I love reading. I am the kind of person that devours books, like an undulating blob of paper, ink, and Harry Potter references. Part of the reason that I’m doing the job that I’m doing now is because I love reading- and because I love reading, I love writing.
I’ve always loved creating my own stories, even when I was a little kid. When I used to play-wrestle with my little brothers, we would all become Superheros and Villains of our own creation. We had a plethora of lore, powers, and abilities that we would make up at random, which at the time was as thrilling as getting a Jackpot Capital bonus.
When I got older, I put that energy into Dungeons and Dragons. Now that I’m even older (and, coincidentally, with a lot more responsibilities and a lot less time on my hands), I put that creative energy into writing. However, there is a huge difference between writing what you love and writing something that other people are going to love. One of the easiest mistakes to make as a writer is forgetting the single most vital aspect of writing a good story: Character arcs.
Character Arcs: What the heck are they?
To keep it brief, a character arc is the changes a character undertakes over the course of the story. There are external changes, such as wealth, power, and status, but there are also internal changes, such as a character’s personality, relationships, ideology, and morality.
One method to formalize this aspect of writing is called “The Hero’s Journey”. It’s immensely popular among fantasy and sci-fi writers and is the quintessential arc of many popular heroes. You can think of the hero’s journey as a big wheel.
Our hero is born of some secret or divine heritage but is living a quaint, rural life. Some instigating event forces the hero out of this safe life into the wide-open world. He then goes on to a training montage or two, with a wise mentor, and finally overcomes the dark lord that’s bent on destroying / conquering the world. In this way, the hero progresses from a nobody to a world-saving hero.
How many heroes did I just describe? Off the top of my head, I can think of Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Bilbo Baggins, and Rand from Wheel of Time. In fact, Luke fits the hero’s journey almost perfectly, and Robert Jordan practically defined the hero’s journey with the Wheel of Time.
To take Luke Skywalker as the example: He’s a farm boy, living in the middle of nowhere, in space. His Aunt and Uncle are murdered by Imperial Stormtroopers working for our Dark Lord, and Luke runs away with a wise old mentor on a quest to save the galaxy. By the end of “Return of the Jedi”, Luke is a full-blown hero that confronts our Dark Lords and saves everyone.
In other words, Luke Skywalker has had a full arc from when we first meet him to when his story ends in “Return of the Jedi”.
The Human Nature of Change
Why is it so important that characters change, though? Is it possible to write a story without bothering with any kind of arc? Again, the short answer is yes… but you probably shouldn’t.
Now to play devil’s advocate for a moment, it is indeed possible to create a story that people will love without much (or any) character arcs. The only major example I can think of is the franchise, “John Wick”. Now, I have to say a small disclaimer: I have only watched the first one. If what I’m about to say about John Wick is wrong because of the next three(?) movies in the franchise, then I’m sorry.
If you’re not familiar with John Wick, the premise is that John Wick, a retired assassin, is trying to live out a peaceful life with his dog after his wife dies of cancer.
The son of a Russian mafiosa burgles his house, kills the dog, and sets up the movie’s revenge plot. By the end of the movie, John Wick has killed his way through nearly the entire Mafia, got his revenge, and walks away with a new dog.
In other words, from a writing standpoint, he’s right back to where he started. Why does it work? Because the story isn’t really about John Wick as a character. It’s more about the intense popcorn fest of watching John Wick murdering his way through the entire Russian Mafia.
It works because its entertainment relies solely on one aspect of the story, the action, which is taken to the furthest possible extreme. It’s not a deep or poignant film by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s self-aware enough to know that it doesn’t need to be.
The takeaway, however, should be that John Wick is the exception, not the norm. Films can more easily get away with these kinds of plots because of all the spectacle. You, as a writer, do not get to rely on spectacle. You have to rely on the three major pillars of good writing: Characters, plot, and worldbuilding.
Building A Story
When it comes to writing a story, there are three major pillars that you need to fill out in order to create a complete tale.
The first is worldbuilding. This is the setting the story takes place in. Setting your story in the real world almost completely nullifies your entire workload in this area since the world is just the one the readers live in every day. You don’t need to explain the history of the United States in your contemporary political story because most people already know the major details.
Or if they don’t, they can just google it (although it’s probably good practice not to make too many assumptions as to what the reader does and does not know, regardless).
The second pillar is the plot. The plot is just what happens within a story. In Star Wars, the plot is that there’s a princess in need of rescue, a MacGuffin that has to reach our rebel heroes, and a giant moon-sized space station that needs to be destroyed.
Frodo and the fellowship have to get the ring to Mordor so it can be thrown into a volcano which will kill a giant evil eyeball. Harry Potter goes to wizard school, plays soccer on broomsticks, and stops an evil wizard from getting his hands on a philosophical rock hidden inside a magic mirror.
The third, and most important pillar, is your story’s characters. This is who does the things that happen in the plot that set in your story’s world Luke Skywalker. Harry Potter. Frodo Baggins. Batman. Oscar Schindler. Romeo. Without characters, you don’t have a story. Here’s a bit of wisdom I picked up from one of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures: Good characters can save a bad plot and boring worldbuilding. The opposite is not true.
This is one of the crucial differences between the Star Wars prequels and the sequels. People genuinely love Anakin, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Yoda, Mace Windu, Count Dooku, and all these other beloved characters. While George Lucas’s dialogue, unfortunately, failed him in the prequels, these characters are fan favorites, and Anakin himself is a penultimate hero-to-villain character arc.
Rey and Finn from the sequels, meanwhile… not so much. Rey starts off the story with an absurd level of competence and stays absurdly competent throughout her trilogy, without ever facing much change or struggle. In fact, the only thing that changes about her character is that she gets more competent by the story’s conclusion. Finn could have had an amazing arc about recovering from the trauma of what essentially amounted to child slavery… but Nah, he remains comic relief from beginning to end.
In short, the prequels characters, although sometimes suffering from terrible dialogue, are still extremely likable, with important arcs to explore, set in a larger macro plot that perfectly sets up the Original trilogy. The sequels, by contrast… have better special effects.
Sorry, I’ll never not take an opportunity to rant about how much Disney has ruined Star Wars heh heh heh.
Your Writing, Your Story
The question, of course, becomes: How can YOU apply any of this to YOUR writing? Well, the first thing you outta do is start looking at your story as a collection of character arcs. Where does character A begin the story, and where should he end it?
Ideally, he should end up someplace that reflects the themes and motifs of the story. Think very critically about this. If there’s someplace that is very logical for your character to end up at, don’t dismiss it out of hand because it’s “obvious”.
This is the mistake that Game of Thrones season 8 made. By trying to “subvert expectations”, none of the characters ended up at the logical endpoints for their character arcs. Jamie Lannister returns to his insane sister after all that development of breaking away from her.
Daenerys goes crazy for no reason, forcing Jon to kill her. Drogo melts the iron throne for some reason. Bran ends up on the throne because “who has a better story than Bran the Broken?”
(The answer is literally anyone else. But I digress.)
Where does your character start? Where does the story need him to end up? How does he organically get from A to B to C? How does mild-mannered Walter White become a stone-cold drug dealer? What are the characters’ flaws and aspirations that will drive them through the plot? These questions often make or break stories, but by keeping them in mind from the beginning, perhaps YOU will write the next Harry Potter, eh?