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Posts tagged ‘character arc’

Does your protagonist have a life theme or motto?

At the beginning of each year, my writing partner Carly chooses a short phrase or sentence that she uses to remind herself of what she wants to focus on for the coming year.

She says she likes to keep the sentence short so it’s easy to remember and can easily be turned into a daily mantra. For the last several years, she’s developed a personal writing theme.

To read more about her idea, please read her posts, “My 2014 personal writing theme revealed,” and “Short story writing method reveals New Year’s theme.

I noticed while re-reading Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” that the main character Shadow has a motto that he lives by. In the first chapter, Shadow is in prison and we learn his survival motto is, “Keep your head down. Do your own time. Speak when you’re spoken to.” In other words, you do your own time in prison. You don’t do anyone else’s time for them. You don’t get mixed up in their dramas. You keep your mouth shut.

Later, after Shadow is let out of prison and he begins working for Mr. Wednesday and is kidnapped by men in black, he repeats his old prison motto to himself:

“He pretended he was back in prison. Do your own time, thought Shadow. Don’t tell them anything they don’t already know. Don’t ask questions.”

By the end of the story—well, I won’t put in any spoilers—but basically his motto gets turned on its head. And this is part of his growth as a character.

Does your character have a motto they live by or a life theme like Carly and Shadow that they can sum up in one or two sentences? Is there a belief that drives them from day to day? Having this theme firmly in mind while writing your scenes will help ground you in your character’s reality.

Exercise: Set a timer for six minutes and free write about what your protagonist’s life theme might be. Do the same for your antagonist and then every major character.

If you’d like, please share your character’s theme in the comments below.



What’s the worst thing you can do to your character and why?

One thing about writing that’s hard for me is being mean to my characters, well at least most of them. I suspect that certain scenes we write are our way of acting out and doing things fictionally that we can’t do in real life. But stories need conflict and so we have to do horrible things to characters at times so they can grow and change and we can advance the story. (Although I draw the line at hurting the dog.)

So what are some guidelines for doing this? Writer K.M. Weiland says the point is to not only up the stakes and create conflict, but to generate character growth and advance the character’s personal arc.

For more details, watch her 2:26-minute video.

For more inspiration from Weiland, follow her @KMWeiland and visit her website.