Chapter Three: Creating Characters and Developing the Arc
Characters are the heart of your novel. If a reader doesn't bond with your main character, they won't finish the book. So how do you create a character a reader can resonate with and relate to?
When a reader sits down with a novel, she is immediately drawn into a world other than her own. She is now seeing life through the eyes of the characters of the story. Her perspective shifts and flows with the MC (main character). And her interest in your novel rests in her bond with that person.
I've read many books where the plotline doesn't thrill me or feels boring and anti-climatic. But I stick with the book because I find myself relating to the lead characters. Their emotions, their interests, their hopes and dreams--they resonate with me on a level deep enough to keep me turning the page. To me, the strength of the character arc matters the most.
So how can you create realistic and inviting characters?
1. Get to know your characters on an intimate level.
When you meet someone new, you tend to ask them questions as you get to know them. Where you work? Do you have a family? What's your favorite sports team? How long have you lived here? The questions help you peel back the layers and find common ground with this new person.
Your characters are the same way only more. They are also a part of you: the parts you wish you could be and the parts that you already are. So it's your job as the author to understand them on a level so deep you can transfer that knowledge and intimacy to the reader.
Sit down with a pen and paper and ask your characters a million questions. Go further than the physical features you'll inevitably write into the story. Here are some examples:
Where did they go to school?
What's their job?
What's their favorite color?
When is their birthday?
What's their favorite food?
What's their nervous tick?
What their biggest fear?
Where was their favorite vacation?
What's their favorite childhood memory?
Do they sing in the shower?
Do they like to watch sports or read books?
Do they have a large friend group or more intimate inner circle?
Are they close with their family?
Do they have a pet?
What's their pet peeve?
What is their greatest strength?
What is their biggest weakness?
What would make or break a relationship with them?
What do they value more than anything else?
What's their life motto or Bible verse?
Questions like these might not come up in directly your book, but they will help you get to know your characters on a much more intimate level. They'll begin to feel more like a friend than a figure of your imagination. And as you get to know them better, you'll start to think of how they might handle various situations you find yourself in throughout the day.
2. Do a character sketch of who they are now and who you want them to be in the end.
A novel is a journey. Your characters start at point A and end at point B. And while the plot (which we will discuss later) is what gets all of them there, they must also grow and change along the way. And in order to do that, you must decide who they are now and who you want them to become by the time they reach point B.
Go back to the theme and general plotline you devised for your story to do this. For example, my first novel is centered around grief and loss and hope found in a life of faith. One of my MC's is a big city marketing consultant with a lucrative business and a life in the fast lane, but he also has a huge ego and no interest in anything but money and success. This is his beginning. By the end of the story, he is a man who has learned that a life worth living isn't about fame, job titles, or money. He now understands that hope rests in a life of faith and love, surrounded by people who encourage you and urge you to press into God in the middle of hardship. This is his end--well, for the first book anyway ;).
Now how does he become this person? What situations will he have to endure and how does he respond to them? These events and his emotions in between are the arc.
3. Think of the arc as a rubber band.
Your character has to be stretched throughout the book. Each time she is stretched to what she thinks is her breaking point. And then you ease up ever so slightly. Like a rubber band the tension tightens and releases. And then you stretch her again. And then ease up a bit but still keep some tension. So the cycle repeats itself. When your MC hits her true breaking point (typically the climax), you have reached the top of the character arc which is the tightest the rubber band can stretch without snapping. As you continue toward the resolution, the tension eases and the strain on your character lessens.
The biggest key to remember here is that every time you stretch your character, they must also grow toward the tension. Whether it's a hero growing in honor or a villian thriving in evil, there must be growth. If she doesn't learn from the situations presented to her then her arc remains flat and there's no room for your readers to connect with her either.
Oh and also, developing a character arc this way, also naturally begins the foundations for your plot outline as you think of different scenarios and events to stretch your character. So make sure to have these ideas easily accessible to bring to the outlining of the plot!
"The biggest key to remember here is that every time you stretch your character, they must also grow toward the tension."
4. Bonus Practical Tip: Use printables and handouts or a writer's notebook
Getting to know your characters and developing a solid character arc involves a lot of preplanning and organization. It's crucial to write it all down and save it in your archives. Whether you go digital or hard copy, there are plenty of digital handouts, apps, and also printables out there for you to use to keep things in order. I'll link a few for you at the end of this post but you can also search Pinterest or Google to find more than enough options.
While some people find it much easier to brainstorm with the handouts, others like to create their own in a notebook. I'm more partial to a notebook because I have so many as it is and I feel more free to brainstorm outside of the guided handouts. But either way, write down as much as you can about your characters. It might not feel important now, but it will later, I promise. Plus, there's just something about the wiring in our brains that makes recalling random facts and details easier once we've physically written them down.
Those are just a few pointers to creating characters and building an arc. If you have any more questions about character building, let me know in the comments and I'll help you out as best as I can!
Much love and happy writing,
P.S. Here are a few links to find printables and downloads. I am NOT affiliated with any of these authors and creators nor do I receive any compensation for sales or clicks on their websites. I'm just sharing ones I've come across that might be helpful to you.
The Royal Garden Shop