When I applied to a store belonging to a company that I’ve previously worked at for five years, I went in for the interview and before I’d even sat down, the manager asked, “Do you want to be a supervisor?”
“Yes!” I told her. I’d applied to be a cashier. The store I worked at before gave me all the responsibilities of a supervisor, but never gave me the title to avoid giving me the pay raise. Yeah. I gave five years of my life to those assholes.
Anyway, she told me my wage (quite a bit higher than minimum which is what I’d be making if I’d been hired as a cashier), and I left the interview high on life. I’d finally found a job after dropping out of school and considering that I was expecting minimum wage, I was stoked.
In fact, I was feeling so good that I texted my mom to let her know.
“That’s disappointing,” my mother responded upon hearing my wage and popping my bubble of excitement.
I promptly ignored her for the rest of the week. This in itself is huge accomplishment considering that for my whole life I’ve let her opinions change mine, making me think yeah, I guess that is disappointing about something I’d been excited about only moments before.
I’ve since been working steadily and you know what? I love it. Every aspect about this store is an improvement from my former store, and I’m happier than I ever was in the education program. I’m still living in a city that’s NOT Bumbleton, and now I’m supporting myself for the first time in my life. I’ve been thriving, having mostly good days at work and spending my evenings doing things I love (as opposed to marking and creating assignments and seriously considering setting myself on fire).
A couple of days ago, I went for coffee with a friend, and she asked how I was liking my job.
My response was weird.
Despite how I was really feeling, I said, “It’s okay.” But that’s not all I did. I avoided eye contact and put my head down when like a puppy being asked about the last time it got kicked.
What the hell, right? I’m doing so well, yet I was acting like I was being tortured eight hours a day, five days a week. Why did I do this?
I’ve realized that I lied about how I feel about my job because I felt that unless I pretended I was miserable, how dare I get satisfaction from working in retail? That is my parents’ perspective. It is not mine, not at all. Yet, I was letting their view point was make me feel inadequate.
They think of working in retail as a rung just above servitude, that the only people who work in it are “losers” like my relatives who are in and out of jail and stealing from charity. It’s just dawned on me right now even as I’m writing this how cruel saying that to me is. I’ve worked in retail for over a decade. My parents have been very vocal about their perspective the whole time. Yes, I worked in retail to get through school, but their perspective robbed me of the ability to feel pride or take joy in those 20 hours a week I spent working in a store. That’s ten years of my life that by their standards, I’ve been a loser. That should be the title of my memoir: Ten years of loserdom: a Kat story.
Their view about retail work was one of the hardest parts of dropping out. In my head was always exempt from loser status if I worked in retail and was in school at the same time. Even when I graduated with a bachelor’s degree on the president’s list and I couldn’t find work anywhere else because the economy was shit, I was a loser because I wasn’t in school. I’d just made a huge achievement, but I felt like I was a go-nowhere. A nothing. Destined to be miserable until some prince charming in the form of a career rescued me from the supposed dregs of society.
That’s why I’ve been attending post secondary school for seven years.
But not anymore.
Now I’m a drop out with a retail job. I am the epitome of loser in my parents’ and society’s eyes (even though I have a degree). Of course this job isn’t where I want to be five years from now, but…this is where I want to be right now. It took a lot for me to realize that.
I am going to stop hanging my head with shame every time someone asks what program I’m in and I have to say, “I’m not in school.” Because I’m not ashamed. I haven’t been in and out of jail, and I don’t steal from charities. I’m not my relatives.
This job pays my bills and leaves me with an extra bit that I can put away for traveling, and when the time comes, it will let me have the time off to travel. This job doesn’t come home with me at the end of the night, and because of that, I have time to write, crochet, play the ukulele etc. A career, especially teaching, wouldn’t allow for that. Best of all, I’m happy. This is especially considering that I’m trying to learn how to deal with emotions again after being on anti-depressants for the last four years.
I’ve been clinging to this Postsecret since I dropped out:
I feel like I’m finally in a place where I can be “above & beyond” happy too, no matter what I’m doing.
Also, this is just one more thing I am grateful for: this city actually has a creative writing club! If my life hadn’t lead me to this city, I wouldn’t be able to attend. Boom.
I feel like this is a good blog about character arcs, but I’ve also had two glasses of wine, so who really knows?
When a fellow blogger, robertcday, told me that he was a pantser, I assumed it meant that he was someone who yanked down people’s pants in public for fun. However, after some research, it turned out that a pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little (thewritepractice.com). The world is safe from having to see your undies if you run into a pantser (admittedly, I am feeling kind of upset about the hilarity I’m missing out on because of this).
If you’re a pantser, the kind of person who writes without planning, you probably think that you don’t have much need to think about character arcs and that this article won’t be useful to you. However, this article isn’t about writing: it’s about revision. Once you have the story written out, elements like character arcs are things that you need to consider if you’re looking to get published.
Revision is hard especially if you don’t have the disposable income to spend on a professional editor and your friends can’t seem to ever get around to reading your work (Hint, hint. Was that passive aggressive enough?), or can’t provide any critiques other than, “It’s good!” I’ve been working on revising a draft of my completed manuscript for over a year because of these struggles. My strategy has been to break down the revision process into important elements, and my current focus is the character arcs in my novel.
Firstly, what the heck is a character arc? A character arc is the evolution of your character throughout the story. There are arguably three basic character arcs: the positive change arc, the negative change arc, and the flat arc.
The Positive Change Arc occurs when a character begins their journey with some sort of unfulfillment or denial; after going through a number of trials that challenge their beliefs, the character will ultimately end up changing positively.
The Negative Change Arc is essentially a backwards version of the positive change arc: the character will have degenerated and changed for the worse by the end of the story.
The Flat Arc centers around a static character who doesn’t change throughout the story; they are already complete, and it’s often the character arcs of the minor characters that change because of them.
The first two arcs involve The Lie Your Character Believes.
The Lie Your Character Believes
We all have things that we cling to even if we know that they’re not necessarily true.
The lie I’m currently believing is that there’s a chance I can not only meet a quality person online, but also like said quality person when in reality, the chances of me liking anyone I meet in an inorganic situation are astronomically small.
We resist accepting that these things we believe are lies because quite often, the alternative is unappealing. In my Tinder example, if I accept that I won’t like someone I meet off of a dating site, that takes dating out of my control, and my depressed brain will likely think, “OH MY GOD, I’M GOING TO DIE ALONE.” See? Not appealing at all.
When it comes to writing, this resistance against the truth is good. Resistance creates conflict, and conflict creates interesting plot lines.
Helping Writers Become Authors provides and excellent list of lies characters from pop culture believe:
Only a few things can happen over the course of a story when characters believe lies. They will:
A. recognize the lie they believe which will make them into better characters than they were at the beginning of the story (positive character arc).
Or on the flip side of the coin:
B. the characters will still change, but for the worse (negative character arc). They will either never recognize the lie and continue down a path of delusion, or even worse, recognize the lie only after it’s too late (see: Othello).
Accounting for The Lie Your Character Believes is a great way to develop any character because no matter how your character responds to the lie, the character won’t be static, and will change over the course of the story. A character that has believable change over the course of a story is a well-written one.
The best part of this character element, is that it doesn’t just apply to the protagonist of your story, but to the secondary characters as well.
Let’s look at the villagers in The Beauty and the Beast. The lie they believe can best be summarized in this line from the mob song:
We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact, it scares us.
That is their lie. If they don’t understand something, they must fear or dislike it. They exhibit this all throughout bith the the cartoon and the live action movie. They don’t understand Belle because of her passion for reading, and therefore label her as “odd.” This lie reaches its climax when the villagers are incensed to violence because of their misunderstanding of the beast and storm his castle with the intent to slaughter him.
After the curse is broken, the villagers learn that their lie, fearing what they don’t understand, is wrong because it lead them to fear their forgotten loved ones. If they hadn’t learned to stop fearing what they don’t understand, they likely would have been very frightened to see clocks and candlesticks transform into men, but they didn’t because they have a positive character arcs.
The villagers are just background characters to the plot, but even they have a lie that they believe. When they respond to their lie (ie alienating Belle, nearly murdering the Beast, and recognizing their fault by accepting their enchanted loved ones), it makes them believable characters. They’ve grown. This makes for quality writing (not saying that Beauty and the Beast is the epitome of English literature, but you get the idea). Character’s believing lies exists in essentially every well-written work.
When revising your work, analyze each of your characters and answer the following questions about them (including the minor characters): What lies do they believe? How do they develop over the course of the story? Do they have positive or negative character arcs? Do they have an arc at all?
If the answer to the last question is no, then I think it’s time to take creating a Lie for them into consideration.
I answered tgese questiond for my manuscript, and it really highlighted the characters which are well developed, and more importantly, those who aren’t.
I have a character, Jaclyn, who systematically tortures my protagonist, Scarlett, whenever she encounters her because of a lie she believes. However, after Scarlett deals with the lies she’s been holding onto, Jaclyn’s lies are never addressed again, leaving the story feel somewhat unresolved. I would have never noticed it had I not revised for the lies my characters believe.
Whether you’re a pantser, a planner or a plantser (a mix of both!), accounting for the lies your characters believe will improve the quality of your writing.
On recognizing mental illness.
One of the worst things about mental illness is that it tends to creep up on you when you don’t even realize it. If I was aware that I was getting bad again, I would have dedicated time to work on my mental health with mindfulness meditation and self-reflection. But I thought I was doing fine. That is until I went to see my doctor.
I’ve realized that one of the main reasons I dropped out of school with only one practicum left isn’t that I don’t want to be a teacher (I mean, that was pretty significant part of my decision, but I could have gritted my teeth and finished the program), but because I don’t know who I am when I’m not on anti-depressants.
After I got off of my anti depressants, I expected to go back to the stellar state of mental health I acquired before withdrawal. But I haven’t. I’ve been having major issues regulating my emotions which is very unlike me. I am notorious for my cold unemotional nature among friends, family, and even my practicum supervisors (the critique I continually received from them is that I’m robotic). Now I’m losing my temper and crying all the fucking time. I knew that I couldn’t put myself in a position to care for a bunch of kids when I’m having issues like this, so I dropped out.
I told the head of the education department about my withdrawal and feelings of instability, and they agreed to hold my position in the program if I provided them with a doctor’s note verifying that yes, withdrawal is actually fucking awful (hey, that kind of rhymed) and a leave would benefit me for mental health reasons.
So I went to my doctor, and told her about my emotional regulation issues. And she gave me a test to evaluate anxiety and depression. And I scored high on both. And she suggested that after going through the hell of withdrawal that I go back on medication. Sigh. At least she gave me the note.
Although only vaguely aware that I was struggling, I attributed my current feelings of unhappiness to the tumultuous nature of my life right now–dropping out has provided me with an endless amount of judgement and condemnation from friends and family alike. It has affected me more than I’d like to admit. In addition to that, applying to a plethora of jobs has meant that although some places have shown interest in me, I’m getting repeatedly rejected. I also ended a friendship with one of my closest friends because she dropped off the face of the earth when she got a boyfriend which has made me feel like I meant nothing to her after years of being there for her. But I didn’t think I was depressed or anxious again.
I’ve been playing the ukulele, crocheting, and going for walks every day which are things that usually die a fast death when I get depressed. But I hadn’t been going to the gym, reading, or writing. In fact, my last blog post was about forcing myself to write when I didn’t want to. I had interpreted my reluctance to write as laziness, not depression. It was the latter; I can see that now.
But here I am, writing again. It’s part of my plan.
When I saw my therapist last, he walked me out after our session and he asked me what my plan was. I told him to apply for jobs. He responded, “No, not that. What is your plan to cope with everything that’s happened?” Oh. I mumbled something about going to zumba every now and then and left.
But now that I’ve recognized that my state of mental health really is in decline, I realized that I needed to made an actual plan. So I decided to start meditating again, watching what I eat (easier said than done. All I ever want is pizza or sushi), exercising, reading and writing. Most exciting is the latter. Because of my plan, I wrote chapter one of a new manuscript!
I’ve been working on revising the completed manuscript of my other novel for so long, that I haven’t let myself write anything other than short stories and blogs in years. But now, thanks to taking care of my mental health, I’ve started working on this new piece, and I’m so excited about it. What a lovely gift to myself.
I think what I’ve learned from all of this is that even if things seem to be going well, I need to stop and check in with myself at least once a week to evaluate my mental health to prevent decline and promote happiness. Everyone should do this.
In the meantime, I found a job yesterday and I have a date tomorrow!
On writing habits and learning to use your voice to make people drop their pants.
I’ve always argued that to write creatively, you shouldn’t force yourself to follow any prescribed daily habits to be successful because it’s an art. Like sex, it should happen during the throes of passion, otherwise you’ll just be despondently participating while thinking about what to eat or how much laundry you have to do later.
I once studied a text about the writing process in which the author describes the process as a supernatural phenomenon very much outside of their control. They describe working in the middle of a field when an idea for a story or poem smacks into them as if it was carried to them by the wind. The author would dash home in a furious panic because if they didn’t make it to a pen and paper in time, that the story would blow away and be gone forever. I loved that idea. It’s much more romantic than Hemingway sitting at his typewriter bleeding his guts out.
However, I’ve begun to wonder if I was wrong.
In fact, I am now so certain that writing when I’m only in a fit of creative passion is a poor strategy that I’m forcing myself to write this blog right now. All I really want to be doing is playing my ukulele. Have I achieved manic pixie dream girl status yet?
I’ve been trying to learn how to sing lately to accompany my new instrument, and singing is one of those things that I thought you could either do or not. I assumed I was the latter despite friends telling me otherwise when I drunkenly serenaded them. My response was usually to intentionally screech whatever I was singing (very likely Don’t Stop Believing by Journey) so that they would have no false illusions about my talentlessness.
I’m trying to learn how to sing now because the Youtuber I’ve been fangirling over lately, Jonathan Young, changed my perspective on whether people are gifted with talent or not. He has without a doubt the sexiest singing voice I’ve ever heard (hence my obsession). And in high school people told him that he sucked at singing. I know. What?!
In a couple of his videos, he adamantly argues against people who say that they wish they could sing because he’s proof that you can do it if you work hard at it. Like learning an instrument, it’s all about practice. He wouldn’t have the ability to drop women’s pants with his voice now had he not practiced (I mean, I don’t know if he actually has that ability, but I’m pretty certain he does).
I feel that it’s the same way with writing when you’re uninspired. The more you practice at it, the easier it will become. Hopefully. I mean, only writing when inspired is a life long philosophy I’ve held, and this is the first time I’ve forced myself to write when I didn’t want to in a while. It’s felt like pulling teeth. But here I am, at the end of the blog post. We did it, guys!
Of course some people will always be more naturally talented than others. But I would rather be someone who works hard to achieve a mediocre level of competency than someone who doesn’t earn their rewards.
Perhaps Hemingway meant that he was bleeding his guts out at his typewriter not just as a metaphor for baring his soul in his writing, but also the suffering that comes with forcing yourself to write as well.
When you think of a self-portrait, do you think of Vincent Van Gogh? Frida Kahlo? The sexy selfie you took this morning?
It’s likely that what comes to mind for you is the same as what comes for me: visual art. You can’t write a self-portait…or can you?
Interestingly, The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a self-portrait as “a picture, photograph, or piece of writing that you make of or about yourself.” It includes literary art in the definition. I mean, if we wanted to get deep, we could suggest that all art is a kind of self-portrait. But we’re not here to get deep; we’re going to hang out in the kiddie pool and create some bad ass characters that you can use in your writing.
Despite what you may have been told before, compelling characters can be cliches–the strong silent one, the funny sidekick, the self conscious but actually super hot babe etc. But if that’s all they are, they will never come to life. What brings a character to life is the little quirks that all of us have. Irrational fears, weird hobbies, strange mannerisms or ticks, bad habits etc. These things make us human, and thus to make a character human, they must have them too.
This activity encourages you to get inspiration for these quirks from a real person–you!
- Choose the role your character would fill in a novel or short story. Your character’s traits will vary depending on the role of the character (protagonist, antagonist, supporting character etc.). You don’t have to have a story or a plot to do this; just choose a role and feel free to get as general or specific as you want. Is your character the comedy relief? The anti-hero? Someone the main character will witness being hit by a flying deer? Yes, that actually happened:
- Choose the genre you want to write in. Like visual art varies in style, the character you create will vary depending on the genre and the context they exist in. Luke Skywalker doesn’t belong in Narnia, you know?
- Create a self-portrait aka a description of yourself including the personality traits that would be important if you existed in the role and genre you chose above. Do this by plugging elements of your own personality (things that you like, your experiences, quirks–the little things that make you yourself) into the categories you chose above. For example, a supporting character in high fantasy genre, likely wouldn’t be addicted to Candy Crush.
- Remove yourself from the self-portrait and turn it into a character profile. This step is all your own discretion; you could keep the character description 100% the same as your self-portrait and just change the name so it’s not yours, or you could keep only the best parts and erase yourself from the narrative.
- Role: protagonist
- Genre: Romantic Comedy
- Self-portrait: Kat is one of those people who always has at least one or two people who are in love with her, yet she is always single. She identifies very strongly with Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew. So much so in fact, that she changed her name from Katie to Kat after discovering 10 Things I Hate About You (a modern adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew) in high school. She actively pushes the buttons of the men she dates just to see how much they will let her get away with. If they push back, she gets upset; if they don’t, she gets bored. It’s a double edged sword. She is prone to falling down stairs in front of guys she likes. Alcohol is often a factor in this, but not always. She’s currently hooked on a guy she went on a few dates with months ago, not because he was special, but because he wasn’t interested in her. She was told by a guy on a recent date that when she makes eye contact, it’s so intense that it makes people uncomfortable. At first she was self conscious about this, but she’s since owned it.
- Character Profile: Katarina is one of those people who always has at least one or two people who are in love with her, yet she is always single. She identifies very strongly with Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You. So much so in fact that she demanded that her friends and family start calling her Katarina despite her legal name being Katherina. She doesn’t read, let alone Shakespeare, so she’s unaware that the movie she loves is a Shakespearean adaptation or that her legal name is the same as the title character from the play; however, the plot of her story will parallel that of The Taming of the Shrew (her not knowing this will be dramatic irony). She actively pushes the buttons of the men she dates just to see how much they will let her get away with. If they push back, she gets upset; if they don’t, she gets bored. It’s a double edged sword. She is prone to falling down stairs in front of guys she likes. Alcohol is often a factor in this, but not always. She’s currently hooked on a guy she went on a few dates with months ago not because he was anything kind of special, but because he wasn’t interested. She was told by a guy on a recent date that when she makes eye contact, it’s so intense that it makes people uncomfortable. At first she was self conscious about this, but she’s since owned it.
Boom. We have a living breathing character, and not only that, but elements of plot have started to appear just from doing this activity.
Notice how the self-portrait/character description revolved around romantic details? This is because these are the details that would be important in a romantic comedy genre. If the genre was high fantasy, the details brought to light may be about physical ability or gravitas depending on the chosen role. A knave character description would vary greatly from a high priestess. Or maybe it wouldn’t. You decide.
I chose to write my self-portrait in third person because there’s an element of removal that makes it easier to write about myself. It’s all true information, yet a lot of it is nothing new as far as the romantic comedy genre goes. I even referenced two texts that have similar shrew archetypes.
Where the character comes to life in the character description is in the small details I used, like Katherina changing her name to that of Katerina, a character from a movie based on a play she was already named after; this says a lot about her personality (stubbornness, reliance on pop culture for identity, ignorance etc.) and her perspective of herself as a shrew. Even from that I can see a possible plot point where it’s revealed to her that her legal name is from the play her favourite movie is based on.
In addition, being embarrassed about her intense eye contact shows that she is capable of humility and self doubt, and it also gives the writer a way to describe how she will interact with other characters when writing an actual story. Physical quirks like these really bring a character to life. For example, in the story “Treasures” that I got published by the Write Room, I describe my protagonist as essentially having ADHD which influences his mannerisms:
Energy hums in my ears, my kind of energy, the kind I’ve had since I was a little boy. It’s wild, ceaselessly vibrating and barely contained. It’s the kind of energy that made the other kids hate me during exams in school, unable to keep still or stop my pencil from rapping against my desk as my mind drifted to the rumbling trucks outside and airplanes soaring overhead in the clear sky.
My character’s inability to keep himself still is one of the elements that brings him to life. In fact, this trait was based on real life too; it’s a description of my brother, the king of ADHD. When he would come over to visit, his constant pacing and foot tapping would stress my dog out so much that he would go hide in the garage.
Of course this activity is just a starting point, but look at how much information came from one little writing activity. Coming from one little paragraph of description is a compelling human character and the idea for a plot of a whole story or novel where the romantic comedy parallels The Taming of the Shrew. If I haven’t sold you on it by this point, then you can go hang out in Narnia with Luke Skywalker!