One of the reasons that I like reading and writing romance is the character-driven nature of the stories. I like character arc. One of the reasons that I don’t usual watch TV series is the lack of character arc in most of them. If the focus of the show is on, say, solving crimes, like Law and Order or Criminal Minds, I don’t get annoyed with lack of character growth. I do get annoyed when it takes 5 or 6 seasons for two people who clearly have spark to get together. I understand why it takes that long, I just don’t like it so I don’t watch it.
I have favorite characters and there’s are usually the books that I go back and re-read, particularly when I’m struggling with my own character’s arc. What was the character like in the beginning? How was he/she changed at the end? How did the author show the change? Here are some of my favorites:
Gabe in Dream A Little Dream by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The first time I read this, I didn’t like it. For some reason, a couple years later, it popped into my head and I wanted to read it again. The second time, I loved it. Gabe is closed off from his family, depressed, and hiding out from living a full life by refurbishing an old drive-in, rather than renewing his vet practice. SEP gives him a good reason and it is understandable. Enter Rachel. She’s been through her own personal ringer, but she continues to fight with resourcefulness and spunk. Gabe initially tries to break her and when that doesn’t work, he realizes she’s tougher than he is. Although he acts like a jerk for a fair portion of the book, from the beginning the reader knows he is a caretaker. He provides Rachel with a house, car, job, day care, and food. In watching Rachel struggle through her life as it stands, he gradually comes around, drops the asshat act, and is in a better place at the end.
Royce in Angels Fall by Nora Roberts. Nora Roberts does a great job with traumatized heroines. Nell in Dance Upon the Air and Caroline in Carnal Innocence are other traumatized heroines that I like. Royce’s arc is a journey pulling her out of post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s a fighter, but she doesn’t think she is. Part of that is due to being gaslighted so that she thinks she still crazy. She gradually overcomes her fears and faces her neuroses by facing them down and coming out on the other side. She usually pats herself on the back when she has done so, which is one of the things I like about her. She doesn’t (always) beat herself up when she has a misstep.
Emma in Prince of Dreams by Lisa Kleypas. Emma started her arc as a selfish, spoiled brat. She blames everyone around her for what isn’t right in her life and she has very low self-esteem. She gets jilted, blames her father (actually says, “I hate you,” to him which is, IMHO, immature). She then marries an asshat (like Gabe, he has his reasons) against her families wishes and then lives in self-imposed isolation from her family in her new marriage. She realizes early in the marriage that her family was right and she is so screwed, but her plucky, feisty nature has her fighting back and making the best of a bad situation. Her work with abused animals helps her see why the people around her behave the way they do and the windows into others souls helps her to see her faults and shortcomings and fix them, and to see others’ faults and shortcomings and forgive them. Kleypas has an added bonus of having Emma be with a secret beau in the beginning who is very much like her. In the end, he hasn’t changed and the reader can see clearly the changes in Emma.
Who are some of your favorite characters and why?
It’s really interesting how different aspects of craft grab our attention. I’m not a big fan of the character arc — by which I mean, I don’t pay attention to it. I definitely want it to be there, and I want it to be good, but I want it to be deep structure and not in my face. As soon as it’s not there, I’ll complain about characters spinning their wheels and travelling over the same old ground.
Cordelia Vorkosigan of the Vorkosigan series has a very subtle arc. When we first meet her, she’s in her mid-thirties and has already accomplished a lot in life. Her character seems set — a very practical woman who is trying to use her tools to accomplish her goals. She’s quite balanced, mentally, but then she’s set into insane situations, and her very logical solutions take on a slight tinge of insanity. In a book like Shards of Honor, she doesn’t arc. Everything arcs around her, if that makes sense.
But over the course of the series, I do think she grows. She comes to have a deep sympathy for the Barrayaran point of view, and comes to realize that Betan truth isn’t always going to work for the Barrayaran Empire. She puts her personal dreams on the backburner for her child and her husband’s job (which she makes her own job), but by the end, she goes back to herself, and fulfills those dreams in a spectacular fashion.
You know what? I guess she doesn’t arc. But almost all the characters around her do arc. Her son Miles, of course, grows up. Her husband Aral arcs slightly into a more free individual (he’s another guy that we meet in the middle or even near the end of his growth arc — he’s not very mutable, but life’s experiences have made him flexible). Her daughter-in-law makes a spectacular ending arc (we meet her slightly before The Point of No Return in her marriage, and just as she begins a new arc of Learning To Trust Your Partner).
But in all the cases, it’s the characters who drive the Vorkosigan stories, and their decisions are what make the story interesting.
Interesting post, Michille. Although I know characters are supposed to arc (unless it’s important to the story that they don’t) and that the story needs to change them somehow, I don’t know that I consciously pay attention to it when I read. I think I’ve been so focused on looking for the conflict in the stories I’ve been reading these past few months that I haven’t thought much about character arcs.
I have a tendency to gravitate toward the gentler, subtle conflict kind of happily-ever-after stories and it doesn’t feel like they have pronounced character arcs. That’s probably why I am having trouble identifying the conflict as well,
Dain in Lord of Scoundrels and the Duke of Ainswood in The Last Hellion, both by Loretta Chase, are some of my favorite characters. They both start out as over-the-top manly types (obviously suffering from a bit of testosterone poisoning) but by the end of each of their stories, they’ve definitely changed – tamed by the love of a good woman, of course.
My favorite, favorite set of characters are Comte d’Esmond Leila Beaumont from Chase’s Captives of the Night. I love Leila because of how strong she is and what a survivor she is, and the Comte because he’s troubled and flawed and wants to do the right thing but is drawn to Leila despite his best efforts. The depth and layers of these characters, along with humor and some very human responses, make these characters I go back to again and again.
I know we’ve talked about this before on one of our posts, but two of my favorite characters are Sylvester, Duke of Salford, and Phoebe, from “Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle” by Georgette Heyer. Phoebe is smart, but headstrong, and also quite impulsive. Sylvester is the complete opposite. He’s controlled, self-assured, and deliberate. They butt heads repeatedly, and it takes Sylvester awhile to own that without Phoebe’s headstrong and act-first-think-later ways, he’d have a rough go of it trying to recover his nephew and heir.
The end of the book is what gets me every time (and I re-read, and re-listen to, the end repeatedly). Sylvester makes such a muck of things, including a proposal to Phoebe that is so filled with insult (she’s sure he’s not serious and is mocking her), you’re afraid he’s never going to be able to redeem himself. His words are so acidic and bitter. Heyer did a fantastic job writing the dialogue in this one. I’m compelled to reach out and punch Sylvester in the arm to get him to shut up before he ruins things permanently.
I go on about audiobooks a lot…I love them. To get a real flair for the drama (and stupidity) in Sylverster’s proposal, listen to Sylvester as read by Nicholas Rowe. He does a fantastic job revealing Sylvester’s emotion, and Phoebe’s as well. The written word is great, but the words read aloud pack an additional emotional punch, particularly in this case.
Back to S & P…I love how Heyer helps them both redeem themselves in each other’s eyes. It’s a great arc and you’re afraid it’s not going to happen. But it does, and it’s overwhelmingly satisfying!