When we think of epic fantasy, the first books that come to mind are J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien’s work was compelling not only for the quality of his prose and the events, but for the characters and how they grew and changed in the course of their adventures.
Genre authors spend a lot of time plotting the events a character will go through. Equal time must be given to character development.
A great story evolves when the antagonist and protagonist are strong but not omnipotent. Both the antagonist and protagonist must have character arcs that show personal growth or inability to grow.
Sometimes, an antagonist’s weakness is their inability to accept change and adapt to it. Other times, events cause them to devolve, sending them into a downward spiral. Either way, for the antagonist to be realistic, this must be clearly shown.
Once we meet the hero, small hindrances must occur between the larger events, frustrating their path to success. As each hindrance is overcome, the reader feels a small sense of satisfaction. Following the protagonist as he/she is negotiating these detours is what makes the story captivating, in my opinion.
At this point, the protagonist is not fully formed—they must grow as a result of their experiences. They may make mistakes, cause themselves more trouble because they are untried and don’t know what they are doing.
Also, at this point, the protagonist may be confused as to what is really going on. This is a good place to introduce a mentor, someone who can offer a little wisdom or set the hero on the right path.
Each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters do not know that will affect the plot.
Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.
The characters begin to be changed by the events they experience. How you show their emotional state is critical at this point because emotions engage readers. If you want your readers to feel the crisis, your characters must feel it and show their reactions to the reader.
We must contrast the relative security of the characters’ lives as they were in the opening paragraphs with the hazards of where they are now. We show the uncertainty, fear, anger, sense of loss they are experiencing.
Now they are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.
The midpoint is also where we really get to know the antagonist and learn what the enemy knows that the protagonists do not. We discover his/her motives and what they may be capable of.
First, we need to remember that very few people are evil for no reason at all. Sometimes they are likeable, people who appear innocuous, even loving. If this is the case in your story, you need to insert small clues for the reader about their personality into the narrative in the beginning pages.
Fleshing out the antagonist and making their motives realistic is important. He/she is as central to the story as the protagonist because their actions force the protagonist to grow as a human being.
By the end of the narrative, the protagonist has been through life changing events. They are no longer naïve but have knowledge and wisdom of their own. They are fit to be the mentors of the next generation.
It’s important to remember that at no point in the narrative can people be sitting around idly chit-chatting about the changes they have been through. The reader knows and doesn’t want to read a rehashing of events at the end of each chapter.
Many authors who are new to the craft say their characters just evolve with no thought ahead of time. As this lack of planning is clear in their muddy work, perhaps it’s a good idea to give a little thought to plotting the personal growth of the characters, how the experiences will change them. Readers become invested in the characters and want to see what happens next. Reward the reader by making the journey about the characters as much as you do about the events.
Connie J. Jasperson is the author of nine novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
This article was first published on August 6, 2018 on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as “Character Growth/Arc,” © 2018 Connie J. Jasperson, and has been reprinted by permission.