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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Character Arc & Theme

When a character is changed during the course of story, we are creating a character arc. Like our characters, we are changed because of life experiences and by how we face conflict. By the time we have finished a draft or two of the manuscriipt, we begin to realize the significance of theme.

The character most changed in the story is the protagonist. While others may experience change, the main character has the most dramatic and emotional transformation. Classic stories deal with universal themes like home is where the heart is or time heals wounds or strength comes from within. The protagonist may learn through the story conflict that he cannot trust his own limited view of himself and the world until he is better educated and has more experiences in life.

The overall universal theme of the story might be: coveting another man's wealth and position leads to destruction. By envying the richest man in town and desiring his gorgeous wife, fancy car, and big house, a determined young man does everything he can to become that man's confidante and friend. He lets the dog out of the gated yard and then feigns a rescue. He follows the wife until she runs out of gas on the highway and plays a hero in that scene. He steals he man's wallet and then returns it with credit cards and cash still inside. Trusted, he is welcomed into the family and begins leading the life he's coveted. He seduces the wife, drives the car, lives in the house where he drinks excessively with the husband. Soon he discovers that all is not what it seems. Wealth is a result of crime. The car costs a bundle to maintain. The wife is a gold digger and is looking for a hit man to kill her husband so she can go live in Paris. When he's asked to do something dishonest that will take money from the mouths of the orphans in town, the young protagonist realizes he is ill equipped to cope with these heavy handed players and cannot judge others until he has a better understanding of himself. In other words, he matures and sees things differently by the end of the story.

While Elizabeth Gilbert's popular Eat Pray Love is more telling than showing and also a memoir, the thematic significance of the main character (herself) is the search for life's meaning or truth and this determines her character arc. The universal theme might be: a dedicated spiritual journey can heal the broken spirit so that it is possible to find balanwce and love again.

Love is the focus of Gilbert's memoir. In the beginning, she's in a troubled marriage and then she's in a troubled affair. Desperate to find herself and life's meaning, she decides to go on a year's journey, a quest that takes her to Italy to learn the language, to India to meditate, and to Indonesia to find balance.

In Italy, she learns to let go and give in to the sensual pleasure of pasta and language. This heals her physically but not spiritually. She goes next to an Ashram in India where she has a more difficult time learning to meditate and to forgive herself and others. Finally, she goes to Indonesia where she finds balance and, of course, love. Now she is more mature and able to love herself as well as another.

As readers, we like this flawed POV narrator and go with her on the quest. The more challenging the journey, the more flawed the character, the more we are pulled into the story. At the climax, she helps a woman with a child of her own and two orphans she has taken in by raising money to build a house. Up to that point, Gilbert has been completely self-centered and obsessed about her own weaknesses. Now more mature, she is able to offer generosity to another. This metaphorical action shows her character transformation. If she had not gone on this quest, this never would have happened.

And so in the end, she is able to find love.

During every rewrite, we have an opportunity to improve the arc of our main character and connect the thematic components that add depth and significance to the story. We create a message for the reader so that the work is more meaningful and lasting.

Therefore, during revision, it's important to determine the real story protagonist and decide how he or she is going to be emotionally transformed. Then we need to come up with a thematic line that is oven throughout the story. What do all those scenes, all that action and dialogue add up to at the end? Through sensory detail and literary elements, our job as authors is to infuse the manuscript with thematic significance.


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