I remember it vividly. I was curled up in front of the TV, staring slack-jawed at the screen as Daenerys Targaryen mowed-down the residents of King’s Landing. I couldn’t believe it. While the writers had slowly developed her into a ruthless and unyielding leader, the one thing they never let go of was her compassion for others. Then, as she’s about to get everything she ever wanted, she flips a switch and becomes a demonic murderer? It didn’t make any sense, and the show faced immense backlash for their portrayal of her undue demise.
While an argument can be made that she was slowly drifting towards the darker parts of herself, the timing of her unleashed rage seemed inappropriate. This promoted a lot of criticism for rushing to an ending that really needed another season’s worth of character development (or undoing).
The bottom line was simple: Dani’s decision to burn down the city she sought to control wasn’t authentic to her character – at least not to her character at that moment in her story arc. Character arcs are tricky. Slow progression leads to boredom, while quick progression leads to inauthenticity, and both are deadly for any novel.
There is a lot of advice floating around about this topic, and because writing isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor, I thought I’d share the top three.
1. Write your character backward.
One way to prevent issues in your character’s development is to write their story arc in reverse. This is especially helpful for people who like to have a clear plan/outline for their stories. For example, suppose you know that your once kind and caring character will become a blood-thirsty tyrant in the final chapter. In that case, you might ask yourself, “What needs to happen in the previous few chapters for her dive into tyranny to be realistic?” You would continue to ask yourself this (or similar) questions as you work your way backward through your character’s story arc.
2. Write your character’s background story.
If you don’t love following a guide, but you’re not quite a pantser, consider writing a background story for your MC. One thing this can help you define is your character’s motive. If their backstory is wrought with familial anguish or the fear of abandonment, these things can become important tools for your character’s development. Knowing where your character came from is almost as important as knowing where your character is going. What motivates them? Why are they the MC in your story in the first place? Once you know who your character is at their core, you’re less likely to make the mistake of turning them into something they aren’t.
3. Use decision points to stay authentic. (The Pantser Method)
If you are someone who likes to feel the story as you write it, this might be the method for you. This method is extremely simple. Every time your character gets to a decision point in the plot, ask yourself, “Which decision is most aligned with both where my character is now and where I see them going next?” When Dany was atop Drogon, staring out at a city that was ringing its bells in surrender, she had a multitude of choices at her fingertips. The most obvious was to take Drogon to the Red Keep to end Cersei’s life. Choosing to burn the city to the ground instead felt more like a decision to shock rather than stay true to Dany’s character. This isn’t to say that your characters can’t do anything shocking. As a matter of fact, they should. However, your reader should be able to trace that decision back to something authentic, such as a breaking point or a character flaw.
The more complex and misunderstood your characters, the more difficult it will be to maintain their authenticity. Getting to know your characters on a deep and meaningful level will allow you to avoid the pitfalls of inauthentic story arcs.