Arctic Characters and Character Arcs

Last night finished watching the final episode of Fortitude. The series is set in an Arctic Island and borrows a lot from long-form crime dramas like Broadchurch or The Killing (The Killing’s  Sofie Gråbøl has a supporting role). There is a lot of noirish bleakness and some effective horror, as well as quirky characters that (if they weren’t so violent and tortured) wouldn’t be out of place in Northern Exposure with which it shares some genuinely spectacular scenery.

The final episode, however, came as a tiny disappointment, despite a workmanlike tying up most of the loose plot ends whilst still leaving enough material for a second series (which has already been greenlit).

The main disappointment I felt was the lack of a proper character arc for the series many and varied characters. This has also been something that’s been bothering me about my own second draft.

A properly constructed character arc takes a character and changes it over the course of the narrative. This can happen either in parallel with the plot or with a separate structure all of its own. The most celebrated recent example in television has been Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, where mild-mannered Walter White descends the stairway to moral hell, slowly at first, and eventually at a willing gallop.

This has formed the mainstay of many other literary narratives as well, from Great Expectations to A Doll’s House to Oscar and Lucinda.

This is not to say that every character needs to be profoundly transformed by the events of the narrative. It’s entirely possible for a character (even a protagonist) to sail through, unchanged, and to deliberately have absorbed all manner of narrative up and down without altering their being.

But where there is a character arc, the key is that the character changes, and that this change is explained and staged.

  • Change – The character starts in one state and ends the narrative in another, as a different person, who has been changed either for better or for worse by their experiences during the course of the book. This involved having both an initial and a changed model for the character and providing descriptive and experiential models for both. This can include behaviours, dialogue, internal voices, changes in physical appearance.
  • Explained – the reader needs to have the sense of being an observer to this change, and to feel that they have experienced some of the interiority of that change, for the reader to be empowered with a sense of insight. If a reader does not see change occurring, then it can appear as inconsistent characterisation. This doesn’t imply neon signs, just clearly delineated difference between the old and the new.
  • Staged – The development has to happen over the course of the story. A character switching personas in a single twirl of the pen without any buildup or follow through is as abrupt, unsatisfying and illogical as “with one bound he was free”. There’s a reason I used the word “arc”. The view on both the way up and the way down is why you buy the ticket and take the ride.

A character arc can act both as a counterpoint to and a companion for the plot arc. In some cases plot and character arcs are symbolically linked, in others the threads are separate within the story. Done well, character arcs increase our sense of ownership of the characters, our empathy with their emotions (in both good and bad times) and concern for their welfare. In other words, a good character arc will bind your reader to your characters more firmly, so that they ride the rollercoaster of your plot together.

The issue I’ve found with my draft in its current state is that few of the characters have an arc worth a damn. Most end the book having gone through its experiences without being changed by them.

This is partially a legacy issue. The original crucible for the characters was in the form of short stories, almost like a TV anthology series, where each episode ended with the characters back in the position they were in at the start. (This does, of course, refer to TV before creators like Dennis Potter and shows like Babylon 5 came around to show that long-form storytelling was indeed something which TV could excel at).

In the words of philosopher and influential third-wave feminist Lisa Simpson:

“Don’t worry, Bart. It seems like every week something odd happens to the Simpsons. My advice is to ride it out, make the occasional smart-alec quip, and by next week we’ll be back to where we started from, ready for another wacky adventure.”

My novel was originally written in that vein, where despite the somewhat traumatic conga line of events to befall the protagonist, he would basically pop up at the end ready to resume his adventures, informed but not transformed by his experiences.

The second draft has somewhat disabused me of the idea that I can get away with static characters. Two or three of the major characters to appear in the novel will have lives beyond it (which was not originally the plan) and I need to therefore ensure that these characters have the depth and reader engagement to hold interest over the marathon, not just the 1500 metres.

So for this, I need to craft multiple character arcs. Fortunately, intuitive arcs are apparent for most, and as per the description above, the “First Iteration” for each character’s personality and outlook is already in existence, and not too much work really needs to be done.

However, it’s another task, another layer of complexity, and another economy I need to work into a limited word count and even more limited time to work on it. I’m becoming painfully aware that completing the first draft was actually the easy, rewarding and fun part. Am currrently missing this stage of blissful innocence and simplicity.

Coda: Recently, I sent in a letter to a writer’s agony column in the Australian Magazine Overland which its Agony Authoress Jennifer Mills kindly replied to. Although I’m struggling with the shame of a typo in my letter, her response is (if not inspiring) then at least spine-stiffening and can be read here.

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3 Responses to Arctic Characters and Character Arcs

  1. Ah, that was plain mean of Overland not to sub your typo.
    My novels two main characters have good arcs going but my plot has collapsed. A writing teacher called it ‘another boring war story’ and so I started focusing on other aspects than the war- and it’s not working, because what I want to write about is war.

    This is a long winded way of saying- make sure you are always writing what you want to write. Not all great stories have an obvious character arc- for example great detective fiction almost never does. The detective never changes.
    Great post, got me thinking about second drafts. But that would mean finishing the first.

    • redravens says:

      Yep. Character arcs are a tool, not an end in themselves. Mind you, detective fiction usually shows its pulp origins, especially in the sense that other writers could very easily take over the character as written, as there’s no ongoing subtext. Which makes it similar to the TV serial model I was talking about.

      FWIW, your teacher’s criticism sounds like my opinion about Faulks’ Birdsong, with war used as a device to serve the character arc. I found Birdsong beautiful, but ultimately a bore.

      I suppose one (ignorant) question which I’d ask in that circumstance is whether you’re writing about war in general or about that war in particular. If the former, then the circumstances of that particular conflict (as well as the use of reports on the progress of the war on other fronts) can provide a pseudo-structure on which to hang your micro-plot. Else, I’d invent (or “file the serial numbers off”) a macronarrative in order to drive your characters intimate arc.

  2. Pingback: Reading Digest: The Show Will Go On, The DVDs Will Not Edition | Dead Homer Society

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