Creating a Narrative Arc for a Fictional Character
by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
To create a strong narrative arc, the character must begin one way and end another, eg. in George Elliot’s Silas Marner, (did anyone besides me have to read it in high school?) Marner, a lonely weaver who had been accused of theft in his former town, moves away and works all the time, putting away his money. Then his money is stolen, but an orphan girl, Eppie, becomes his true gold when he adopts her. (I’d like to reread this book to see if I can get anything out of it this time around.)
"The best way to create a narrative arc is to know your character."|
The best way to create a narrative arc is to know your character. What is he like? Moody, hostile, simpering, daring? You have to have a definite idea of his traits so that they can change by the end of the story when a bad guy becomes a good guy or a good guy becomes a bad guy, this option being the less likely.
The plot of the story is involves the exact events and challenges that the character faces in order to make this transformation. By the end of the story, the character becomes the opposite of what he started out to be. For example, Peter Rabbit is about to be eaten for dinner by Farmer Mac Gregor’s family as a result of his daring to disobey his mother and scamper off through the fence. In the end, Peter Rabbit becomes a well-behaved bunny who will obey the laws of his warren. (I liked him better at the beginning, frankly.)
In Casablanca, Rick Blaine is a cynical club owner during WW ll. His one-time love, Ilsa, who betrayed him, needs help to get her husband, a member of the resistance, out of Casablanca before the Nazis arrive. Rick doesn’t want to get involved in world affairs and he certainly doesn’t want to help a woman who hurt him. But by the end of the movie, he grows in his point of view. He helps Ilsa not to regain her love, but because he recognizes that there are bigger things at stake than his ego. He goes from a cynical, detached person to an involved one who puts his own needs behind the needs of others. His character change–his arc–grows out of his helping Ilsa, which is the plot.
"You have to force your character out of his comfort zone to create an arc."|
You have to force your character out of his comfort zone to create an arc. Think of the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz who, along with his vulnerable companions: the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and Dorothy and Toto, has to face all the dangers to get to the Wizard of Oz to ask him for some nerve. Had he remained trembling in the forest, there would be no arc. The character must have gone through enough action to merit the change. If he’s the same way on page 200 as he was on page 20, you don’t have an arc. You have a snore fest.
You have to make the change in the person believable in order to have a strong narrative arc. For example, in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, modeled after the Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Orestia, Orin Mannon (note the similarity between the names Orin and Orestes) begins as a mama’s boy who was forced off to war by his father to make him become a man. He comes home from the war to find out that his mother is having an affair with the son of an estranged uncle. Together they conspire and succeed in poisoning Ezra Mannon, Orin’s father. Orin’s sister, Lavinia, who has a giant Electra complex, tells Orin and this mama’s boy ends up murdering the mother’s lover. How could a mama’s boy end up a murderer? O’Neill seeds in what Orin went through during the war, how murder had become commonplace to him. So shooting down his mother’s lover became easy for him. Without the war memories, the play would have been preposterous.
". . .you also need to show the character’s response to his change."|
To achieve a strong narrative arc, you also need to show the character’s response to his change. Rocky Balboa goes from a has-been to champ. Who can forget him dashing up the steps of the Philadelphia public library to beat his chest and proclaim it? Check out this video to experience it again.
Think of Scarlett O’Hara’s final scene in Gone with the Wind when she goes from the spoiled, rich, beautiful, vain woman to the woman who survives. This is the video of the famous “As God is my witness” scene.
How is this for a character’s declaration of the change he/she has gone through?
Find your character’s arcs and you’ve found your novel.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.