From the day I started writing fiction, I’ve heard about the critical importance of character arcs, which for the sake of brevity we can think of as a journey of change. It’s almost a mantra: Major characters must change.
I recently took an online class with author Kathryn Craft that focused on character arcs. (Raiders of the Lost Arcs: A Masterclass in Character Changes, offered by the Women Fiction Writers Association WFWA.) In addition to great advice about character arcs it delved into non-character arcs. For example, Kraft talked about our settings having their own arcs. Change of season might parallel other kinds of change, or other setting elements put our characters in challenging situations or full-blown crises that push them to change whether they like it or not. In the process, the setting, or as I like to think of it, the environment our characters inhabit, also changes.
Think of how everyday settings can be altered to provide exactly the challenges your characters need, or perhaps allow you to “conveniently” bring key characters together. Play the “what if” game with these examples:
- The family business is flooded and damaged almost beyond repair and only one character wants to salvage it. How does the family resolve it? Or, maybe the story is about the nearly destroyed family home—who will take care of Mom or Dad now?
- A tornado rips through the town reducing one street to rubble while leaving the next street intact. Each street has its own setting arc, which will reflect characters’ journeys.
- Forest fires burn down the town—living in the shelter becomes the site of conflict and resolution for at least one of your characters.
- A young couple building a new house or an older couple moving out of their older one brings up all kinds of unresolved conflicts, which then makes the future uncertain and spurs internal or external change.
- Or, keeping it simple, one character repaints the kitchen and triggers a huge fight with her spouse, roommates, or sisters. (But what’s the fight really about?)
In my BACK TO BLUESTONE RIVER series, the town’s covered bridge is a major element in the setting. In book 1, A FAMILY FOR JASON, it’s a key spot for both a teenage romance and the tragedy that tore the two apart. In book 2, THE CHRISTMAS KISS, the bridge is the site where the heroine, who needs a cane to walk, can feel safe in the arms of the hero as they dance in the snow. In book 3, A BRIDGE HOME, a storm has severely damaged the bridge and triggers a struggle for the future of the bridge and Bluestone River itself.
I hadn’t thought of this before, but the bridge has an arc within each book, but also has a larger thematic arc encompassing the series. The covered bridge is also a symbol of the town’s decline and renewal. As Kraft explains, symbols have their own arcs.
In my current WIP, THE CANA LIGHT AFFAIR, a painting of a lighthouse drives much of the story behind the story. Drew, the protagonist, is a 40-year-old widow, flat broke and deep in grief. But she owns Cana Light, a painting of the Cana Island Lighthouse in Door County, Wisconsin. A cherished childhood touchstone, the lighthouse was also where she and her husband-to-be discovered an abandoned newborn baby. Later, on their first wedding anniversary they spot the painting in a gallery and it becomes the symbolic guardian of their marriage, the way they were guardians of the baby, if only for a critical few minutes.
The painting is the only thing of monetary value Drew owns and a converted garage next to the family’s summer cottage is the only place she has to go. Cana Light turns out to be the missing piece in an exhibit of the famous artist’s work. After meeting the artist’s great-grandson and museum architect, Drew loans the painting to the museum, which sets in motion events that include a chance to meet the baby girl, now age 11, and her dad. As Drew becomes whole again, she makes decisions about her future she never imagined. And all because of a painting.
Needless to say I’ve added setting and symbol arcs to my list of things to consider when I look at the themes and other arcs rippling through my stories. They might be my two favorite arcs!
A longtime WisRWA member and a lifelong writer, editor, and writing coach, Virginia McCullough specializes in writing nonfiction books for experts in many fields including medicine and law. However, today she’s focusing almost exclusively on writing romance and women’s fiction and coaching. Her August 2020 release, A BRIDGE HOME, is book 3 of her Back to Bluestone River series for the Harlequin Heartwarming line. Visit Virginia on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/virginia.mccullough.7 and at www.virginiamccullough.com.