The Arc: Character Change Tracking


When you create a character, you start with a collection of attributes. Then a story happens- and if it’s a complicated story, it affects the character. Their attributes change, for better or worse.

Actually, there are two types of character change you may track as a writer, depending on how much upfront planning you like to do. There’s the anticipated character arc you plot out before getting started, and then there are the unanticipated changes that come to you while drafting.

You gotta start somewhere. The character sheet concept helps you brainstorm who the character is at the beginning of the story. Some additional things I like to figure out about characters- if only for my own reference, not necessarily to work into the prose:

  • Physical description
  • Approximate age
  • Occupations, interests, hobbies
  • Temperament
  • Beliefs, philosophies
  • Habits, tics, speech patterns
  • Brief notes on how they feel/act toward other characters (although relationships are something to sketch out in more detail… later!)
  • At least a rough idea of background, upbringing, life story up to this point in time (more important for main characters)

So again, that’s the starting point. The next step is to figure out how the story unfolds from this character’s point of view. Depending on how long the story is, I spend a few sentences or paragraphs summarizing it as though this character is the main character. What events are they involved with? Who/What affects them, and how? How do these things change the character’s outlook, behavior, beliefs, position in life, etc.?

Voila. We have an arc!

In a short story, it may be just a wiggle, or even a flatline. In a novel, it’d better look like the Rocky Mountains.

Having every character’s arc written down in one place is a great starting point for figuring out the really important beats, events, and turning points to show in your prose. These notes are also super-helpful for refreshing yourself on a character you haven’t worked with in months.

But of course, your initial thoughts never stay fixed, or this would be easy. ;) While drafting, you’ll almost certainly come up with different takes on the characters, or stray from your outline. New characters may appear out of nowhere, or old ones may turn irrelevant and be removed.

How the heck do you track all this, especially since change-tracking takes away from writing time?

Well, I’m still figuring out my system. But so far, here’s what seems to be working:

  1. In the manuscript, I use a comment to note something new or different. (ex. “Hey, this guy used to be a soldier. I’ve made him a merchant now.”)
  2. Do my best to go through the manuscript and incorporate that change everywhere it’s relevant. (ex. “Oh shoot, here he is talking about bullets. Let’s change that to silks, shall we?”)
  3. When I’m completely done drafting- i.e., I’m certain there will be no more changes of heart- I create a second version of my character arc notes, review all the manuscript comments, and incorporate the changes that took place.
  4. Do at least one read through the manuscript just for continuity’s sake, making sure I didn’t leave any trace of the old stuff behind.

I don’t get rid of my original thoughts, just in case I ever need them. It’s also amusing sometimes to look back and remember who a character used to be.

We’re far from finished talking about documentation! Keep your eyes peeled for thoughts on character relationships, outlines, and more! :)

How and where do you like tracking this reference material, if at all? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!

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