hilarious. It's got this... it's a fantasy. It's all about... the whole series is about being able to call forth these demons... summon demons. Which you'd think, well, that's been done a million times. But the way that he does it... and you've got a main character that is a demon with an attitude. It's just hilarious. It's wonderful, and Simon Jones does a fabulous job.
[Brandon] All right. Go to to download a free copy of the book, they have it on audible. Start your 15 day free trial, details are on our website.

[Brandon] All right. Let's talk for the rest of the podcast about really stepping through our process. Talking, for the writers, how do we actually build an arc? What specific choices are we making? What specific things are we doing with our characters to make them have to do this? What is conscious, what is unconscious?
[Dan] Okay. In Mr. Monster, my second book, I knew that I wanted John to have a very heroic arc. I wanted him to accomplish something very cool. Halfway through the book, for me, that meant he needed to get to a very low point. Because if I wanted him to end heroic, I wanted there to be... you had to put that in danger, you had to fall down into a pit and then crawl back out of it. The deeper the pit, the more heroic the crawling would be at the end.
[Brandon] So how did you push them down that pit? Like, let's not even talk about... let's talk about the process.
[Dan] Not the specifics, but the process itself? I thought about who he was as a character and what he wanted and what he thought he wanted... the various conflicts that he has to deal with. Then, like I was saying earlier, come up with lists of things that are going to touch that nerve. Found one that I thought was really good, that I could develop at the right speed, that would force his specific issues into conflicts that he couldn't deal with effectively.
[Brandon] Okay. I look at my process and I see... what I generally do is, I'm trying to identify what the character wants. As I'm writing the character along, as I'm building the character, I know who they are when I start the book, although I don't really get their voice until I've written it for a while. I'll generally be able to define who is this character by what are their goals, what are their motives, what are the things that they desire? That I try to make overlap the plot. So that what they desire is either in conflict with other characters or in conflict with the plot. Or until they get what they want or realize they can't have what they want or become who they need to be, the plot can't move forward. I try to actually overlay these things. I break it down into steps and say this is something that they could try, this is something they could try. These sort of specific bullet point method. I've said my outline method is the bullet point method.
[Howard] I think of it like... I studied music in college, wrote a lot of music. I think of it like a musical score, where the plot is one of these melodic sequences that is running. I identify things that are happening at given points they are. Then each character is their own instrument, and I look at where they start, where they have to finish. That identifies... as you said, Dan, with Mr. Monster, that tells me this character has to have a big down moment. It has to happen someplace. I start looking at the plot to see where a good place is for that. I'll make a little note. I'm actually scratching this out on a legal pad. Drawing pictures and shapes and identifying with Xs and circles what the high points are, what the low points are. Then when I sit down and start writing the script notes, I will look at a high point or a low point and think, "What is a line of dialogue that exemplifies this high point or this low point?" With Tagon, in a recent Schlock Mercenary arc, the dialogue bit for the high point that I had identified months earlier was, "Thank you. Now I have a knife." Which he has said just after pulling a knife out of his own eye.
[Dan] One of my favorite moments.
[Howard] It worked because I knew the shape of the story and then I assigned a bit of dialogue to it way in advance, but I knew I had to set up. Then I was able, from weeks and months earlier, I was able to put all the necessary pieces in place in order to pull that off.
[Brandon] John?
[John] When I do character arcs... I think about my stories as problems. They're problems of a certain type, and so... I will look at it and I'll say a character has this problem and is there something internal in the character that is going to be a complication to this? Is there something that they've got to switch what they think or believe? If so, if that's going to be a complication, and I want to know what would... like Dan was saying, what are some events, what are some things that would occur that would give them enlightenment or push them to some way. If it's a character arc where they have to make a decision, then I want to put them... I want to develop and think about and say what's going to be their dilemma moment? Their moment where they have to make that awful choice and then they're rewarded, right? It looks like they're going to lose everything because they made that decision, but they're rewarded for it. So that's kind of how I look at it. So sometimes
my characters will have arcs, and sometimes they won't have any arcs at all. The arc is just the external plot. So that's kind of how I look at it.
[Brandon] Okay. I'm always trying to build an arc. I always want my character to be moving somewhere. When I'm not moving somewhere, that's when they feel wrong to me. So they've got to be... there's got to be motion to who they are. My characters have to be dynamic. That's really what makes a book and a character work for me. Is that they don't simply exist, they are becoming something.
[Howard] Yeah. There are times with some of my characters when I decide that they are going to remain in the same place, and I know that they need to appear multiple times during the book. It can be just as powerful to touch on the character and to have that character make the visible decision to stay in the same place. That in and of itself can be an arc and it supports them as a character. It feels real.
[Brandon] Well, it's something else that's very important... we are really running overtime, but I wanted to point out that you're working in extreme long form.
[Howard] [sigh] Yeah.
[Brandon] And in extreme long form, I've noticed for instance, you have to take either smaller bites or you have to touch on characters less often or some characters simply have to have arrived at where they essentially want to be. I look at... there are certain characters in the Wheel of Time who have actually gone through their are and arrived at where they need to be. Forcing another arc upon them would just start ruining the story and making it feel like, "Oh, now we have to just come up with something new." You'll see this in films, where they do the second film, and like, "Well, that character had a great arc. We want to do that again." And they start him over, or they give him something, some completely new thing that doesn't fit at all with who they are. Sometimes it is important to just get the character where they are and say this character is who they are.
[John] I just wanted to say that because whenever this comes up, it always seems like there's a lot of people who feel, "Oh, you must have this." Like I just read this guy, Larry, uh... I read... Larry Brooks, he has something about plot out there and Sid Fields and all these other guys, and they always include this character arc... that you must have this character arc. I think that's wrongheaded. There are tons of great stories that there's hardly any character arc at all.
[Brandon] All right. Let's end there. Dan, you complained earlier when I threw a question at Howard. Your reward is you get to give us our story prompt.

[Dan] Oh, sweet. Well, all right then. Your characters are trapped on an emotionally-responsive roller coaster that mimics their own emotional arc. How do they use that knowledge to escape?
[Brandon] Oh, that's genius. Okay. Man, you just earned your check.
[Dan] Yay!
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

[Howard] Whee! This is great fun. Hey, before we go today, you're supposed to... is it today? Is it Tuesday yet? I don't know when you guys are listening to this.
[John] November 2.
[Howard] November 2, you're supposed to go to the polls and vote. We all think that voting is awesome, because we should be involved citizens, and you should go buy a copy of John Brown's book, Servant of a Dark God, which is available in paperback today. John Brown, Servant of a Dark God, paperback. Go vote and buy a book.
Tags: change, characters, decision, growth, learning, writing excuses
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