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[GUEST POST] Marc Turner (DRAGON HUNTERS) on Writing Believable Character Arcs

marc-222Marc Turner is the author of the epic fantasy series The Chronicles of the Exile. His latest book, Dragon Hunters, features Chameleon priests, dimension-hopping assassins, and sea dragons being hunted for sport. It is available now in the US from Tor Books and in the UK from Titan. You can find him at his website and on Twitter (@MarcJTurner).

A Leopard Can Change Its Spots: Character Arcs

by Marc Turner

A while back I caught up with a school friend of mine whom I hadn’t spoken to for years. A lot had happened in his life – job, marriage, kids. Yet he was exactly the same person I remembered, and we picked things up right where we’d left off. In the ways that mattered, he hadn’t changed at all. It got me thinking. Can you get away with writing a story in which the protagonist stays the same person throughout? Would you want to?

When I read fantasy as a teen, the storyline of pretty much every protagonist followed the so-called “hero’s journey”. The character began the book as the most unlikely of saviours, without any obvious skills. But throw in a prophecy, a quest and an enigmatic mentor, and before you could say “Chosen One” they’d have developed into the most powerful warrior/mage/assassin alive (*delete as applicable). Along the way they’d have also tapped into some inner strength they didn’t know they had, and risen to become the ruler of the world. The protagonist on the last page bore no resemblance to the one on the first. That’s not so much a character arc as a character u-bend.

Why do characters need to change at all, though?

I’ve heard it said that the three greatest rules of dramatic writing are conflict, conflict, and conflict. Your protagonist wants something, and there’s an antagonist who wants the opposite. Frodo wants to destroy the One Ring; Sauron wants to stop him. Daenerys wants to rule the Seven Kingdoms; so do Stannis and Renly and Cersei. Along with just about everyone else, for that matter. The drama evolves from the clash of desires. But in the books I enjoy most, the conflict isn’t just going on outside the character. There is also an element of internal conflict. In other words, the protagonist is struggling against himself.

So, in Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country, the character Temple begins the book as a self-professed coward. Can he overcome his natural instinct for self-preservation in order to win over Shy South? In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is enthralled by the One Ring. Will he be able to give it up when he reaches Mount Doom? By including internal conflict, straight away we double the suspense. Now readers will wonder not just how the story ends, but also how a character will resolve their internal dilemma. And what will the cost of their decision be? Because when characters make choices, there should always be consequences – be they good or bad.

My debut, When the Heavens Fall, tells the story of a mage who steals an artefact, the Book of Lost Souls, that gives him power over the dead. He uses it to resurrect an ancient civilization in order to challenge Shroud, the Lord of the Dead, for control of the underworld. One of my viewpoint characters, Romany, starts the book on the same side – sort of – as the mage. Her goddess has tasked her with destroying as many of Shroud’s followers as possible, and to do so she must make use of the people of the undead nation, the Vamilians, that has been resurrected. This isn’t a problem for Romany at the start of the book – she sees the undead not as individuals, but as tools to be used and discarded. Much the same as she sees everyone else, in fact.

But then she meets one of the undead – a girl called Danel – and she gets to know her. She unravels some of the mystery behind how Danel and her kinsmen died centuries ago. She learns about Danel’s family, and what has become of them. And that knowledge begins to change her. Before the end of the book, Romany will face a choice: turn her back on the undead and return to her life of comfort and privilege, or risk everything to aid Danel’s people – a people she has helped to condemn to misery and enslavement. How will she choose, and what will the consequences of her decision be?

When you consider a character’s journey in these terms, it is difficult to see how they could not change. A measure of the drama of a book is the size of the obstacles the characters have to overcome. If, at the end of the story, they can shrug and go back to being precisely the same person they were at the start, what does that say about the journey the author has taken them on? If a character emerges unscathed from the action, her view of the world intact, then perhaps she hasn’t been tested enough. I like it when protagonists are put through the wringer. I like it when they are forced to make decisions that test the foundations of their character, and to see what sort of person emerges on the other side.

Of course, how far they change, and in what way, will depend on what sort of book the author wants to write. In the books I read as a teen, the characters would always develop positively, and transform their worlds for the better. However, the majority of the books that I read these days have a less idealized view of the world. Sometimes characters improve, sometimes they get worse. And why not? The same is true of people in the real world. My own books have multiple points of view, and that means I can do a bit of both. Not everyone will get a happy ending.

But not everyone will die horribly either.

Writing a series of fantasy novels offers unique challenges in terms of character arcs. Returning to the idea of the “hero’s journey”, imagine our protagonist completes his passage from farm boy to king in the course of the first book. What does he do in book two? Complete the journey in reverse, and go back to being a farm boy? I can’t see that working, so the only option for the author is to stretch the character arc over the course of the series. This brings dangers. Readers of book one might complain that the characters aren’t changing enough. And if an author starts with an unsympathetic character, hoping to change people’s perceptions over time, readers might not be prepared to give them three books – or longer – to win them over.

Consider Jaime in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. When we first meet Jaime he’s having sex with his sister and pushing Bran out of the window of a tower. That’s a pretty low base from which Martin has to win our sympathy! Imagine, though, if you were to found your entire view of Jaime on what you saw in book one. You’d be missing out on a lot of character growth. It’s only really in book three, A Storm Of Swords, that he begins to change, when he journeys with Brienne to King’s Landing and has his hand chopped off. He’s now one of my favourite characters in the series.

Generally, I prefer Jaime’s slow, steady change over the St-Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type. It’s possible to have both, of course, but since change has to be motivated, there would need to be something ground-breaking going on to convince me to buy into the latter type. I also prefer it when the characters change by degrees, rather than by whole quadrants. It’s the difference between developing a character, and turning them into a completely new person; the difference between a leopard changing its spots, and growing a set of stripes instead.

At the end of Red Country, for example, Temple has not become a hero. He’s just less of a coward than he was at the start. This strikes me as far more credible than the alternative. Our personalities are based on our experiences and beliefs that have built up over many years. The idea that all of that can be swept aside in moments can be difficult to credit. Change is always hard won, in people especially so.

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