As I worked through my edits this week, some of the feedback one of my alpha readers included stopped me dead in my editing session. It was a point about my main characters; namely that they had interesting personalities and characterizations, but that I didn’t really give them any story arcs. They only learn about the situation; they don’t grow as people and internalize lessons about themselves.

My immediate reaction was “Of course they do!” but when I really stopped to think about it, I realized that within the context of the first book, she was totally right. The arcs I have planned for them are spanning the entire trilogy. Book one sets the stage for it, but there’s nothing self-contained there someone could point to and call an arc.

I want to pout and dig in my heels and say “Well the reader just has to be patient! Not everything gets handed to you in the first book!” I don’t want to do more work, rethinking everything I’ve written for these characters, and everything I think I know about them. I’ve already done that in response to feedback about the ending, which had a similar problem in that the book didn’t have a finished arc – we’re further into the story by the end, but not a single thing is resolved and it’s essentially a cliff-hanger ending.

After a good night’s sleep and some reflection, I’m afraid my alpha readers are right again. They were right about the ending, and I’ve been planning how to reshape it so it still has the hook for the next installment, but so that it also has a problem that gets resolved by the end. In every book I love, even within larger series, the characters are learning and growing as they go. And yes, the overarching problem and story remain from book to book, but something has happened and been resolved in each volume. They’re never 100% set up and no resolution.

As much as I want to say “Real people don’t have arcs,” that’s a cop-out. These aren’t real people, as much as they feel like it in my head. It’s not like knowing a person their whole life, where you can watch them live and learn and grow over years and decades. I have a limited window to show you this person. I have to give you their whole past, what’s happening to them right now, and how this is going to affect their entire future, and I have to do that in a single book. A real person might not have a ton of personal growth in a year, even with large events happening in their life. But if my book spans a year, that’s the only time I get to show you this character. If I don’t find a way to show the emotional impact of that year on the rest of their life, I risk it not having any emotional impact on the reader. And if book one doesn’t have an emotional impact, chances are they won’t read book two.

Long story short, characters aren’t real. While I want them to feel real, I have to accommodate the fact that I’m telling a story and it needs things real life doesn’t. So now I’m trying to figure out what the arcs are for my characters. Given the events that are happening, and the people I know these characters to be, what do these events do to them right now?

A good sign that my alpha readers are right is that as soon as I started thinking about these problems, little ideas of how to handle them started popping up. There’s something people keep saying about one of my main characters that I noted as interesting but didn’t think much of, because it wasn’t part of what I thought of him. But now, with this idea of arcs and growth in my mind, I’m suddenly thinking maybe my readers were noticing something my character is hiding so well he even kept it from me. Perhaps I was too close to him to see it. And now that I’m looking at it, I’m seeing how it could be something to work with.

I think that if my readers were wrong, I wouldn’t find ways to explore their ideas so easily. The fact that I can means the seeds were there, I just didn’t water them. I can already see how exploring this path will add a lot to the narrative. So whether I like it or not, I think there’s more reworking to do. Characters aren’t real, but I’m going to do my damnedest to make you believe they are and that means I have to flesh them out a bit more. Back to the drawing board.

2 thoughts on “Characters Aren’t Real

  1. Mom

    jeez there’s a lot to this writer stuff. I love the story and the characters. I’m going to trust you that they’ll be even better 🙂

    1. Erin

      I keep finding there’s more to it than I thought too!

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