In Part 1 of this series
we noted how the signature of a Strong Character is that the Character "arcs" -- or changes their emotional responses to situations because of some life-lesson learned "the hard way" in the "school of hard knocks."
Characters get pummeled by Events you create. They learn from the Events (the plot) and they do not necessarily learn the best or most correct lesson the first time you hit them with an Event.
Characters that are strong at the beginning of the story get pummeled with Events until they break -- think of Spock crying alone in the briefing room. Leonard Nimoy knew Spock's strength had to be broken in order to engage viewer interest.
Granite strength all by itself is not interesting. So writers break their strongest characters.
Start with a weak character, someone gripped by the "I can't" or "I'm doing all I can, so how can you expect more of me?" attitude, hammer that character to pulverize them, and chronicle their path to becoming a strong character. That's Character Arc.
So, Strong Characters can be weak at the beginning of the Arc, and the strength is revealed as you hammer them into becoming Strong.
What exactly is it that writers hammer at in either the strong or weak character that changes them, that morphs them along an Arc?
What causes people to change in real life? What causes people to start to behave differently, and seem "out of character" for a while, until friends and family get used to the new person?
What changes in life that re-formulates a person's behavior?
I submit that the easiest attribute of a Character for a writer to depict as Arcing, or changing in a way that readers can see as realistic, is the ability to Love.
That is the "wall" that Events hammer at to Arc a character.
It is the ability to establish and maintain Relationships that distinguishes the Happy person from the miserable person. We draw our strength of character from our "stance" among our people, our family, our co-workers, our buddies, our spouse, our children, our distant relatives, and just friends made via organizations.
How many times have you seen the story of the lone-gunman who shoots up a crowd and nobody expected it because "he kept to himself" and "he seemed like a nice guy" but he had no close friends (or the ones he had were likewise disconnected.)
As humans, we need to belong, to connect, to be surrounded by layers upon layers of people who know intimately, less well, distantly, and just feel general kinship with because we share a fandom, a reading taste, a craft etc. We speak of "the Music World" and "the Golf World" -- and we say, "Welcome to my world."
We live in "worlds" composed of layers of associates.
The entre into such a "world" is via the close, immediate, intertwined, personal Relationship.
Enemies, Adversaries, a policeman's quarry (think TV Series THE FUGITIVE), relationships can be incredibly intimate and even replace true love for a time.
Social networking has leveraged that layered-worlds structure of human life into a profitable business where you are their product which they sell to advertisers.
We are creatures of Relationship, embedded in a physical world composed of intricate layers of interlaced relationships. Think of the way genetics has evolved -- almost all life on Earth shares basic building block genes. (almost since there are non-carbon single-cell life near hot vents in the bottom of the ocean)
Most all life on Earth is genetically related, which is why we can use animals to test new drugs and why we shudder at the mere thought of doing that! We are all of one piece.
But we don't see that, at least not at the surface of our awareness. We don't see into another person's emotional life, the internal structure of another person's decision making process, their most dearly held values, their unconscious assumptions about what is right and what is wrong.
That realm of the unconsciously held Value System is where the writer works.
Writers probe, explore, learn, and map their own unconscious minds, especially the Value System they imbibed with Mother's Milk. We acquire our first values from our parents, but as life goes on, we acquire more layers of values around those.
Sometimes the later value acquisitions logically contradict earlier ones, but we hold onto all of them as our OWN -- we identify with the wild and incompatible mix of values we have created and call it our Identity.
Thus when a person's Values are attacked by another person (who may or may not have different values), it feels like a threat to LIFE ITSELF. It feels like a threat to existence. People will tolerate starvation or being shot at by hostiles better than they will having their unconscious Values contradicted.
Yes, mere words can trigger a counter-attack as if life and existence were at stake.
Politics and Religion are two topics that are rooted in that first learned, unconscious value system that most likely has been overlaid by Values acquired in college, which have been overlaid by Values acquired on the job.
That's why they are explosive topics for family gatherings (and wondrous sources of Conflict that can advance a Plot).
Today, in our modern world, Politics and Religion are mixing at depths not seen since the Middle Ages when The Church basically ran the Governments of Europe.
The Crusades were a show-don't-tell manifestation of the mixing of Politics (Kings) with Religion (The Cross).
Today, the explosive mix is Science vs. Religion. What sane person could possibly reject Evolution or want to teach Creationism in schools? See? "sane" -- "If you don't share my Values, you are not a Person."
In other words, we tend to work on the assumption that the only people whose opinions count are the people who share our Values.
But nobody shares anyone's Values. As described above, each individual person accumulates layers upon layers of different values and morphs the disparate mess into some kind of ball of wax which they use as their Identity.
Each of us is unique -- but we want to associate only with those who are identical to us, at least in our intimate relationships.
As noted in Part 1, look closely at the TV Series SUITS. Suits works via the way the senior (Harvey Specter) sees himself in the junior (Mike Ross). When Mike doesn't do what Harvey would do, Harvey is uncomfortable and acts out.
Now back to the Romance Novel, which is what this blog is all about.
Consider the various ideas of what Love is.
You will find Romance depicted as about co-dependence, as about feelings only, as about bodily functions only, as about paying attention only to me. And all of these variations are real, and all matter, and all of them are necessary ingredients in Romance.
It is very true that you can have amazing Romance without a trace of Love at all.
"Love" (with a capital L) is a spiritual thing that transcends our innate insanities. Love with a capital L is an experience of the Soul that changes the Soul -- i.e. that causes Character to Arc.
Real change happens when channels of the Personality open to Love.
That happens under different circumstances for different people at different times of Life. Sometimes it is religious conversion, sometimes encountering a senior mentor, sometimes the birth of your first child, sometimes it is finding your Soul Mate.
People (and Characters) change not by becoming someone else, not by losing or gaining abilities or Talents, but by re-arranging their characteristics.
Thus a Character Arc Event causes an aggressive person who is likely to solve any problem by putting out a Hit on the opposition into someone who behaves more like Harvey Specter in SUITS and leverages the other person's emotional weaknesses.
The Aggression is still there, but the channel is different.
An alcoholic might morph into someone who eats or smokes too much, but holds a job and is kind to his kids.
All the traits remain, but the emphasis and utilization changes.
Why does that happen?
One of the key ingredients that forms our crazy-quilt pattern of Values is our Relationships. There is a well studied trait of human perception (see the TV Series Perception) that causes us to see ourselves in others.
When you hate someone, when someone just plain drives you crazy, and you go around with an inner dialogue counting their failings and what they should do about it, then very likely (not always, but most of the time) you are seeing yourself in that person.
Other people are the mirror in which we see our own reflection.
But like with a mirror, you see a reversal of the image, and you can see what is behind you (e.g. in your subconscious). You see deeper into yourself, into the dark underside of yourself, because the other person is so very different from you.
You see their faults, and their faults are visible because they are different.
Writers leverage that common human perception by creating Characters who are so very different from the reader that the reader is barely aware of the similarity. When it strikes the reader just right, that difference allows the reader to identify with the character and walk in their moccasins.
So people react emotionally to other people according to how they love or hate themselves. But as noted above, Identity is a pearl composed of layers of contradiction accreted around a sharp-grain of pain that caused the acquisition of a Value.
That pain might be a parental smack, a deprivation from a toy, a forced-sharing with a sibling, and rewards of kindness, love, joy, celebration.
Right and Wrong and what is more important than what (i.e. Values) are absorbed from parents via what the parents do, not what the parents say -- so Values are non-verbal and conveyed with a Sharp Pain that forces the pain to be wrapped by a Value that will henceforth prevent that Pain.
So when we see someone who is Wrong -- we react to that wrongness. How we react, what we do about Wrong People, is influenced by our ability to Love our own Self -- to admire our pearls that encase our Pain and create Values.
If we Love ourselves because we know how we have just barely managed to cope with our Pain, we are able to see others struggling (and sometimes failing) to cope with their Pain. We know that sometimes a Pain does not get encased in a Pearl of Values - a lesson is not (yet) learned and successfully applied to life.
Lessons can be rejected, maybe never learned, because of some other Belief that is in the way, that contradicts or conflicts and thus causes Truth to be rejected.
People who do not (yet) love themselves, see nothing but their own reflection in the mirrors of the people around them, and thus are in effect isolated, alone, unloved, and frustrated. Such people may compensate by narcissism, which others interpret as self-love.
How does a writer depict people caught in a House of Mirrors life where all they can see in those around them are hateful traits?
Dialogue is the answer. How a Character speaks, what opinions so desperately need airing, what opinions (and the vocabulary to express them) burst out with loud urgency, and to whom those opinions are expressed (with what collateral damage), depicts the Character's inner conflict, inner story, and subconscious Values.
A Character's emotional life is revealed in Dialogue.
Here is an example to study, from a piece of non-fiction analyzing our current real world situation.
The author is
-------quote from opening line----------
As the GOP sabotage and sedition continues, the US appears to be going the way of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth (P-LC) rather than the way of the Roman Empire.
If you know your history, this is not an insult; but, rather, a tragedy in progress. The P-LC was a powerful and progressive state during the early Reformation era, reaching its Golden Age in about 1575.
Note the sidling up to the chosen audience by characterizing an entire group of people "the GOP" as if they are all identical to one another. This is a valid representation of what a person who lives a House of Mirrors existence actually sees in those around them -- no difference one to another, because they are all reflections of him/herself.
The opening sentence here is brilliant in that it instantly and efficiently says, "Listen to me because I'm just like you."
The rest of the historical thesis in this article is a brilliant analysis, considering the point of view.
Take a Character who shares this writers contempt and disdain for those who see things differently and create some Events that would shatter his certainty that his view is the only laudable view.
It doesn't matter what views your Character holds, or opposes. The writing exercise is to Depict a Conflict of Values and its Resolution.
It will work better as a Novel if you choose some vast conflict of World Shattering importance that is utterly unrelated to the headlines of today. Just lift out of this article the attitude of this writer -- not the content.
Your task is to create a Character who views Others with such contempt, then discovers that what he hates in them is actually inside himself, that he never perceived them at all. As he comes to resolve his inner conflict, he begins the journey to being able to Love himself.
Where does that lead? It will lead him to his Happily Ever After, but not in one or even a thousand steps. Along the way, he will discover how those he held in contempt are actually struggling as he was. He will find Love for them, and his way of speaking of them will change (his Character will Arc).
The changed attitude will not change the facts of the Situation, but it will open vistas of opportunity for different sorts of actions to change the facts. (yes, it's a series of novels)
Once your Character understands how lovable his opposition is, even though they are flat out wrong, his actions will begin to be instructive rather than destructive, and solutions will appear that were never visible before.
The key to Character Arc is the introduction of Love which penetrates the Mirror Effect so that one Character can actually perceive what is inside another Character. Thus begins all Relationship.
So every novel needs a love story, even if there is no Romance. And every Romance, to create a realistic Happily Ever After needs a Love story -- the story of learning to Love yourself so that you can see through the mirror-surface and into the people around you.
That Love Story gives the fictional world the necessary verisimilitude to draw a reader into the Fantasy world.
Here are more posts on Alien Romance discussing verisimilitude, story arc, and Romance.