Character arc–you might have heard the term. It’s what your character learns or overcomes in your story. This is particularly important in series fiction, but even in stand-alone novels, it often becomes the central focus of your book.
For the sake of this article, we will focus on series fiction that doesn’t have an absolute conclusion by the end of the first book. In series fiction, character arcs become an essential part of the writing process. You might be asking, “How do you draw an ‘ending’ out of an unresolved plot, to continue into the next book?” Character arcs might be your tried and true answer!
Your Character’s Inner Conflict
Plots have conflict, of course. But on a smaller scale, your characters also have conflicts, and they don’t always coincide with the overall “big picture” conflict in your story. Example? Let’s say you’re writing a YA book where the main character saves the world from aliens. It’s a 4-part series. Your main character starts out as a bit of a nerd, and afraid of “being herself.” No matter what happens with the plot, by the end of that first book, your character should come to terms with her inner struggle–“being herself.” Perhaps she discovers that glasses are cool and not geeky, or that being a math-nerd allows her to detect the alien invasion. Even if the plot continues, it gives the reader a sense of conclusion.
In the end of each book, your character should reach a kind of catharsis–an emotional “conclusion” of sorts–that he or she has overcome the burden they started out carrying. Characters arcs are all about inner conflict and inner resolution, and harnessing this will make your book an overall more satisfying read.
Where to Begin
In the first chapter of your novel, your character has probably expressed some insecurities or doubts about him/herself. Those insecurities might even be subconscious–meaning, you wrote them into the first chapter without really thinking about them (which is a natural and very writerly thing to do), and then forgot about them as you continued with the plot. Or perhaps more accurately, you never took the time to fully define what you were truly writing about.
If we want to strengthen our characterization, we must go back through that first chapter and find that event/feeling/thought that gave our character doubt (inner conflict.) That is the beginning of our character’s “arc.” Similarly, if you’re a planner and you’ve already plotted your novel, plan the character arc into that first section of the book. Draw a literal picture of an arc. At the beginning, it should say “Josie–hates wearing glasses.” In the middle will be the “catharsis” (that moment where Josie realizes glasses are cool), and then “Conclusion: Josie realizes her glasses might just save the world.”
Throughout the middle of the book, as much as your character might be chasing down a criminal or defeating some great evil, there is also the internal struggle (coming to grips with a deceased relative, realizing popularity is a facade, etc.) There should be a pivotal moment in your book when the main character realizes their demons and begins to overcome them. This pivotal moment is called “catharsis” in literary terms. It literally means “a release of emotion.” Your character must release their previous demons…even if it’s a small piece of the larger plot-puzzle. Going back to our example of Josie, perhaps she discovers the boy of her dreams likes girls in glasses, or that her glasses have some sort of ability that allows her to see the aliens, and overcome a great evil.
Particularly in series writing, the conclusion of your first book may not resolve the actual plot. So then how do you finish the book in a place of “closure?” (Readers crave closure, just fyi.) A great suggestion–you allow your character to fully resolve whatever emotional issue presented itself in the first chapter. Then plan a new character arc in the next book. Perhaps Josie travels through her entire arc–she starts out hating her glasses, realizes halfway through that her glasses aren’t such a bad thing, and by the end, she prefers her glasses over having none. Resolvoing that character arc gives your reader the closure they are yearning for, without having to resolve the entire plot. Then, at the beginning of Book 2, Josie has some other inner conflict to face.
Characters are born from inner conflict. That’s what draws the reader into the story. Once you are done with your first draft, I highly recommend going back to that first chapter–or whichever chapter a main character is introduced–and discovering their inner conflict. Once that inner conflict is defined, draw it through the entire story to a moment of “catharsis” when they face their inner demons and conquer them. Then, in the end, the main character fully resolves their inner conflict. The story will feel complete, even if it’s part of a larger series where the larger plot continues.