Hello and welcome back to my How to Write a Novel series.
In this 4th part of my 6-part series, I’m going to share with you how to identify the character arc of a protagonist in a novel or short story by connecting key events that deeply impact your character and then weaving them into your script.
To illustrate character arcs, I’m going to use Ernest as an example. Ernest is the main character in my book Another Chance. The setting is London, England in 1906.
Before I get into Ernest, though, let’s look at what a character arc is.
A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of your story. The character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments and events in the story.
Character arcs are usually shaped by their relation to other characters and specific events that unfold throughout the plot.
In the case of Ernest, his character is shaped by his relationship with the other 3 main characters; his father-Malcolm, his older sister-Flossie, and the maid, Miss Adams. There are three key events that involve each of these characters.
Malcolm, Ernest’s father is in the shipping business and travels extensively. He sets up shipping routes all over Europe. His 5-year-old son is the apple of his eye and he always brings his little man a gift from different countries he’s traveled to. Ernest puts them on his dresser and his dad explains where they’re from and it becomes common ground for their relationship.
Flossie is his older sister who he is very close to. She takes him to the park, and he helps her in the kitchen when she bakes. She helps him draw pictures for their mother who is bedridden with pneumonia.
Miss Adams is the maid and carries out the doctors’ instructions for Ernest’s mother while being mother to the two siblings. She runs the day-to-day goings-on for the household. Her bedroom is on the first floor by the kitchen and Ernest often knocks on her door at night because she will get him snacks.
Let me share Ernest’s key events and how you can apply these same types of events to your novel or short story.
Key Event #1. Ernest deals with a loss.
Ernest’s mother has been ill for some time with pneumonia. He’s allowed to have three short visits each day, so he doesn’t wear her out. He takes her pictures he’s drawn and always goes with Flossie. Miss Adams usually makes short cake or a small pastry for them to take to her. Mama is very accommodating and will nibble on a little piece while they show her things and as soon as they hear Miss Adams call up the stairs ”let Mama rest now” they whisper “goodbye” and tip-toe down the stairs.
As Ernest is nearing his 5th birthday, his father returns from a trip, and they get to spend family time with their mother over his birthday. Shortly after, she takes a turn for the worst and passes, crippling their hopes for her recovery. Ernest and Flossie hang on to each other to get through this while Miss Adams gives Ernest a candle for his dresser — to light whenever he misses his mother.
Key Event #2. Overcoming his nemesis.
Over the next seven years he heals for the most part, by being surrounded by his family and Miss Adams, who look after him and generally spoil him. He has dealt pretty well with his loss and now enters his nemesis, Catherine. His father marries a woman who has five children of her own and they join the household.
At first it’s pretty smooth, but as the novelty wears off it becomes evident Catherine despises Ernest and makes life tough for him while his father is traveling. She becomes the evil stepmother by demeaning him to the other children and lying to his father about his behavior. She ultimately convinces his father he needs to be moved downstairs so she can keep an eye on him while he travels.
He is moved from his master status at the top of the stairs to the washroom next to the maid’s room downstairs.
His older sister is away at school now, knowing when she left that the stepmother was against her little brother. She also knew there was nothing she could do about it. Miss Adams had long since relinquished her role of running the house in deference to Catherine’s bossy nature. She moved to her older brother’s house to take care of him and tried to warn Ernest’s father, but he was sold on his new wife and turned a deaf ear. Ernest has no buffer against the shrew and the last straw is the morning when he sees that her son has moved into what had been his room at the top of the stairs.
In a rage he runs all the way to his school, which wore him out but made him weigh what had just happened. That was the whole purpose of her campaign against him…to move her son to the top of the stairs. He gathered himself and made a pact to never let this woman control his emotions again.
Key Event #3. Breaking off the shackles that had bound him to this role.
He had a couple of months before he would be seventeen and decided to prepare his getaway.
It was well known that you could get a job on a freighter and work your way across the Atlantic to America where jobs were plentiful. He knew he needed to look older, so he began running at the park, doing chin-ups, and getting a lot of sun. He got rid of his schoolboy haircut and began to fill out and look a little older.
He talked to a ship’s galley cook at the docks and got hired on the spot as a cook’s helper on a Norwegian freighter. That night at supper he wanted to see if there was any semblance of acceptance from his father. His dad was very stoic and cold to him, and he could tell the distance between them was only widening. There was nothing left for him to do but move on. He slipped out of the house early the next morning and was on his way to freedom.
Each of these events have strengthened his character. He has been tested with adult-like events at an early age. His love for his father, even under the circumstances, fuels his drive to make the most of his journey and someday have a family of his own to love and care for. He dreams of the day he can gain his father’s acceptance.
His response to his years of heartache was to have his own family and make sure they felt loved and appreciated. As his ship steamed out of London Harbor, he stood on deck with the cook and wouldn’t allow himself to look back. He was a man now and could steer his own course.
So, there you have it. Those are 3 main events that shaped Ernest’s adolescence and set him on a new course in America.
Watch for my next Part 5 Blog on how to develop the plot for your story.