February 29, 2024


I've been thinking a lot about character arcs this month. Despite the amount of time I've already spent planning and attempting drafts of the current novel, I realized I didn't have a clear enough sense of what should be driving and changing the characters over the course of the story. Sure, I'd set up events in the world for characters to respond to and conflicts to develop between them, but I couldn't make the pieces of the plot fit together in a satisfying way. One big reason was that I'd never worked out all the details of what's behind the characters' goals, how those motivations evolve during the story, and the consequences for the ending.

I have traditionally considered myself to be good at characters and bad at plot. But "Character is plot, plot is character," as F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have said. What comes most naturally to me as a writer is inventing people who have complicated personalities and relationships and backstories, just like real people. The challenging part is making them also like fictional people, who have a compelling reason to participate in a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Given how much of that beginning, middle, and end I'd already constructed before tackling that part, it seems my weakness isn't so much plot as the character-plot intersection, the character arc.

So I've been refreshing my memory of the principles of character development and plot structure. It might sound artificial to reduce a complex character to a formula of goals and motivations, or corny to frame everyone as pursuing an acknowledged want while truly seeking an unrecognized need. But these pieces of writing advice get repeated over and over because they describe common features of many succesful stories, and I find them useful blueprints to reference.

An entire novel is large and ungainly, and I like using techniques that let me see the big picture by turning it into something small, such as a few sentences that remind me what's important to each character. Readers will eventually get something so much more elaborate and interesting than those sentences, but having those at the heart of the story gives me confidence that the structure is solid.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In a wide-ranging essay, Matthew Salesses questions the Possibilities of Climate Fiction: "I can think of several norms we have in America for contemporary fiction that might get in the way of our ability to story (and therefore comprehend) hyperobjects, especially those that have to do with agency and the project of the individual, such as a character-driven plot (internal causation over external causation). It should be clear right away how a focus on the individual might make it difficult to handle massively distributed objects that no individual is personally responsible for yet whose consequences every individual must deal with."

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