Monday, January 31, 2011

J. S. Bell and the Character Arc

I bought James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure over the holidays in the hopes of helping me unravel the criss-crossing threads of my plot in a timely, tension-building fashion. It's important to know the canvas that supports a story and how to use it to your novel's advantage.

I can't possibly make a comprehensive list of how much I learned. The techniques in there are simple but efficient and I feel a lot less likely to err when I jump into my second draft. There's the LOCK system, the two doorways, the explanations on what beginning, middles and endings need, the common plot structures, the frequent problems and how to fix them... everything.

Out of all this, however, two elements caught my attention: the character arc and tension in your scenes.

 The Character Arc

I like to think I have a strong sense of characters. I used to roleplay a lot and am used to centering stories around a smattering of characters and their evolution. A good story may take a character through a series of events until he vanquishes adversity. A great story will have this adversity change him irrevocably.

I was pleased when I noticed Bell devoted an entire chapter of Plot and Structure to this. The Character Arc can be a subplot, such as your MC learning something important just before the 'final battle', or it can be the point of the story.

Humans often resist change, however. This is good, because it creates tension. But how do you change them?

His basic idea was that every character has a core self-image, and that surrounding it are four layers of protection. These are, starting from the center: beliefs, values, attitudes and opinions.

I drew this, by the way. Super talented, eh?
 The idea is that a change on the outer layer, opinions, will have repercussions on the inner one. If you can change a few opinions, then you'll change an attitude. And with a few different attitude, you might change values. And onward like this, until your character is forced to change his self-image.

I loved this.  Starting with small changes before hitting the big ones is a great way to bring about a smooth character arc.

I'll be back with tension in the scenes on Wednesday!


  1. Great post, Claudie. The core-self and the surrounding layers are probably among my favorite concepts in that book. Also,the idea that the deeper layers will take more time and more assailing incidents to change was something that should have occured to me but didn't.

  2. Hey! I've been thinking about plots a lot lately, and especially in relation to character. I'm going to have to check out this book!

  3. I loved roleplaying. I used to do that a lot too. May I ask you what it is that you used to play? Maybe it'll take me down memory road.

  4. Michael: I mostly played regular DnD (3.5), and once tried Rolemaster. In the last year, though, I dropped all systems and maintained a free-form RP with two other writer friends. It's good to keep the writing muscle going even when I'm planning or worldbuilding.

    Margo: The other advantage of considering it as a series of events, with the inner layer needing more 'work' to change is that as your story go on, chances are the scenes will get increasingly intense without having to force it.

  5. Wow, that's some useful information! I know I'll be using that, and I'll probably take a look at the book too. Thanks for sharing, can't wait to see what you post about tension in scenes!

  6. Nerd moment! I still game :-) My group just started a new Traveler game that's a lot like Mass Effect if you like video games. My favorite system is still D&D 3.5 but we haven't played it in a long time.

  7. Did you try 4E, Sommer? It's really pro-coop between players and when you have a cohesive group, it can be quite fun.

    Book Owl: Always a pleasure to share. :)

  8. I have tried 4E but I didn't like it at all. Neither did my group for the most part. I didn't like how the combat took hours and hours to complete and I didn't like all the book keeping of my powers and what not. I like 3.5 but our DM was tired of it and needed a break and we haven't gone back since. I'm also a fan of World of Darkness, Warhammer, and All Flesh Must Be Eaten. We're playing Traveler right now, but while I like the setting, the system is tedious and requires too much book keeping. We are thinking about switching our setting to Alternity and trying that out. We'll see.