Wounds, Lies, & Flaws: Using Character Arcs to Propel Your Story
Chapters Completed: 14
Chapters In Progress: 6
Chapters Left to Start: 14
“Chronicling The Craft” is an article series where I share my experience with writing my current work-in-progress (WIP), which is a fantasy novel. Every 5,000 words, I let readers know what I’ve accomplished since the previous article and share advice, discoveries, techniques, etc. Besides the word count in each article title, a “chapter ticker” at the top also tracks my progress as I use the skip-around / “writercopter” method to write the novel. Today’s installment celebrates the book reaching 55,000 words in length.
Reaching each 5,000-word milestone on this WIP has become a ritual that I look forward to very much. It allows me to look back at what I’ve done since the last update and at how far this story has come since I started writing it last year. And, it gives me an opportunity to look ahead and alternate between thinking “Yay! Another step closer to finishing!” and “Jeez, Sara, are you crazy?” (Ha ha!) I’m willing to bet, though, that many writers feel that way when they’re in the middle of a first draft. All I can do to move forward is to keep imagining, planning, changing said plans, talking to myself (I do that A LOT when I write), and typing until the entire book has been written. And with each writing session, I’m indeed another step closer to that point.
So, what have I been up to since the previous Chronicle?
- Chapter 3 is done, and I can breathe a sigh of relief for it. I’d mentioned last time that it was turning into a word dump – and that’s exactly what it became. It’s my longest chapter by over 1,000 words, and I’ve already noted areas to trim come revision-time. But it’s finished for now, and I’ve moved on…
- To Chapter 6, which is also done! I’d written about half of this chapter months ago and finally decided it was time to go back and finish it. And now I’m glad it did. Returning to Chapter 6 meant a) writing an action scene (woo hoo!), and b) digging out some of the flaws of my protagonist, Eva. This had made for some challenging yet ultimately satisfying writing sessions as of late.
- I’ve finished three more character profiles in my “appendices.” They’re similar in style to Eva’s from the previous Chronicle, except they’re for three members of her “supporting cast” and slightly less in-depth for that reason. Putting together these profiles requires a great deal of time and thought. It means creating each character’s life and personality, everything from their strengths and weaknesses to their desires and motivations. But it’s been worth all the effort; I feel as though I’m getting to know the supporting cast on an individual basis, and I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of the character-building.
Last time on “Chronicling The Craft,” I introduced you to Eva the Faerie and shared some of her personality and backstory. Some parts of the “big reveal” also hinted at the story’s two major plot lines. Notice that I said “two,” not “one.” There’s the external plot, in which Eva, the Council, and their Mountain Men companions go on a cross-country journey to retrieve long-lost artifacts near the Mountain Men’s former kingdom. However, there’s an internal plot as well, in which Eva must learn to shed her prejudices and overcome internal flaws so she can achieve her goal and grow as a character. In order for Eva to experience that inner conflict, she needs to have wounds, lies, and flaws / negative traits.
Since the last Chronicle touched on Eva’s flaws, let’s focus for a moment on the other two devices:
- A wound is a emotionally traumatic event from a character’s past. It can be a physical wound, an injustice, a perceived mistake or flaw, or something else entirely. The key is that the character is so afraid of experiencing the same emotional pain from this event again that she’ll do whatever she can to avoid it. This wound then distorts the character’s view of herself and her world and influences her behaviors and decisions.
- Lies then arise from the character’s emotional wounds. They’re essentially untruths a character believes about herself that stem from guilt, shame, or other negative emotions resulting from an emotionally traumatic event. Maybe she blames herself for what happened or believes she deserves to suffer for this reason or that. However the lies manifest themselves, they end up influencing the character to adopt certain attitudes, habits, and flaws so she can protect herself from further harm.
Wounds, lies, and flaws then play essential roles in the story’s plot. The flaws will undermine the protagonist’s efforts in trying to reach her external and internal goals, thus creating conflict with other characters and within the protagonist herself. Before the story ends, the protagonist will need to realize that she can only achieve those goals by overcoming one or more of her flaws. If she succeeds, she’ll most likely stop believing in her lies and begin to heal from her emotional wounds. This personal growth is what’s known as a character arc, which occurs simultaneously with the events and action of the plot.
Here’s an example of how all of these elements can come together: A young man believes he’s unable to protect himself (the lie) because he was beaten frequently by bullies during recess at school (the wound). He may develop behaviors (flaws) that undermine his ability to take care of himself, much less protect himself. He may become overly cautious, perhaps to the point that he allows fear to control his decisions and compel him to live in seclusion. He may even adopt self-destructive habits to prove he can’t save himself from his own choices. This may be a dramatic scenario, but it’s an example of how wounds can lead to lies and then to character flaws. If a novel were to be written with this young man as a protagonist, a possible character arc could involve the young man learning that he must overcome at least one of his flaws so he can change for the better and achieve his basic need for security.
Now, let’s see how wounds, lies, and flaws apply to Eva and create her internal conflict and character arc.
Eva’s Wound: About 13 years before the novel begins, Eva’s parents were murdered by a trio of Mountain Men. Not only did Eva witness the murder and lose her family, but also her left wing was injured. In Eva’s culture, a damaged wing is viewed as a transgression regardless of the circumstances and results in the injured Faerie’s permanent exile from their kingdom. Eva was fortunate in that the attack happened away from home and she could heal in secrecy. However, that didn’t prevent rumors from spreading at school or Eva’s peers from socially rejecting her.
Eva’s Lies: Two lies have developed from Eva’s multi-layered wound. First, she believes that, aside from her relatives and the Council, her people will never love her for who she is. She essentially views herself as unlovable as a living being and undesirable to men of her kind. Second, she believes that she must avenge her parents’ deaths. Every Mountain Man she kills will bring her closer to peace – or so she thinks.
Eva’s Flaws: Both lies spawn very different flaws in Eva. The first one (unlovable / undesirable) has made her insecure and a loner. She keeps to herself when she’s not with those she loves or trusts, and feels self-conscious when wearing more feminine clothing instead of her normal riding garb. This lie is also one of several factors that drove Eva to try out for the Council, since elected Councilors are forbidden from engaging in romantic relationships until their retirement. Eva’s most interesting flaws, however, have formed because of her second lie (vengeance). She’s deeply prejudiced against the Mountain Men; and during her first few encounters with Aurek and his companions (all Mountain Men), she shows her vindictiveness and emotional volatility. Also, because Eva’s had to keep her plans for vengeance a secret, she’s taught herself to be evasive, telling others only what she wants them to know.
Eva’s Internal Conflict / Character Arc: Eva must set aside her prejudice toward the Mountain Men as well as her desire for vengeance as she and the Council assist Aurek and his company on their mission. The external plot will force her to be more forthcoming with other characters and to see that her actions may jeopardize the mission, the lives of her companions, and her own status in the Council and as a Faerie. And while it will take more time for Eva to overcome her various insecurities (this novel is the first in a planned trilogy), she does learn that not only is she loveable and desirable for who she is, but also that she has the capacity to love in return.
It’s important for the plot to contain emotion, conflict, and well-rounded characters so it can grab the reader’s attention. However, regardless of the genre, a story isn’t truly a story without character arcs triggered by emotional wounds, self-created lies, and personal flaws. George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Fire And Ice saga is a fantastic example. Even though the series hasn’t finished yet, you can see how characters like Tyrion Lannister, Arya Stark, and Jon Snow have evolved since the first book. External circumstances have forced these characters to outgrow their flaws as they fight for survival. And sure, the fights, murders, betrayals, and dirty medieval politics keep readers guessing, but the characters are driving these events. They give us reasons to root for their successes or demises, and to compel us to continue reading. They may not be flaI w-less when the series ends – and who knows which characters will still be alive at that point! – but chances are they won’t be the same in either a positive or negative regard when the final novel ends.
So, I hope that provides a little more insight into the novel itself and the journey Eva needs to go on in order to grow and heal from her past. It’s been incredibly challenging and rewarding to write, that’s for sure! At this rate, I’ve made enough progress every 4 or 5 weeks to write a new Chronicle. Maybe the next installment will go live in late June at the earliest? In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about Eva’s wounds, lies, and flaws, as well as your answer to the question below when it comes to your own WIP.
Does the protagonist in your WIP have a defining emotional wound? Untruths they believe about themselves? Flaws that will complicate your character’s attempts to reach their outer and inner goals? Feel free to share your examples below.
Next Chronicle: When I reach 60,000 words
Until Then: Come back next Monday for a new Music Monday Review on Epica’s new album, The Quantum Enigma! I’m also working on a new article for Grub Street’s blog. That should be online sometime in June, and I’ll share the link with you here when it’s ready.