Pitch Wars Revision Advice: Character Arc
I am so excited to be mentoring in Pitch Wars again this year, and the submission window is less than two months away!! So today I’m back with more revision advice for those of you preparing to apply (and maybe everyone else too).
Today I want to talk about a big picture issue that affects so many of the manuscripts I read–even good ones! Great ones! I’m talking about character arc–the way your character is changed by the events of the story, so that by the end they are fundamentally altered by their experiences.
This was probably the single greatest issue I had to tackle during my own Pitch Wars experience. It was the biggest edit I helped my own mentee with last year, and I have a note about it on almost every full manuscript I requested during Pitch Wars 2019.
It’s almost funny that so many of us struggle with this, because it’s actually a pretty easy fix! Unlike voice, which I talked about last week, there are actual “formulas” you can apply to figure out your arc. But you’d be surprised how easy it is to write an entire story in which big, important things happen to your character, but they come out on the other side…pretty much who they were when they went in.
So even if you have an amazing character and a killer plot concept, you might still want to take a look at your book and ask yourself: How is my main character different at the end of the book, compared to the beginning? Is this clear and obvious on the page? Have they been changed in a way that feels true & proportional to what happened to them?
And the magical, amazing thing about developing character arc is it will help you solve so! many! other problems in your work. Character arc is the backbone of voice, plot, stakes, pacing….pretty much every important element of a story.
I have read a ton of craft books & articles on character arc, so by now I have a kind of hybrid concept that I’ve mishmashed from a bunch of sources. I’ll take you through how I think about it first, and at the end I’ll point you towards some other resources I’ve found useful. Just remember–there’s no one size fits all here! If this doesn’t work for you, keep it moving.
To me, a great character arc is made up of 3 components:
- The lie the character believes
- What the character wants
- What they actually need
We’ll start with the lie the character believes. This concept goes by a lot of different names, so you may have seen it in other craft guides. The lie is a fundamental untruth your character has internalized–usually due to some kind of painful past experience or trauma–that shapes the way they view both themselves & the world.
Maybe your character’s father was an alcoholic dreamer with grand plans he could never get off the ground, and now your character’s lie is “better to only strive for realistic goals, rather than dream big & fail.” It can be really effective when the lie has a bit of truth to it, but gets twisted into something nasty! In this case, the character’s father probably hurt a lot of people, and it makes sense that this person doesn’t want to follow in his footsteps…but the reason her dad hurt her isn’t because he had big dreams.
The lie the character believes will then inform what the character wants. This is the thing that they mistakenly believe will make them happy. Like, if I can just accomplish this one thing, all my pain & troubles will go away! So maybe the character from the last example has been drudging along all her life, working hard at jobs she doesn’t care about, and now she’s up for a big promotion that will mean lots of $$ and security. It’s everything she’s ever wanted…even if the job secretly makes her miserable.
So even though the character wants the thing, it’s not the actual key to their happiness. The true answer lies in what the character actually needs. This is the real lesson, epiphany, personal growth–what have you–that the character must come to in order to achieve actual happiness. Not the fairytale, perfect happiness they aspire to with the thing they want, but a richer, more complicated kind of true happiness that can only come from self-actualization.
Ok, so our boring lady from the previous examples…maybe she has a fuck-up brother. A brother who’s a little too much like dad. Brother has finally been getting his life together, and now he owns a bakery in their hometown…only he runs into some crisis, and he needs his sister (who has always secretly loved to bake, I just decided) to come bail him out again. Now our boring lady has a problem–she has to go help her brother, but this is going to put her in conflict with her high-powered job. So she believes it’s the job that will make her happy, but what she actually needs is to reconnect with her family and take a risk on this struggling bakery because she really loves it (and possibly fall in love with the hot baker who works for her brother, I just decided).
So you can see how those three ingredients have not only set up boring lady to have her big realization about how it’s more important to follow your heart, rather than risk failure (bear with me people, I literally just plotted an adult romance out of thin air), BUT it also has created all kinds of opportunity for plot, stakes, & conflict. What happens when a major bakery disaster happens on the same day as the work presentation? What if her boss from her job shows up at the bakery one weekend, after apple-picking in the country with her bougie NYC family? Clearly there’s going to be a scene where boring lady & sexy fellow baker make bread together.
I should say, all of this advice is specific to a “positive change arc”–where the character ends the story in a better place than where they started. There are certainly books where characters change for the worse, or don’t change at all, but those are more rare. There are other great resources out there though, if that’s what you’re looking for!
Speaking of–resources! I always, always, always recommend Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. The whole book is excellent, but if you only read one part the first chapter (about the hero) is soooo useful. I also love the Helping Writers Become Authors multi-part series on character arcs. They do a great job overviewing how arc affects plot structure, and they also cover negative & flat arcs if that’s what you need.
Chances are, if you have a complete manuscript you already have all the seeds of a great arc in there–you just need to finesse it a little more. Good luck, and I’ll have more writing advice coming soon! If this was helpful, you may want to check out last week’s post on developing character voice.
Kylie Schachte is a graduate from Sarah Lawrence College and an active member of the Pitch Wars online community as both an alum & mentor. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, cat, and giant dog. YOU’RE NEXT is her first book.
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