Sep 22nd, 2020
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We Make Books is hosted by Rekka Jay and Kaelyn Considine; Rekka is a published author and Kaelyn is an editor and together they are going to take you through what goes into getting a book out of your head, on to paper, in to the hands of a publisher, and finally on to book store shelves.
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Episode 44: Theme and Character Arcs
transcribed by Sara Rose (@saraeleanorrose)
R: Welcome back to We Make Books, a podcast about publishing—and writing. And sometimes going backward and revising. Whoops. I’m Rekka, I write science fiction and fantasy as RJ Theodore.
K: And I’m acquisitions editor, I, Kaelyn Considine, at Parvus Press.
R: How dare you.
K: It’s the heat. It’s the heat and then quarantine.
R: The heat is definitely getting to us. We have to turn off the AC to record these, folks, so pity us.
K: Hi, everyone! No, today we actually have, I think, an interesting episode. We are going based off a Twitter question we got from one of our listeners, Ashley Graham, about themes and character arcs and how to manage them and make them good in your story.
R: And by good, we mean strong or tight or—
K: Pervasive, efficient—
R: Pervasive. [giggles]
K: What are some other words we use to describe them here? Lots of very positive adjectives, to be sure.
R: Mhm, yeah.
K: You want your character arcs tight and your themes pervasive.
K: It’s kind of what we’re left with here. Anyway, we had a lot of fun talking about this because it’s something that I really enjoy working with authors on.
R: Yeah, when Kaelyn gets a novel manuscripts, this is what she dives in and gets to.
K: It is, yeah. This is at the very developmental level and I think anybody who’s a writer that’s listening to this and has submitted and gotten rejections has probably, at some point, gotten a note to “work on their themes or character arcs.”
K: Which is just so helpful and specific.
R: That’s why they call them form rejections.
K: Yes. So, we spent a lot of time in this talking about, first of all, what are these themes and character arcs? And how do you work on them? A lot of fun examples in movies and shows and, you know, like I said this is one of my favorite things about editing, is working on these parts of the book.
R: See, Kaelyn thought that she could ask me to restrain her, but the fact is I also love these, so we did go on a little bit. But I think we’ve had longer episodes. We’re fine.
K: Definitely, yeah. We were like kids in a candy shop for this, to be sure.
R: That’s true.
K: Anyway, so take a listen. We hope this is helpful, if this is something you’ve been struggling with in your writing process, and we’ll see you on the other side of the music.
[intro music plays]
K: I don’t know what I could’ve hit. That’s upsetting. Anyway! So, if my elbow hit something is that a character arc or is that a theme?
R: I think that’s a theme. Or it might be a story element…
K: It could be a plotline. Is the elbow a character?
R: Is the elbow haunted?
K: I mean, I assume so. It’s mine, yes. Anyway, today we’re talking about—one of our listeners, Ashley Graham, sent us a question about, I don’t know. Do we wanna read the question?
R: I’m gonna summarize it. Basically, Ashley was working on a short fiction piece and was suggested to, by an editor, that the theme and character arc could use some clarification. So, what the heck does that mean? That’s feedback that people will see.
K: That’s very common feedback, actually. Probably, I think, a lot of people listening to this who have submitted something either to an agent or an editor, probably got feedback that may have specifically said character arc and theme.
R: Yeah. And I think this one might have been for a publication, so short fiction market. And you’re gonna get that kind of stuff a lot because their second-tier response is going to be, “Your story almost made it, you could’ve tightened this up,” you know?
K: Yeah, and also, especially with short fiction, you’re gonna see that more because you have to do a lot in a short amount of time.
K: Now that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, to indicate that you won’t see this with long-form fiction because, believe me, you will. I’ve said it multiple times myself—
R: It might be easier to go astray with a long novel.
K: It’s very true. So, why is it these two things, a lot, that you hear? Because they’re a little, especially in the case of themes, they’re a little nebulous and not as easy to pin down. A plot is, I think, a lot of times easier because it’s the story. When you sit down to write an outline, what you’re outlining is usually the plot.
R: It’s concrete, it’s easy to point at and go, “That is part of the plot. That is a thing that happens and it happens in an order and if that order goes awry then it’s not a plot anymore.”
K: That’s exactly what I was gonna say, was that when you’re outlining something and it’s the plot, it’s an order of actions happening in sequence, or maybe out of sequence, depending on how you’re writing, but in how they’re going to be presented in the final book or short story, or what have you.
So, before we get started, let’s kinda define some things here. So a plot, obviously, we know what a plot is. That is not a character arc, it is not a theme. A plot is the elements of a story that take place and happen to the characters. That is a very broad definition, obviously, but plots are sequences on actions and things that happen.
R: Yeah, I’ve even heard it defined as a sequence of actions, reactions, and complicating factors.
K: Yes, that’s a really good way to describe it. Themes and character arcs, and it’s funny because character arcs and plots get confused together and then themes and morals get confused together. A theme is not a moral, a moral is, we’re talking strictly in terms of terms in literature. A moral is a lesson that is learned. A moral is the kid sticks his hand in the cookie jar when he’s not supposed to, it gets stuck, he breaks the cookie jar and has cuts on his hand and his mom finds out he was doing all of this anyway.
So what has he learned? He has learned to listen to his mother because maybe it’s not just that she doesn’t want him to eat cookies when he shouldn’t, maybe it’s that he could get hurt. That is a moral. That is actions and the plot leading up to a character changing themselves because they learned something. That is not a theme.
So, now that we have—
R: It’s a character arc though.
K: It certainly could be.
K: And so that’s why I’m saying, plots and character arcs and themes and morals can get confused. So now that we’ve established what we’re not talking about, let’s talk about what we are talking about.
And let’s start with themes because that one is a little more nebulous, I think. A theme in a story is, at its basis level, an underlying message. It’s a big idea.
K: It is conceptual. It’s things that do not physically, tangibly exist in the world. If you are saying, “Yes, the theme is this,” and a lot of times, if it’s something you can actually touch, that’s probably not actually a theme.
R: So my theme is not coffee?
K: Your theme might be coffee, Rekka.
R: I was gonna say! You’re speaking in universals here, but I just don’t feel like I can relate to what you’re saying.
K: Your—your theme might be coffee. [laughs] Now, somebody might—you might come in and say, “What about the ocean? What if the theme of this story is the ocean?” Well, my answer to that is that the theme of the story is probably not the ocean.
The theme of the story might be travel or man versus nature or the horror of the unknown, and the ocean just happens to embody that.
K: Again, these are Big Ideas. These are things that you cannot touch, feel, or hold. So things like love, death, good versus evil, a lot of coming of age stories. Stories of rebellion and overthrowing corrupt systems of government. Survival. These are themes. And those are big themes. You can have smaller ones like… family. Finding things that are lost.
R: Appreciating what you had all along, kind of thing,
K: Exactly, yes. Realizing that home was really where you wanted to be this whole time.
R: Yeah. Adventure was the friends you made along the way.
K: Exactly, yes. The other thing that I always tell people when trying to identify themes in their story and bring them forward a little more, is what do you want the reader to walk away thinking, feeling, or knowing? If the theme of your story is: the adventure was the friends you made along the way, then you want the reader to go, “You know what? I really need to go spend some more time with my friends and do something fun with them.”
K: Or “ I need to go out and make some new friends,” or “I’m gonna go have an adventure and see if I make any new friends.”
K: Your—if, you know, the theme is something like death and loss, maybe you want the reader to leave feeling really sad and depressed and hopeless, staring into the void of existence.
R: You monster.
K: Hey, I mean we’ve all read a book like that.
R, laughing: Yes. In high school. They were required reading.
K: Ohh, oh yeah.
R: So, another way to phrase this or to think about it is to—say, your example of the ocean and say, “Okay, but that’s still a noun.” If you were to remove the noun, what’s left? What’s underneath that? If the setting and the characters are the carpet and you pull up the carpet, what’s underneath it? What is the most fundamental, base human relatable thing that you’re communicating with this story?
K: And that’s what makes themes so difficult to manage and to bring forward in stories, is that they are intangible. You can’t—There’s a frequently said thing that editors use which is, “Show me, don’t tell me.”
K: And that is—
R: We should have an episode on that.
K, laughs: Yeah. But that is themes. You can’t put a sentence in there saying, “And the theme is: love.” No, you need—it’s something that has to be woven through your story for the reader to pick up on their own. You shouldn’t have to tell the reader what the theme of this story is.
So, now, before we go too far down that line, let’s kinda talk about character arcs and what is a character arc? They’re definitely a little more tangible, if you will, than themes. You can sit down—and I encourage people to sit down and write out a character arc. Rekka, you’ve done this a few times.
R: A few...yes. Just a couple.
K: Just a few. But a character arc is partially, mostly, a lot of times, an inner journey. It’s a transforma—
R: It’s a transformation. Ah, there we go.
K: It’s a transformation of the character over the course of the story. We’re seeing them start out a certain way, the plot affects them, and they have to change and adapt accordingly. And some definitions of this will say it must be a permanent change. I don’t buy into that because I don’t think that everything needs to be a fundamental personality shift.
R: Well, sometimes you just really wanna write a really long series and that character’s gonna have to learn that lesson more than once.
K: Yeah… Hey, nobody said these characters have to be smart!
R: Yeah, they don’t have to grow ever upward.
K: No, character arc is something. Theme has been what it is for a long time. Character arc is something that, I think, the standards and definitions of it have shifted a little bit over time. In fiction, especially, if you go back to when literature was first being really defined and written about and studied, you’ll find a lot of stuff that says, “Well, a character arc must have these elements: the character must start here; they must encounter or create a problem for themselves; they must come up with a way to overcome that problem, or get the thing that they need; they must suffer a setback; they must recover from the setback; they must resolve the storyline.”
R: And usually in a Three Act, there’s a second setback that’s extra bad.
K: Yeah, yes. I don’t agree with this. I think that there’s no such thing as a formulaic character arc.
R: Right. And, for one, that’s a very Western oriented, Western-centric character arc. You’re going to travel outside Western stories, you’re going to see different character arcs.
K: I would make the argument that character arcs that are a very Western thing that can be applied to a lot of stories because the nature of stories has character arcs, but—
R: Well, I would argue that the nature of Western civilization is colonialism and that sure is going in and applying new rules to other people’s stuff, so. [laughs]
R: So burn down character arcs, got it.
K: Yeah. No, no. And, look, what makes stories interesting is seeing the people in them grow and change. The degree to which that happens varies wildly across all genres and all cultures and how—I’ve had literature professors that said, “If your character is not X amount different by the end of the story, then that’s not a successful character arc,” and I think that’s bullshit.
Because character arcs, which are obviously very tied to character development, do not necessarily need to be a fundamental shift in personality.
R: So, why don’t we start talking a little bit examples. We named one off the air, before we started recording, which was basically any character that Harrison Ford plays.
K, laughing: Yeah!
R: Do any of those characters fundamentally change across the time spent on screen?
K: Well, let’s scale it down a bit to characters Harrison Ford plays that appear in multiple movies. Franchise Harrison Ford characters.
K: Okay, well I don’t know anything about Jack Ryan, so I’m not gonna be able to help there.
R: Basically, he’s—once again, we’re talking about uber-competent male action heroes, basically.
K: I am going to focus primarily on Indiana Jones and Han Solo because that’s an interesting dichotomy. One of them has a character arc, the other absolutely does not. Spoiler alert: Indiana Jones does not really have much of a character arc.
R: Um, as we said, his character arc is… he needs a thing, he has a competitor for the thing, the competitor gives him a setback, he overcomes, approaches again, has a bigger setback, and then he gets the thing. It’s not a personal growth, it is his striding toward a goal.
K: Yes, but that is his plot.
R: That is also the movie plot, but I’m just saying—is it a flattening of the character arc with the plot, when the character doesn’t change very much?
K: It is because Indiana Jones does not change over the course of the story. He ends and begins every movie with, It Belongs in A Museum.
R: Fortune over ___, kid.
K: Yeah, that’s Indiana Jones. It’s It Belongs in A Museum or I Don’t Want the Nazis to Have This. That is everything motivating Indiana Jones throughout all of his movies. Han Solo, on the other hand, does have a character arc. Han Solo starts out as a smuggler and a guy who, according to his prequel, was running drugs.
K: And he eventually becomes somebody who, instead of just living this sort of private-smuggler lifestyle—
R: Out for himself.
K: Yeah! Out for himself. Has friends and family that he grows to care about. And maybe he’s not as gung-ho Freedom Fighter as they are, but he certainly takes their values and their goals into account and wants to help them and be successful in that. Then he walks into a lightsaber—but we’ll, you know… that’s… [laughs] But! It is a different, it’s another downswing on the character arc is that we see that Han Solo, at the end of the day, is still Han Solo.
K: Because what happens? He goes back to smuggling pirate loner lifestyle with Chewbacca. We pick up with him again and, yeah, he’s different but of course he is, he’s older. So there, again, successful character arc! But what he’s showing us is that, at the end of the day, this is what he does and this is what he knows and this is what he’s good at.
R: Well, but, the question is, is he good at it or is he Chewbacca’s sidekick.
K, laughing: How good he is is a different query.
R: Okay, so—
K: Actually, real quick sidebar, if you think about it, everything we’ve seen of Han Solo, he’s not actually a very good smuggler.
R: No, he’s terrible! So the question is, does your character start from a default? And what we’re saying here is Han Solo, his default is smuggler, loner, trying to make the next paycheck and keep himself out of trouble.
K: Scruffy-faced nerf-herder.
R: Whenever he is thrown into the mix with people who are potential friends, they mess up his default and pull him away from that. But send an obstacle into his path—like a son—and he reverts back to his default when he doesn’t know how to cope.
K: Yeah, exactly. So, Han Solo is actually, and I think, primarily accidentally, a very successful and good example of a character arc.
K: Indiana Jones: It Belongs in A Museum or Stop The Nazis.
R: I think he’s intentionally left out of the character arc.
K: Yeah, I mean—but this is the thing, that’s not what those stories are about.
R: Right. That’s to the point of this question is, when you are told to tighten up a character arc or a theme, you do need to know what kind of story you’re telling before you decide how deep into character arcs and themes you need to dive. I mean, you might get this feedback from one person, and they might be off the mark for what you were trying to do with your story.
R: Which can also tell you, maybe you need to extract a little of that character arc and not make it feel like it’s so much about developing a character, if you are just telling a whip-cracking, gun-toting archaeologist tale. Don’t do that. Archaeologists don’t appreciate it.
K, laughing: Yeah, that’s uh—
R: Another episode.
K: In case anyone was confused at home, that’s not what archaeology’s actually like, sadly. Anyway, now that we’ve talked about what character arcs and themes are, why are these two things that people are frequently told to tighten up? And frequently told to tighten them together?
We’ve already said that character arcs are closer to plots, themes are closer to morals, but they’re not the same thing. So how do character arcs and themes overlap? Themes motivate and drive characters. This feeds both the plot and the character arc. The plot, obviously, because based on the theme, and therefore the character’s motivation, the character will be making that will affect both the plot and their character arc.
K: That’s where things start to get a little tricky. Those two are very closely intertwined. Because obviously the plot, in a lot of cases, is dependent upon what the character is doing. Their choices and decisions dictate what happens next in the story.
So then, drill down for that, what is influencing their decision-making, their motivation? And where is the motivation coming from? And that’s where you start to get to the themes of the story. So, if one of the themes of your story is survival and, let’s think of—
K: Okay, that’s a more fun example. I was gonna say The Hatchet, remember that book we all had to read in middle school?
R: Yeah, we’re not doing that, we’re doing Alien.
K: Okay, we’re doing Alien.
R: Mostly because there was a point you made earlier about character and we used Harrison Ford’s various characters as the example, but I love the example of, specifically in terms of survival, and specifically in terms of the character of Ripley, Ripley doesn’t really change throughout the movie. What she does is survive because she has the skillset, which is the ability to think things through logically in the first place, to say, “Okay, we need to not be doing this.”
Basically the theme of Alien, correct me if I’m wrong, is We Should Have Listened to Ripley?
K: I mean, yeah. Probably. But beyond just the theme of—Granted, this goes into further expansions in the Alien franchise, but—
R: Well, let’s stick with Alien for one. The other movies in the franchise are different genres, basically. So sticking with the space truckers’ monster-horror survival.
K: Alien is a horror movie in space. That’s all it is. It was groundbreaking, genre-defining, but it is a horror movie in space. So, the themes of the movie, as Rekka said: survival. There’s also, I would say, a theme of frustration.
R: Mhm. The capitalist bureaucracy.
K: Well, and that’s what I was getting into.
K: So then we’re introducing a conflict element there that is beyond simply: there’s a thing laying eggs in people’s chests.
R: That thing laying eggs in people’s chest wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the company.
K: Yes, exactly. So then, if you want to take all of that and say, “Okay, so how does that affect Ripley’s character arc?” Ripley is changed at the end of the story, not necessarily physically or personality-wise, but emotionally she is very affected. And she is going to then—have you ever heard about how Alien was supposed to end? One of the alternative endings they shot?
The alien gets Ripley, essentially, and then when whoever is calling in over the ship, the alien gets the intercom and answers back in her voice, requesting for orbits to come back to Earth.
K: So, it was a very bleak ending, obviously.
R: But a lot of monster movies do this. They leave off with you not feeling safe.
K: Yes, and so that is another theme. What do you wanna leave your readers with? And, in this case, the movie pivoted a little bit and said, “Well, we wanna give the audience a sense of closure,” and that all of this, this theme of survival, she did survive. So rather than going with the theme of feeling unsafe, which was another theme running through that entire movie, paranoia, uncertainty—
K: Claustrophobia. Anybody could become your enemy at any moment.
R: Body horror. Yup.
K: Yeah. So instead of leaving off with that theme, they decided to be a little kinder and pivot a little bit to say, “Hey, determination, intelligence, stick-to-itiveness, and survival will make you victorious.” Which is another set of themes. So then, back to, how does this tie into the character arc is: Ripley is a changed person at the end of this.
Boy, has she seen some shit. And now she knows that this corporation is up to no good. She is no longer just in it for the money. They say this is a long, awful journey, but it’s very good money. It’s totally worth it.
K: Maybe it’s not worth it anymore. There’s absolutely some anti-capitalist undertones in there.
K: Ripley comes out of this, even though personality-wise she hasn’t changed—the movie takes place over a relatively short period of time. But Ripley’s definitely got some different thoughts and motivations now, at the end of this. So, even though she hasn’t undergone a radical, inner transformation, she certainly thinks different things now than she did before.
R: Yeah, for sure.
K: So, yeah. That’s a great example of some really cool themes and how they affect—and it’s interesting because you could take it a step further and say how they affect the character arc, rather than the plot.
K: Because in this case, a lot of Ripley’s decisions are reactionary. Things are happening and she’s trying to adapt and recalibrate very, I’m only thinking of two instances in the whole—really, one and a half off the top of my head, in which she goes on the offensive, so to speak.
R: Right. Well that’s also sort of a plot thing is that your character is reacting to things up until a certain point, and then it’s at the time when they decide to say, “No, I will take care of this myself,” that’s when you’re entering that last act.
K: Yes! But, then, by the time we get to the, “I’ll take care of this myself,” for the plot and the character arc, we all go back to the themes of Ripley kind of coming to a new understanding of how stuff is actually happening around her, rather than letting it happen to her.
K: Yeah. Anyway, I think that’s a good example.
R: Cool. So, now that we’ve talked about what they are, given you some examples, figured out how to un-intertwine the character arc and theme. How do you tighten them up? And since the example given was a short story for publication, let’s assume we’re doing this in under 7,000 words. How do you tighten up character arc and theme and you’ve also, presumably, got a plot in there, in a very efficient way?
K: All of these kind of work together. I think that anything you’re going to do to a short story, you can apply to longer form fiction and vice versa. So me, personally, with—and Rekka has been on the receiving end of this a couple times—when working with authors, let’s start with themes. I mentioned before, one of the first things I ask the author is: What do you want the audience to know, think, or feel that they didn’t at the beginning of the book?
And when I say know, I don’t mean you’re—
R: Teaching them.
K: Yeah, you’re not putting a graph-chart in there and saying, “And then the price of gold went up to—” I’m not talking about facts, I’m talking about what you want them to know about these nebulous concepts in the way you want them to know it? So, identifying those things really will help you figure out where your themes are.
The other thing I always say, and this is where it starts to tie into the character arc, is look at the character arcs and the plot and the motivation. What are the characters doing and why are they doing it? What is driving them to do this? Because that’s where you’re gonna find a lot of your themes. And then, if theme is very important to you, if you really want to hammer a message home, making sure that your characters act and are motivated by that theme, consistently—and this isn’t to say it can’t evolve, it absolutely can. But making sure that they are correctly motivated, based on what the theme is, is a really good way to help tighten that up.
Then, that helps to feed into their character arc. Because you have a character, then, acting, reacting, and making decisions based on what is important to them and how the story is building.
R: And I think, at this point, if you’re feeling like, “I can’t make this character make this decision,” then that tells you that you are not succeeding at either theme or character arc.
K: Yes… and—
R: Or not in a way that supports what you set out to do with the plot.
K: Yes, and listen. I want to be clear about something that every story does not need to be a Magnum Opus of subtle themes and ideas woven through this— it’s going to be studied in college 101 classes for decades to come. But you do need a theme for your story. You need there to be something that is important in all of this. Otherwise it is a bland series of actions happening one after the other.
R: And if you don’t feel that it is a bland series, or your beta readers don’t feel that it is a bland series of actions, one after another, that means there’s a theme in there. So if you’re having trouble identifying it, that doesn’t mean immediately that you don’t have one.
I will use an example of Mike Underwood, when I was working on Annihilation Aria with him. So we had a few calls, I read the manuscript multiple times, and Mike had actually said the themes of the story are very important to him. So I went through the manuscript, and I do this with most books that I edit, and I kind of write out a plot outline based on what I’m reading, what I see happening in the book. Part of this is, one, that it’s just easier for me to keep track of things, but then also because if I show it to the author and say, “Okay, this is how I’m reading this,” and they’re going, “No, no! That’s not it at all,” then it’s like, okay, now we need to have a conversation.
But one of the things that I like to do through that is mark off, in my notes of this outline, where I’m identifying and seeing certain themes. And then we have a conversation about that. And if we’re seeing a real imbalance of them, or I’m only seeing them come through in certain parts of the story, or if I’m having a real hard time nailing them down and saying, “I feel like I’ve got ten themes in this story. Which one’s the most important to you?”
And I think that’s a really good exercise is, you know, most authors out there, I’m guessing if you’re pretty far into your Work-In-Progress at this point, you probably already have an outline. So go through it and try to pick out sections where you think certain themes are coming through. And I actually color-code them and then I can look through and see, “Oh, there’s a lot of red and not so much blue.”
R: Mhm. If you’re a pantser and you write without an outline, this is something you do, probably in your revision process. Write down a summary of each scene and that becomes an outline. Just because you’re doing it after the fact doesn’t make it less of an outline. And then do the same practice with that.
K: Exactly. It’s not easy to do. There’s a reason that anybody who’s taking any sort of an English literature class will say there’s a reason you spend a lot of time working on and learning about themes is because they’re intangible. They’re nebulous. There isn’t a point at which, in the story, the character breaks the fourth wall and says, “Hey, just so you know, we’re introducing a new theme here! It’s compassion!”
R: But at the same time, you study examples in order to identify the universalities and that’s what themes are.
R: So, if you learn how to work your theme around compassion, you can write twenty novels that are completely different that are all about compassion, and you’d get really good at it. You know?
K: Yeah, absolutely.
R: That’s why romance writers are really good at what they’re doing. By choosing their genre, they know what the theme is and they stick to it and, by the end, capital R, Romance writers are really, really efficient at getting stories written because they’ve already done this work. And every time you do this with a theme, it answers questions about the plot.
R: What needs to happen here? I’m lost. Well, okay, what’s your theme? What needs to happen here? Oh, well this!
Yeah, you answered your own question.
K: So, just to talk a little—with character arc, tightening that up and defining it a little better. Again, outlines here help. And it doesn’t need to be anything too detailed. It just needs to be this, then this, then this, then this and then throw some lines in there explaining what led to or motivated the character to get to that point. Character arcs, it’s funny because in some ways they are far more concrete than themes. You can actually sit down and outline a character arc, but I think it is harder sometimes to say, “Is this a character arc?”
The most important thing in the character arc is the character has to be different at the end than when they started. It can be something like RIpley in Alien where she hasn’t undergone a major personality shift, but she has changed the way she thinks and will act differently now because of that.
As opposed to someone like Luke Skywalker, who has the farmboy to legendary hero character arc, but Luke goes on this whole journey and at the end of it, he is a very, very, very different person than when he started because of all of the things that happened to him. All of the experiences, the adversity, the finding out his father’s Darth Vader. I mean, that alone—
R: Oh, I know. Plus he literally can’t go back to the life he had before.
K: Yeah, exactly. And that’s actually a very good marker of a successful character arc. Can they go back to how things were before? And if the answer is yes, your character has probably not had enough of a character arc for it to be considered a character arc.
R: Or it’s Indiana Jones.
K: Or it’s Indiana Jones. Because Indiana Jones always just goes back to how things were before. Indiana Jones has proof that God exists—
R: And goes back to university and just keeps teaching the Neolithic Era.
K: And just kept living his life! [laughs] Indiana Jones has multiple instances of literal proof that not only does the Judeo-Christian God exist, but also Hindu deities and various other things.
K: Aliens! All of this stuff and just continues on like it’s nothing. I don’t know what that says about him. If we should be impressed or horrified.
R: I think we’re supposed to be impressed. The idea being that the first time we see it happen is not the first time it happens for him.
K: I wanna be very clear about something: in the timeline of Indiana Jones because we all know—
R: Are we counting the River Phoenix and Young Indiana Jones?
K: Oh, no, but we’re counting the beginning of Last Crusade, to be sure.
R: Okay, alright.
K: Okay, so we’ve got Last Crusade, we’ve got that awesome train scene, whatever. Chronologically, then, Temple of Doom actually happens first.
R: Right, so we have the intro to Last Crusade, we have Temple of Doom—
K: And Temple of Doom, we establish that Hindu deities are clearly a real thing and a serious force to be reckoned with. Even if you wanna say, “Well, maybe it wasn’t the Hindu deities, it was magic,” okay fine, it was still bad, it was still, you know, unhappy.
K: Alright, so then we go to Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the end of that we have established that the Judeo-Christian God is a real thing that exists and does not like Nazis and you should not open the box.
K: Then, we go to The Last Crusade, and in case anybody was a little like, “Meh, I’m not sure, that could’ve been who-knows-what, just because they said it was the Ark of the Covenant doesn’t mean that’s what it really was,” well now we’ve got the Holy Grail. The literal, actual Holy Grail that has kept a Crusades-era knight alive and then, if we’re still gonna take this a step further, heals his dying father’s mortal wounds.
K: So, we have now established that multiple deities actually, really exist and this guy just freaking goes back to teaching college like this hasn’t rocked his entire world.
R: Teachers have a limited amount of vacation time.
R: What is he gonna do?
K: Doesn’t he get summers off? I just assumed that was when all of these were happening.
R: I don’t think he has tenure yet? Once he has tenure, maybe.
K: Yeah, yeah. Good point. Anyway, the whole point is: Indiana Jones, not a great character arc. Can he go back to the way things were? Yes. He does.
K: Over and over again.
R: He resets to default.
K: Yes. Getting back—I apologize, we got sidetracked there again—
R: It’s fine.
K: It’s fine, we get excited. So how do you actually go about tightening these up? When somebody gives you the incredible, helpful note of tighten up your themes and character arcs. So helpful. What do you do?
Well, so, for themes I think a good technique is sort of what I mentioned. Go back either through your outline or through your manuscript for revisions, and identify motivations and actions and what themes stem from those.
R: And color-code them maybe, like you said.
K: Maybe color code them. Take a step back, so to speak. Take a thousand foot view and say, “Is the story driven by these or are they happening because the story’s the thing that’s driving here?” If it’s the second one, you do not have tight themes. The themes should be the ones driving the story and motivating the characters and influencing the plot.
R: And by driving the story, we don’t mean stop at the end of every two paragraphs and reiterate what your theme is.
K: Yes, so how do you tighten this up? Identify things that are happening. Be they actions of characters or elements of the plot. Maybe external forces of nature, depending on what your themes are, and go in and emphasize those a little bit. Make it so that—Yes, you can’t have a character turn to the audience, wink, and say, “I’m doing this for love!” But you certainly can have an inner dialogue where they are acknowledging and identifying that what is motivating them is their love for their dog.
K: Or, I guess, their significant other. Whatever.
R: Mostly the dog.
K: Yeah, probably the dog. This goes into the Show Me, Don’t Tell Me.
K: See the characters react based on things that are important to them, and that brings forward your themes. I don’t like the phrase “tighten up your themes” I like the phrase “strengthen your themes.”
K: And emphasize your themes. Showcase your themes. With themes, you’re not contracting them. You’re trying to disperse them a little bit more through the story. You are showing, not telling.
R: The thing is, like, a bouillon cube.
R: It starts very small, but it goes throughout your entire project.
K: And then there’s no getting it out again. It’s in there.
R, laughing: Yeah.
K: Character arcs, on the other hand, are absolutely something that can be tightened and focused. So, how do you do this?
First, look at your themes. How are they affecting the story? How are they affecting the character’s decisions? Then look at what the characters are doing. Is it primarily reactionary? Are they just letting things happen to them? Or do they have agency? Are they making decisions themselves?
And it’s okay if, especially for the first part of the book, they’re just reacting. A lot of stories start out with a character just trying to get their feet under them, to recover and reorient themselves from something happening.
R: Although, I wanna say that that does not mean they shouldn’t have some sort of agency.
K: Yes, there needs to be decision-making in there.
R: Maybe they want something that they’re going to end up not wanting at the end.
K: Well, it can come down simply to something like they’re running away from the alien monster that grew from what was living in the back of their fridge and, do I run upstairs and lock myself in the bedroom or do I run out the front door?
Yes, they’re running, but they’re making a decision of how they’re best going to try to escape this.
R: And they can make the wrong decisions, too. I mean, that’s kind of part of the character arc.
K: That is part of the character arc. So tightening these up has to do with having the character come up against a conflict or an obstacle or a decision and then learning and growing and changing from it. So, again, identifying the parts at which your character is coming up against conflict in some way. And conflict, here, not meaning physical or argumentative. Sometimes the conflict can simply be, “It’s low tide, I need to catch fish and I can’t catch fish when it’s low tide.”
K: It can be like a force of nature. And then identifying how they’re reacting. Then, the next time it’s low tide, have they instead gone, “Ah, yes, I should catch extra fish because on this planet low tide lasts for three days and, therefore, I’m not going to be able to fish again for three days.” That’s growing and learning and making new mistakes.
R: Like staying on this planet where low tide lasts for three days. Can you imagine the smell?
K: There’s a very weird mood pattern on this planet.
R: It’s pitch black but low tide.
K: Yes, exactly. So somehow. It’s really weird because there is no moon, actually. No one really knows where the tides are coming from.
So identifying the areas of conflict for your character, where they’re coming up against adversity, and then seeing how they’re making decisions. If they’re just not reacting, if they’re just not doing anything over and over again, that’s not character development. That’s not a character arc.
K: Having them grow and change and learn, maybe thinking: Okay, I’m safe now. I’ve locked myself in my room from the alien creature from the back of the fridge can’t get me. Oh, hang on a second. It learned how to open doors. That’s... what do I do now? Okay, I’ve got a chair I can put up against the door.
And then finally getting to the point of going: you know what? I should have just run outside. I need to get out of this house.
K: So, again, identifying areas where your character is coming up into conflict, figuring out how they’re reacting, and making sure that they’re learning and changing and not reacting the same way.
This is not a real thing, I wish it was, the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Obviously that’s not correct.
K: But it is important with character arcs and character development. Having your character do the same thing over and over again is not character arc.
R: Although there’s that stubbornness to that, or that unwillingness to grow, that can be the character arc and suddenly they realize doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is not getting me where I want to go. And the thing they learn is not to do that anymore.
K: I am now being eaten by the thing that lived in the back of the fridge. I regret my life choices.
R: And that’s the morality lesson—the moral of the tale is clean out your fridge.
K: Clean out your fridge, people!
R: And not just in August.
K: Is that a thing that you do in August?
R: No, I’m saying… it’s just about coming up on August as we record this, don’t make it an annual event. Make it a…
K: You know what’s funny is that with all of the quarantining and stuff, I have been so much better about cleaning the fridge out because I’m just here all the time.
K: And I’m kinda like, “Huh.”
R: Well, when you go into an office you procrastinate by going to the lounge and making a cup of coffee and getting a drink or going to talk to somebody about something. But, when you’re home, how do you procrastinate? The only thing you can do is clean.
K: It’s kinda like I’m looking at this going, “Huh, that might start talking to me soon. I should probably do something about that.”
R: But if you’d been going into an office, you would’ve said, “That thing is talking, I should probably do something about that.”
K: I’m gonna go back to my office.
R: At least you’d be the only one there.
K: Yeah, yeah. Anyway! That was a very long-winded way of answering your questions and I hope that—
R: We answered it.
K: We hope that was helpful and not just a series of me rambling about uh—
R: At least we talked about interesting movies and people can relate to, at least Ripley. Especially right now.
K: I think we can all relate to Ripley on some level. One of my favorite behind-the-scenes thing with Alien is, have you ever seen the cute scenes from there? There was a part, it was so ridiculous, it would have ruined the movie, the actor that played the alien was like 6’8” or something and they just put him in this giant rubber suit. And I can’t remember what part of the movie it would’ve been in, but it was one of those where the character’s backing slowly with their gun into a room and they hear something behind them and they turn around and the alien’s there.
And there’s footage out there—look this up—of the alien crab-walking up to them. So just imagine this giant, 6’8” man in this heavy, absurd rubber suit crab-walking on all fours up to this actor. It—I understand what they were trying to do, and the sound effects were certainly creepy, but… it just ruined the whole, it was too ridiculous-looking. Thankfully, they saw that and cut it.
R: I think that has a lot to do with the human joints versus where the joints were supposed to be in this alien.
K: Yeah. Well that’s like in The Exorcist with Regan walking backwards down the stairs. Part of how creepy about that is how unnatural it looks. You’ve got joints going in directions that maybe humans can do that, but they probably shouldn’t.
R: Right, yeah. Exactly. So theme. Stay limber.
K, laughing: Yes! Anyway, Ashley, we hope we answered that for you and keep us posted. Let us know how things go with the story. And if you want to keep us posted on anything else—
R: You can find us online. We are on Twitter and Instagram @wmbcast. We are at Patreon.com/wmbcast where we have some awesome patrons who are supporting the show. And if you feel like we have been helpful, you can throw us some bus fare and stuff for when we’re allowed to go see each other again and get back together for our podcast episode recordings.
K: I was gonna say, I don’t think we’re allowed on buses anytime soon, Rekka.
R: No, we’re definitely not. And if you don’t have cash to spare to support the show, you can also help us out a lot by leaving us a rating on review on Apple podcasts. We’re everywhere. Stitcher, Spotify, all that good stuff. But if you wanna leave a review, it’s most helpful to leave it there. You can also shoot us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can answer a question if you have one. If you wanna keep it anonymous, that’s the way to do it. Otherwise, post it to Twitter like Ashley did, and we’ll answer it in a future episode.
K: Yeah. We’ll try our best. That’s for sure.
K: Alright, well, thanks everyone so much and we’ll see you in a couple weeks.
R: Take care, everyone!
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