Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers an online course, Story Medicine, designed to help writers use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world.
For the recent launch of my new online course, Story Medicine, I interviewed one of my mentors, Jennie Nash, a seasoned book coach and the founder of the Author Accelerator book coaching certification program. When Jennie and I work with fiction writers, a big part of our focus is character arc, and in the course of this conversation, I noted that great character arcs tend to connect with the author’s own personal journey.
Jennie agreed, saying, “That’s where the power is, because that’s where you connect with your deep-level why.”
At first, that statement may sound just a bit vague. But as Jennie knows, this connection manifests in a very concrete way, in terms of literary craft, in the protagonist’s character arc: the way that character grows and changes over the course of the novel.
I write on this subject a lot, because I believe that a strong character arc really is the key to an emotionally affecting novel, one that will make a strong connection with readers. And over my decade plus as a book coach, I’ve seen it over and over: the strongest, most affecting character arcs are anchored in the author’s own experience.
Say the character arc is about a woman gaining the courage to leave an abusive relationship. For one writer, that sort of arc will basically just be a device, something that’s there to serve the plot—say, of a mystery or thriller. That arc might work well in this regard, but it won’t necessarily cause reader to connect with the story, or find any particular sense of meaning in it.
But if the author has actually been that woman? The same arc can have a great deal of power—the power to truly connect with the reader. The power to make that same thriller or mystery feel hugely meaningful.
Maybe even the power to change the world.
When the protagonist’s character arc connects with the author’s own personal journey, it has a sense of reality, intensity, and nuance that just can’t be faked. That’s because it’s not based on stereotype, hearsay, or other forms of received information. It’s actually based on the truth of that experience—and chances are good that it will carry some of the deepest, most hard-won truths of the author’s life.
Many of us started writing fiction because we didn’t relish the idea of laying bare the real stuff of our lives—the hard stuff especially. And it’s true that it takes courage to “go there,” in terms of writing from the truth of your own life.
But I believe it’s the greatest gift you can give your reader, because in doing so, you can share the insights that got you through the hard stuff, and how you lived to tell the tale.
And this is true whether you’re writing about the actual circumstances of your life or simply circumstances that touch upon them. Which means this holds true even if you’re writing speculative fiction, set in an entirely different world.
For instance, maybe you’re writing a sci-fi novel about a young man whose best friend was kidnapped by interstellar smugglers. One option would be to go with a familiar, recycled character arc: the protagonist who starts off feeling like a coward and goes on to discover his courage and confront the man who kidnapped his best friend.
That’s a character arc we’ve seen many times in Hollywood movies. A stronger tactic with this scenario would be to work out an arc more clearly centered in the truths of your own life.
For instance: Maybe these interstellar smugglers have actually been terrorizing the protagonist’s region of space for years, and this taps into your own history of being bullied as a kid, and the strong emotions you have around that.
Now it’s personal for you—so when the protagonist finally confronts that antagonist, the leader of this gang of smugglers, at the climax of the story, a lot of emotional power will be unleashed, because you’ll be confronting that bully in a way you never got to in real life.
I mentioned before that this takes courage, though, and here’s the tricky part: remembering how you really felt, and really thought, before you arrived at the insight or realization that helped you to overcome the challenges you faced.
Because hindsight is 20/20, and once you’ve figured out the way out of that escape room you were locked in, the answer seems obvious. But it wasn’t obvious when you were stuck in there, trapped not just by your circumstances but by whatever internal block was keeping you from seeing the solution, and finding your way out.
It’s only by sharing the whole truth of the journey—the good, the bad, the ugly, and, hopefully, the transformation that helped you get free—that you can give this great gift to your reader, this gift of the heart, and unleash the full emotional power of your novel.
Susan DeFreitas is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award, and the editor of Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, a finalist for the Foreword INDIES. An independent editor and book coach, she specializes in helping writers from historically marginalized backgrounds, and those writing socially engaged fiction, break through into publishing. She offers a free masterclass, Fiction As a Force for Change, here.