‘But does Winnie actually want a husband and children, or is she happily single?’ my mentor Brooke asked as we discussed my book, Letting Go. ‘What does she want from life?’
‘Ahhhhh,’ was my rather inarticulate response.
I didn’t know. It suited my purposes for this particular character to be childless, but I hadn’t considered why she was childless. I hadn’t considered lots of things about her. Winnie didn’t even have a last name.
‘I think you need to write character arcs for your six main protagonists,’ Brooke told me.
I duly wrote down ‘character arcs’ in my notebook, and underlined it twice for good measure.
Later on when I started searching ‘how to write a character arc’ I learned it was a way of mapping the journey or growth of a character throughout the story.
“A character arc maps the evolution of a personality through a story. It’s a term that writers use to describe their protagonist’s journey from a place of comfort to rapid change and back again: hence, an arc. Characters will find their strengths and weaknesses tested over the course of the story — so that by the time they arrive at the story’s end, they are a changed person.” https://blog.reedsy.com/character-arc/
In this particular book, I have six primary characters. I knew some of them intimately, but others I realised, I was using as little more than plot devices. If I was treating them so appallingly, why would readers care about them? I needed to show all six of my main characters some love by spending some time with them and getting to know them better.
So even before you attempt a character arc, you should complete a character profile. This is where you describe your character’s physical, social and emotional details – pretty much as if you were filling out an online dating profile.
“Hi! My name is Winnie. I’m 35 and work as a paralegal. I could have gone to law school to become a lawyer but have a chip on my shoulder about my family so I decided to go travelling for a decade instead. I wear my clothes like a uniform so I don’t have to make decisions about what to wear each day and carry an empty Keep Cup around and pretend to drink coffee so I don’t have to have conversations with people. I don’t actually like coffee. I don’t think I like people either. I am single and don’t have kids. But my author hasn’t told me yet whether I am happy or sad about this, so… yeah. She’s a bit disappointing really.”
There are a lot of free character profiling tools online that you can download. One I found was thirteen pages long and had over 120 individual questions you needed to answer for your character. Topics include the character’s bucket list items at different ages throughout their life and what they do in the middle of the night if they can’t sleep. It’s comprehensive and you can find it here but with six characters it was a tad more thorough than I required.
So I made my own.
As I went through my first draft, I began pulling out small details and quotes to add to each character’s profile/arc. Sometimes it was an observation by another character, sometimes it was backstory – but eventually, I began building up a detailed summary of each character and I could see how deeply I understood some of them – and where others were a complete mystery.
Unlike my other novels which have been inspired by the true stories of real people, the characters that populate Letting Go are wholly figments of my imagination. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that I have a world of people living inside me, people who are unlike anyone I know in real life, but who are begging to have their story told. If I was anything other than a writer, that could be a significant problem.
Naturally, Brooke was correct and once I completed my profile/arcs for my six characters, I could see the gaps in my story. I was then able to go back and stitch up the holes – sometimes it required a whole scene, sometimes it was just a matter of adding a small detail.
I don’t believe you need to know everything about a character you are writing before you start, or even after you finish. No one is ever fully known to another – sometimes we don’t fully know ourselves. But if you’re going to spend months or years writing about a character, you should be a bit informed about them. This isn’t a blind date.
You’re very welcome to use my Character Arc and Profiling Tool – if you think I have forgotten anything important, drop me a line.