by Fae Rowen
If you missed Part One or Part Two in this series on developing a character arc through believable backstory, no problem. Click on the part you missed to get caught up.
Do you have a character whose arc has flatlined?
Maybe you aren’t using all of your character’s backstory, so instead of a rocket-style arc, you’re getting a sparkler. Part of delivering satisfying emotional connections for your readers is delivering a satisfying arc.
First, we’ll look at characteristics of hero (or a real person!) with a Skycap-sized cart of baggage. Then we’ll explore how this baggage affects his relationships. Finally, we’ll examine small “clues” we can add to scenes to show how his emotional growth. The change could result from interactions with a love interest, a plot-driven story, or even therapy, but your reader will intuitively identify with the healing journey and connect with your story. That’s what sells books.
What your hero feels:
- like a failure in relationships due to the intensity of the past relational trauma
- inner confusion about when connection is safe and when there is a valid need to run or fight
- stuck in approach-avoidance pattern in relationships
- cannot tolerate ambiguity. This leads to inner turmoil and an anger or panic response
- inner chaos from exposure to unsafe and crazy-making situations in the home or work place
- fear of going crazy (As a writer, remember that exposure to crazy-making situations does not make one crazy.)
- disoriented or fragmented in the relationship
- present-tense description of the past, lengthy pauses in narrative. You can use this to show, rather than tell, the personality (and quirks) of your hero.
- when speaking, physical and emotional numbness
- memory difficulties Your character is destined to relive events in a flashback where all the senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching or being touched or harmed during the past the event is experienced as be actually happening again. This doesn’t mean that you have to write a flashback! This can come out in dialogue with a trusted friend or small snippets in reference to something in the present in your story.
- has trouble taking good care of herself. She may take extreme measures to feel in the form of cutting, self-mutilation or other harmful self-inflicted actions.
Lots of grist for the character mill, even when you just pick three or four from the list.
How can this baggage manifest itself in your protagonist’s life?
- Not knowing when or how to trust
- Confusion about evaluating danger signals because they have needed to override their survival instincts
- Chronic need to fight or flee in relationships.
- Sense of safety severely lacking
- Sudden shifts of mood
- Inability to be present in the moment
- Partner feels abandoned (Do I hear “black moment”?)
- Partner may become afraid of the extreme emotions or rage or panic that sometimes accompany moodiness
- Night terrors or flashbacks may cause the hero to act out and not realize the impact it’s having on him and the desired relationship
How will we see the change in the character? (A plot idea to get you thinking how this might work in your story.)
- She sees a therapist regularly. (At the beginning of the story she skips the first appointment. Later, she complains about the inconvenience. By the midpoint, she’s seeing small changes in her life. At the end, she “graduates” from therapy.)
- She experiences more safety and security. (She locks everything, all the time, even the bathroom door when she’s home alone. She stops locking the bathroom door. She’s willing to drive somewhere and park her car in a lot. She opens her front door to the hero and lets him inside her home. –Great symbolism here!)
- She is able to alleviate the tendency to experience the past as if it were present. (“All men are …” Some men are …” “You aren’t …”)
- She will be able to put unspeakable information into actual words in a coherent, flowing narrative. (She can’t talk about her experience. She stutters through one part. She sobs out an incoherent version. She answers questions, maybe slowly and carefully, but she gets through it.)
- She will experience her experiences with less fragmentation and disconnectedness. (She sees her day as unrelated incidents. She sees her day as a series of unconnected events. She sees her day like a movie, with a definite beginning and end.)
- She will feel safe enough to let her guard down. (She runs away from the hero-literally or figuratively. She meets him in a public place. She invites him to her home with other friends. She goes to his home.)
- She will find a safer “tribe” or choose her own adult family. (She’s a loner. She bonds with one friend. She has a circle of acquaintances. She has several friends.)
- She will have realistic trust. (Trusts no one, not even herself. She begins to trust another. She begins to trust herself. She trusts another, even though she had to work through serious misgivings and distrust. She trusts herself.)
- She will not need her partner to be perfect in order to reassure the safety in the relationship. (She is intolerant of her partner’s “human tendencies.” She mocks her partners “failures.” She overlooks her partner’s imperfections. She doesn’t notice what used to set her off. This is a great way to add symmetry to your book by starting with a scene showing her scoffing at some behavior and ending the book with her being endeared by that exact same behavior.)
- She shows resiliency about reasonable disappointments. (She’s devastated. She’s disappointed. She resolves to keep trying. Think Scarlett with a raised fist!)
- She does not engage in or bring abusive relationship dynamics to her new relationship. (Dirty fighting –a link to Jenny Hansen’s super blog–or no fight in her–evolves into “fair” fighting.)
- She can distinguish the past from the present. (She uses words like “everyone” and “all the time.” She progresses to “a lot of people” and “usually”. From “some people, some of the time” she moves to one person at that moment.)
- She practices mindful awareness. (She hates yoga class, particularly the ending meditation minutes. She uses the meditation minutes to plan her day. She follows the teacher and relaxes during the meditation. She is aware of what goes on around her during her day.)
Are you having a problem with your hero’s arc in your current work? Do you have tips for creating believable backstories?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present.
Punished, no, that’s published, as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of algebra lessons gone wrong.
Fae began writing after reading her favorite author’s entire backlist in three weeks and couldn’t bear the thought of waiting nine months for the next book. A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.
I missed this series. Because…
Well, lots of things going on. Add things that should have been going on, but were trumped by
avoidancechasing shiny baubles? Ugly.
I’m glad I got past that hurdle before the series ended. I read Part I and Part II. Now that I’ve finished reading this post, my brain churns with ideas for strengthening the character arc for both H&H in my romance.
I’d hang around to write one of my typical novellas masquerading as a comment, but I’ve got a plethora of scribbling to do. WOOT! The brain cells churn.
Thanks, Fae! Stellar series.
I’m glad I got those brain cells moving for you, Gloria. Been wondering where you were!
Hope to see you in San Antonio.
Fae, I have enjoyed all of this series. You have a talent for ferreting out the bones of each phase of our work. Thanks. And of course, I’ll save this one with the others 🙂
Thanks for your kind remarks. I’m just happy to share what I’ve learned. Who knew that Psych degree would come in handy for my writing?
You and me both 🙂
Great ideas, Fae!
While I’m not a romance author myself, I do like the theme you’ve got going here. With all the examples, you show the gradual change of a character, which I think is important, especially when the change a character undergoes isn’t the “main” plot of a story but is still important.
Another quick point I’d like to add–though I don’t think it’s as applicable to romance–is that character growth can work in reverse, which can add some fascinating tension. I like to point to the “Cal Leandros” series by Rob Thurman for this. Her protagonist is half-human and has some pretty wicked powers, and throughout the series, the line between his human and monster side starts to blur. This also helps make the series fascinating, in moments like when he starts to question what he’s doing, or when his fully-human brother has to remind him that his character arc isn’t about going full monster.
Noticing problematic changes–and the choice of addressing it or allowing it to continue–can also make for fun conflicts and plot. Well, fun if you’re an author, at least.
Thanks for reminding us that when a character shifts between his “identity and essence” (Michael Hauge’s words) we see the tension between who he thinks he is and who he really is. I’m a science fiction writer, so I had to find a “logical” way to add the emotion and character arc in my stories. Fun for us, but it does make our readers stay up too late!
Fae, love the deep insight in these blogs.
You’re too kind, Sharla. (But I’ll take it!)
Excellent post, Fae! I like the levels of response illustrating the character’s growth. Thanks!
Thanks, James. Those “illustrations” are the fun part!
This has been such a good series! That’s so much!
Thanks for reading, Barbara! I’ve glad I’ve been able to help.
Very helpful, thanks!
You’re welcome. When I started writing I would have killed (well, not really) for this kind of info.
I’m loving this series, Fae! It can work for any genre to help us authors DIG when things get stale on the page. 🙂
Thanks, Jenny. You know I’m a proponent of the “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it” school.
Great advice & perfect timing for me – I’m far behind in my reading because I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo to work on my novel in April. I am at the point where I need to build back stories for my characters.