Characters’ Emotional Arcs, Quick Thoughts

I had a frustrating but informative (and helpful) experience this afternoon while attempting to fix my plotting problems for the sequel to Barium Deep. After I had resolved multiple problems with my plot arcs, charting them out for my own clarity and future reference, I couldn’t plot one of the emotional character arcs that I wanted for Cesium (the POV character for the second book).

I wasn’t doing anything very complicated, just tracking some of the beats for the specific section of storyline that I wanted to follow. That made my struggles all the more obvious.

Minutes before, I’d plotted out a parallel series of arcs for a totally different story; they’d flowed easily, and made good sense. They were simple, straightforward, and very formulaic—which felt fine for the first pass on an idea that came to me last night. I’m sure that they’ll change and become more interesting once I’ve worked more with that story. If they don’t, I might discard the story or put it on ice.

But those arcs, with their clear points of conflict, transformation, and growth, had come so easily that my difficulty with Cesium was glaring.

A brief aside: the idea that came to me last night dealt with using magic (or something similar) as a manifold metaphor for anger, and perhaps war and military service, with weaker connections to violence and abuse.

The physical plot for Cesium felt simple and straightforward. It fit neatly within the expected bounds of adventure fiction and other upper middle grade stories. Even though I know I’ll change it in a heartbeat if I find something else more emotionally and thematically compelling, it feels good to have laid it out. The problem with Cesium’s emotional arc was that I was (and still am) unsure of what approach I want to take, or how to zero in on Cesi’s changes in ways that will feel rewarding without feeling too neat or pat.

I think it comes down to disliking the pattern of total character transformation that I’ve seen in some middle grade stories. I find incomplete transformation more rewarding, because of how it allows individuals to face their struggles as slightly modified versions of themselves rather than as different people. This fractional shift of self is less important when a story covers a long period of time, as more shift can occur without seeming too abrupt. But when I want a reader to follow a character’s emotional shift from A to B, I feel it helps to highlight the ways the character is still uncomfortable / unfamiliar with their new experience at B. At some point they’ll feel comfortable in the new experience, and that will be cool, but if the story is about them facing that experience I want facing it to be dramatic, tense, uncertain.

The upside of all this is that I think I’m closer to a working draft of Cesium’s story. But I clearly still have more work to do.

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3 responses to “Characters’ Emotional Arcs, Quick Thoughts

  1. I totally understand your sentiment–while a “full circle” and complete transformation is satisfying, I think it’s more realistic for the character to change over time, to still need more growth. What a great and insightful post!

    • Thank you! I think reader expectations about transformation also vary by genre, *and* I think your use of the phrase “full circle” keys another good point about the character’s position in their cycle of growth.

      Re: genre, in wish-fulfillment stories the training montage should end with the character being a badass at X thing—because that’s fun and satisfying, and the character is larger-than-life! But in more nuanced or realistic stories, there’s a necessary feeling of incompletion, uncertainty, and struggle to cue our recognition of the character’s progress.

      Re: full circle, and re: cueing recognition, the only way to remind a reader of all the material between the character’s experience at point X and at point Y is to build *just enough* between them so that the two experiences don’t feel discontinuous. You’re sketching out the character’s transformational circle of growth, keeping enough old traits and emotional cues along the way so that they feel like one continuous character to the reader. At some point, many circles of growth later, you could reference an old emotional cue and have the character react differently and then *recognize* that they’re reacting differently, and that builds continuity too. But if you don’t show the continuity, you skip from (to borrow from Bujold) Cordelia the idealistic explorer to Cordelia the dowager Countess who scares even bloodthirsty Barrayarans… and the two are so distant from each other that the emotional impact of the character’s transformation fades.

      Whew, sorry, got carried away. I hope that added something useful or fun!

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