Tag Archives: character arc

Yikes! My Character’s Bipolar: Keeping Characters Consistent

2438792982_6e89624d17_zWriting a novel is a long process. Not only that, but when you’re writing 80,000 or more words, there are numerous chances for inconsistencies to crop up. This includes character inconsistences. The best example I can give you is from a novel I read over a year ago. The protagonist is falling for Character B. Introduce Character C. Character C is a much more likeable character than B, so much so that I wanted B to disappear. The author must have realized that she made C too likeable because from one page to the next (and I mean this literally, as in from page 126 to page 127) C went from nice caring guy to arrogant bad guy. The change was abrupt, made no sense, and made me question the author’s writing ability. In other words, I no longer trusted the author.

That is a problem.

Even if your goal is to have an unreliable narrator, readers need to trust you as the author. But that’s a blog post for another time.

Character consistency is when a character acts in line with how he is expected to act. If your character has an extreme fear of heights, he will not cross a thirty foot high swinging bridge over a gorge (unless there is an excellent reason for him to do so, say if he is protective of his little sister and she is trapped on the bridge and panicking/about to fall to her death).

How do you ensure your characters are consistent?

The best way is to keep track of your characters. Use a separate Word document or a notebook and jot down relevant character details. This includes important events that happen to them.

A cool thing to do is to think of several situations and then dump your character into the middle of them to see how he’d react. For example, your character witnesses two people assaulting a third person. What would your character do? Perhaps this situation would never occur in your novel. It’s still important to know how your character reacts because you need to know what sets your character off, etc. You need to know your character’s core personality – what makes your character believable as a unique, stable individual – and the only truly effective way to do that is to put your character in pressure-filled situations.

There’s a reason many authors say that they don’t know their characters until a third of the way through their novel (and then have to go back and edit the beginning of the novel). Figure out who your character is ahead of time and your chances of running into character inconsistencies while writing your novel will decrease.

(If you think character inconsistencies aren’t a big deal, they are. Readers will notice when a person acts out of character, and if there’s not a good reason for that breach in character, readers will be annoyed/angered/confused…they’ll experience some sort of negative emotion that might be strong enough to make them put the novel down.)

Other ways to keep your characters consistent include character motivation (knowing your character’s goals, what they want and need), knowing the direction of the story (where is the plot going, how is the story going to end), and being aware of your character’s limits (what would break your character). To achieve these things requires you to write at least elementary character and plot outlines, which may seem like a waste of time where you could be working on your novel, but by taking the time to get to know your characters beforehand, you’ll make your life much easier in the long run.

Writing a novel is fun. Going back and ripping it apart because of a tremendous number of inconsistencies (perhaps having to rewrite huge swaths of your novel), not so much.

How do you keep your characters consistent?

(Photo courtesy of David Yu.)

Is This Sexist? The Bechdel and Mako Mori Tests Are Here to Help

The other day I was reading an agent’s blog and came across two types of tests she prefers that novels pass before queries are submitted to her. I’d never heard of either one of these tests, so I was curious and looked them up.

The first is the Bechdel Test. This test was introduced back in 1985 through a comic strip. 521f82bc22887

Dykes to Watch Out For Comic Strip

In order to pass this test a movie, story, etc. must have (1) at least two female characters, (2) these female characters must talk to each other, and (3) they need to talk to each other about a topic other than a man.

Basically, this test is meant to show whether or not a story is gender biased. It indicates that women’s relationships are more complex than being a man’s sidekick or love interest, and that women do not exist solely in relation to men.

The second test is the Mako Mori Test. Mako Mori is the leading female character in the movie Pacific Rim. 521f8027f17e4

Mako Mori

When the movie came out a lot of people were upset that it did not pass the Bechdel Test. Mako Mori was nearly the only female character in the movie, and she never talked to the other much smaller supporting female character.

However, Mako Mori was not the stereotypical female character. She didn’t pose on a car in skimpy clothes. Her life didn’t revolve around a man. She fought for her place within the hierarchy and was overall a strong female lead.

Thus was born the Mako Mori Test. To pass this test a film or story must have (1) at least one female character, (2) this character must get her own narrative story arc, and (3) her story arc is not about supporting a man’s story arc.

Both the Bechdel and Mako Mori Tests are simplistic. Critics of the Bechdel Test have stated that all the requirements can be fulfilled and the story can still be sexist. None of the requirements for the Bechdel Test state that women must have character development. Technically, there could be two women in a film, who are inseparable best friends, and who only talk about shopping. That scenario passes the Bechdel Test, but it’s stereotypical and not at all empowering to women.

As for the Mako Mori Test, there can be an incredibly independent and strong female lead, but still contain sexism. In the movie Avengers, there are two female characters, however they’re rarely on the screen at the same time and don’t talk to each other (thus failing the Bechdel Test). The movie does pass the Mako Mori Test because of Black Widow, who is a major force within the movie. Yet, she is a sex symbol, which is stereotypical for Hollywood films.

I love the idea of creating tests to ensure women are something other than supporting characters for men, but creating such a test is harder than it seems and neither the Bechdel Test nor the Mako Mori Test ensure independent female characters. What might be a better alternative than having one test is to combine the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests.

What do you think?

[Photos courtesy of Bust.]

Different Types of Character Arcs

A character arc is the process through which a character changes. Joe Bob starts off as some guy, things happen, which force him to change into a different guy.

There are two main types of character arcs: positive and negative. In a positive character arc, there’s a transition from a bad situation to a better one. A negative character arc is the opposite. It deals with a character’s situation worsening. Negative character arcs lead to tragic endings, whereas positive ones have happier endings.

Positive Character Arcs:

  1. Change- the typical “hero’s journey,” where the protagonist transforms from the average Joe to a hero. The protagonist tends to have some inner strength within him that allows him to rise up and become the savior. During this arc, the protagonist’s beliefs are challenged and he must overcome both external and internal demons. However, the external problems are focused on more than internal ones. This is the most popular and resonant type of arc.
  2. Flat- stories where characters are already fundamentally complete and don’t go through any substantial personal growth. These characters already have the inner strength to defeat the antagonist (Think James Bond or Sherlock Holmes). In this type of arc, the protagonist acts as a catalyst for change in supporting characters and the world surrounding them, as well as providing knowledge throughout the story.
  3. Growth- the protagonist overcomes internal struggles, while facing external ones. This arc is similar to the change arc, however, with the growth arc, at the end of the story the protagonist is still pretty much who he was at the beginning of the book. Think of the growth arc as the protagonist being upgraded, where the protagonist may not get a better end result but something different than before. For example, he may have started the novel working for a law firm he loathed. He was miserable. By the end of the book, he’s at a new firm. He’s not yet happy, but there’s the potential because things are different. He’s made a change.

Negative Character Arcs:

  1. Disillusionment- the character believes in something, discovers what he believes in is a lie and overcomes it, only to find out that the truth is worse than the lie. It’s like believing your father was dead for fifteen years, finding out he’s alive and successful, going to meet him, and learning he’s got another family and wants nothing to do with you. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is an example of a disillusionment character arc.
  2. Fall- the “tragedy,” where the protagonist dooms himself, and usually takes others with him. This “doom” could be falling into insanity, immorality, or death. Sometimes the protagonist will survive, but destroy a ton of other people along the way. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is an example.
  3. Corruption- the protagonist recognizes the truth, but rejects it and embraces the lie. The protagonist is lured away from the truth by the lie. He doesn’t cling to the lie like a life raft. He consciously chooses it, and the decisions that drag him into the darkness. Think of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader from Star Wars.

As stories progress, characters change. That’s part of life. It’s the way in which these characters move that defines what type of character arc they’re on.

What type of character arc do you like?