‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’
With these marvelous words Charles Dickens opens his great classic A Christmas Carol. A few passages later he drives home the importance of his opening line by stating:
‘There was no doubt Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate.’
(I double-dog-dare any modern author to employ such a conversational tone in his novel.)
If the tale is about Scrooge, why does Dickens open with a mention of his dead partner? There are two reasons:
- Marley’s own story arc acts as a warning to Scrooge, a black mirror to his miserly life
- The mention of a dead character prior to the introduction of living players in the story delivers a glaring metaphor, showing us that, in some ways, Scrooge is already dead
Why is this important, you ask? What does it have to do with character arcs? (If you check out Darcy Pattinson’s post on ‘3 Types of Character Arcs’ here you might see the answer from another perspective, and that’s always good.)
Well, the entirety of A Christmas Carol is a beautiful blatant example of an extreme character arc. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the lesson I am about to relate.
The Art of Arcs
Without a good arc, you risk delivering a flat character. His entire tale will feel pointless. If in the end he has learned nothing, overcome nothing, or has not even changed his perspective, then there is no arc, and your readers will come away with a negative impression of the entire story, no matter how well crafted it may be.
Once Dickens has established beyond any doubt the doornail deadness of Marley, he moves into a delightful description of Scrooge. ‘Oh, but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, clutching, covetous old sinner!’
The next several pages are devoted to reinforcing this description, with wonderful encounters between the old sinner and his nephew, donation seekers, and poor Bob Cratchit. Each encounter serves to establish the base starting point of our main character. Dickens takes great pains making sure we are fully educated on Scrooge’s miserliness. (Indeed, he is so successful in this endeavor that Scrooge’s expressions ‘Bah’ and ‘Humbug’ have become part of our vernacular.)
Is Your Book Arcing Enough?
In your books, make sure to follow the example Dickens sets of establishing your Main Characters’ deepest nature. This nature should be firm. Your character should be fully devoted to his personality and/or worldview; this ensures that there doesn’t appear to be any hope of a change in his nature, which will in turn make the change (or arc) that much more impressive when it happens.
Veronica Sicoe has written a nice outline of the different kinds of arcs, pointing out that ‘the hero’s journey’ is not the only arc out there.
It is vital to his potential arc that we know who your MC is from the beginning. You can do this in any of several popular and successful ways that successful and popular novelists have used:
- Write riveting early encounters between your MC and supporting characters
- Open by showing your MC in a strange or unique position: alone in prison, climbing a mountain by herself, jumping out of a plane, or perhaps simply lounging around while others work their tails off
- Your MC is deeply frustrated with life, and strives valiantly (or psychotically) to change it, and yet, every time he tries, he chooses instead to help those around him. The arc for such a tale will be his finally seeing the good in his life and accepting it, that he is already the richest man in Bedford Falls and that his is truly a Wonderful Life
The above are just a few basic examples. You’re a writer—if the examples above don’t get your creative juices flowing, go ahead and make up your own way to establish your characters’ personality.
Now, once you’ve shared the firm foundation of your MC, you’re going to need to bring it home and deliver the meat of your tale. This of course involves putting your characters through the ringer. There are thousands of ways to do this, and they are all fun and satisfying to write. (We writers just love beating the crap out of our creations.)
Even if you’re just beginning to write, I’m sure you’ve read hundreds of books and possess at least a handful of ideas on how to go about roughing up your darlings. The arc, or change in their circumstances or understanding of their circumstances (as in George Bailey’s case in It’s a Wonderful Life) happens because of their suffering. So don’t overlook or rush through this vital portion of your work.
Bring in supporting characters who force your MC to face his fears or prejudices or weaknesses.
Scrooge changed because the 3 Spirits forced him to face memories he had long neglected, and a future he had refused to think about.
Without his terrifying ordeals, without his suffering and being forced to face truths about himself, Scrooge would not have changed. His arc would not have existed. His entire worldview changed precisely because he was made to look at the chains he had forged, the mistakes he had made, the neglect humanity had suffered because of him.
‘I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!’
Scrooge’s arc happened only after he suffered through darkness and faced his own mortality. Death casts a long shadow, but it is this very shadow that lends meaning to life.
When George Bailey tried to commit suicide, fate (or heaven, or an angel named Clarence) intervened, and showed him what he had been blind to before. These two tales with their supernatural elements may be extreme examples of character arcs, but they also provide us with beautiful templates for our own books.
So when you next sit down to watch the movies, whether it’s the George C Scott or the Muppets version, pay close attention to when exactly Scrooge’s perspective begins to shift and he begins to value life.
Good luck with your writing—may it be big and sexy all the year round!
For another dynamite character arc with supernatural elements, you might want to check out The Light of Lexi Montaigne. This psychological thriller also features the best full-circle story I’ve yet managed to write. It’s one of those rare books where you don’t quite see all the pieces to the puzzle until the final page, and then you go ‘Ohhhh, now it all makes sense’ and you go to read it again.