Tracking Multiple Characters
Characters interact. This shows the reader the story, pushes forward the plot, and crafts the conflict. Some genres, like romance fiction, center on the interaction of two or more character arcs. Other types are supported by the interaction of characters, and internally shaped by the dynamics that are created. Combine character arcs to create unique, creative dynamics.
Coordinating Two Characters
This discussion will focus mainly on a two-character relationship, since this is the smallest unit. Even in that slip of a book, Old Man and the Sea, where one man was alone, the ocean and giant fish were characterized in order to provide a dynamic within the story. Without this personification, all that would exist would be the young boy sending the old man out, and the young boy seeing the old man come back half-dead with a skeleton fish lashed to his boat. Not a very illustrative story at all. It would also be a whole lot shorter.
Just as a single character arc needs to be tightly bound to the plot, two united character plots should be bound to one another by practical necessity. What happens in one should have a direct effect on the other. To use the Old Man and the Sea again, the man relies on the fish for money and validation in his life as a fisherman. The fish, in contrast, is literally tied to the old man and can’t get free to survive the encounter. So neither one can be free from the other without one of them losing.
The movie Someone Like You, provides a good romantic example. Jane, the leading lady, becomes tied to a chauvinistic coworker when she’s dumped by her boyfriend and has to move out. She moves in with him out of convenience in a purely platonic setting, though seeing his philandering does nothing to help her disparaging opinion of men as a whole. On her new roommate’s side, Eddie is recovering from his own painful breakup which he covers with one night stands and bad behavior. He needs the income from the room, and is trying to do a good thing in helping Jane. Gradually their individual conclusions come together to where they become a couple at the end of the movie. Simply put, if the couple isn’t tied together somehow, there is no story.
Once they’re tied together, some of the practical aspects of storytelling come in. The same way an individual character arc starts with a goal, each coordinating arc needs to have a goal as well. While each character has to come to a different point of growth, these can be conflicting or independent. As with Old Man and the Sea, the goal for each character is mutually inhibiting. This demonstrates a competitive dynamic. The same type can be found in You’ve Got Mail in which the romantic leads are business rivals. A different type is demonstrated in North & South (a period social drama referenced in the sociology posts of last week) where the lead characters have independent goals. The male lead is a business owner who needs to keep afloat despite pressure from competition, a falling market, and workers threatening to strike. The female lead is the emotional support of her family and maintains the compassionate integrity of a pastor’s family with the locals in their new town (including desperate families of the workers on strike). While their goals aren’t to take each other down, the two characters are bound together because of proximity and the social contention specific to their locale.
Mapping the Relationships
Here comes the fun! Once there’s a goal for each, turn some attention to the power dynamic. This isn’t about intimate behavior or domination, this is about who is having the better of each scene. One method (and I break scholarly silence here to say this is my personal preference) would be to figure out the most crucial scenes needed to move the plot forward and then pin down which character benefits the most. Then, the task is to figure out whether the characters are progressing toward or away from their goal at that scene. In order to keep plot context (as an indicator of pacing and level of tension for each character-centric scene), a chart should have the plot arc present as well.(demo 1)
After mapping the crucial scenes, it looks a bit like this. (demo 2) These short lines indicate the direction of their growth at that point. Note how some are slanting down toward the left and some up toward the left. The steepness of the line shows the force of their climb toward or away from their goal.
As new scenes appear, new points can be plotted in order to create a map of what their adventure looks like. Here are some new points added to help imagine what the arcs might look like in a novel. (demo 3)
Clearly this is not an “arc”, but it is more aptly named a character map. Note how the climax created a steep drop from character success to the bottom of the chart. This could be used to show the author that the character failed in their own misguided goal, or it could show that the antagonist had defeat shoveled on him right before success. Character one’s arc near the climax follows a kind of disillusioned model, one in which a character may have achieved their personal goal, but needed to realize this goal was not what would bring them happiness and fulfillment. Any motion between scenes (the red markers) occurs outside the reader’s view, so changes in direction should almost always be in scenes. When a character has to reach a different level toward their goal, but the writer doesn’t know how they got there… well that’s a story hole that should be addressed!
Obviously this isn’t the tool for everyone. I, however, am a mapper. I miss fewer scene gems that way, and it helps when conceptualizing the complexity of a novel. I map everything and tend to have my large whiteboard covered to look like rainbow spaghetti, using all my colors for tension, location, revelation, character advantage, perspective shifts, partnerships, etc. Bit of a mess to anyone looking at it, but this is a visual way of putting all the action in one place.
This week’s work with character arcs is meant to inspire experimentation. Where characters could look flat, giving each one a little spotlight in the preparation or revision process uncovers new directions and latent subplots ready for use.