Revising Your Novel Part 2: Character Arcs

Welcome to another insightful and step-by-step guide to revisions by author Laura Harrington.  Share with us how you work on your revisions, and if you think Laura’s method would work for you!

Revising Your Novel: Part 2: Character arcs: Get out your sharpies and get ready to draw.

by Laura Harrington, author of ALICE BLISS

We’re going to look at how to track every character’s dramatic arc in your book, and thereby find out if each main character has a dramatic arc.  As with my first post about plot, our method here is to look at one aspect of your book at a time.  Breaking a revision down into manageable parts makes it much easier to tackle.  You do need to develop some trust in the process, because initially it can feel like you’re dismantling your book.  And you are.  But I can promise you that if you do this work, when you re-construct your book, your work will be stronger, tighter, and more nuanced.

Okay, so you’ve lavished weeks and months creating a phenomenal main character.  Her journey is compelling, she has powerful wants, she encounters interesting obstacles, she’s flawed, she makes mistakes, and during the course of the novel, she changes.  Brava!

That journey is your character’s arc.  You should be able to draw it.  Classic drama is rising action, climax and denouement.  Many other arcs or “shapes” are possible, but that one’s been working for centuries so let’s adopt it for our purposes.

Draw the arc of your main character: pen, paper, sharpie, whatever you like. What does it look like?  If it looks more like a spiral or a long plateau or a series of bumps without any high or low points, then you’ve probably got some work to do.  As Marsha Norman (Pulitzer Prize winning playwright) says: “No one wants to take the great bumpy ride to nowhere.”  (Hopefully you have already fixed those bumps by first looking at your book’s plot and structure.  See my earlier post : Rewriting Part 1: Dealing with Plot or Why I Love 3 x 5 cards.)

This is where a lot of writers seem to stop these days.  They’ve got a wonderful main character with an interesting journey and that’s that.  These books bore the pants off of me because no other character is actually fully realized or fully alive.  All other characters exist to serve the main character’s journey; they don’t have a life of their own.

Try drawing the arc of your other major characters.  If it’s not a strong arc or a strong journey, what can you do? Sometimes you’ll need to seriously re-think a character who has not yet come to life or does not have anything much going on.

Main Characters:

Here are the steps that I find useful when dealing with the main characters:

Working with one character at a time, read through the book focusing only (or as much as possible) on this character, asking the following questions:

1)   Can you identify, connect with and care about this character’s intense hunger or desire or need?

2)   What obstacles does he/she encounter?

3)   What’s at stake? Is anything urgent going on?  Do you need to raise the stakes?

4)   Is the character revealed through actions and behavior? I’m not talking about smoking or pacing, we all know that those activities do not really reveal much about anyone.  I mean lying, stealing, cheating, making mistakes, betrayals, eavesdropping, etc.

5)   And this is a brutally simple question to ask: Where’s the drama?

Make notes as you’re reading: possible additional scenes, places where a scene could use another beat.  Note where dialogue isn’t really dialogue – those places where your secondary character simply serves to ask the questions that your main characters needs to answer.  Once you start to develop that secondary character you can go back and re-write those sections of dialogue as well.

Every major character has to have a strong arc. Continue to build and develop these characters and their stories.

Minor characters:

But what do you do with minor characters who feel flat or just not quite as interesting as they should be?  I like to call this kind of detailed work “working in brushstrokes”.  These characters don’t need to take center stage, but you do want them to be real and intriguing.

So what do I mean by brushstrokes?  Think quick, brief, subtle.

1)   Read short stories to see how quickly short story writers establish character. They have to be economical and concise.  How do they do it?

2)   Look at your minor characters and start asking questions about them, so that you can delve more deeply into their lives. I often find that the right character is there, but I just haven’t paid enough attention yet to who they are.

3)   You’re looking for a telling detail. For example: I wrote a scene in the principal’s office that required a brief encounter with the school secretary.  First draft I breezed right past her.  “When she glances into the principal’s office she can see Mrs. Bradley.”  Who is Mrs. Bradley?  At this point, she’s just a name.  Nice that I was specific and concrete, but so what?  If I’m going to draw the reader’s attention to Mrs. Bradley, she needs to be an actual character, otherwise she needs to be cut.  Second draft I added this: “When she glances into the principal’s office she can see Mrs. Bradley; even Mrs. Bradley looks worn as she pulls her sky blue sweater over her soft stomach and then leans over to search for a file in the filing cabinet.  Alice is trying to remember – didn’t somebody tell her that one of Mrs. Bradley’s kids died of cancer when they were little?  Yet here she is everyday.”

I’ve suggested Mrs. Bradley’s grief through the fact that she looks worn. I’ve touched on the most important part of her history – the death of a child.  I’ve inferred that she’s an unsung hero because, in spite of her loss, here she is at work everyday. As the novel continues these tiny moments where characters survive life’s tragic losses both add to our sense of depth and plant the seeds for Alice’s survival as well.

One final note:  That last sentence could have read: “Yet here she is everyday, taking care of other people’s children.”  But “taking care of other people’s children” is unnecessary, because it’s implied, and the reader already gets it without the writer having to be overt.

This is the power of the unspoken word, which is the subject for my next guest post: Revising: Part 3: Compression: Why Inference, Implication and Indirection are Critical to Good Writing

Laura Harrington, award winning playwright, lyricist and librettist, winner of the 2008 Kleban Award for “most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre,” has written dozens of plays, musicals, operas and radio plays which have been produced in 28 states, Canada and Europe, in venues ranging from Off-Broadway to Houston Grand Opera to the Paris Cinemateque.

Harrington has twice won both the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award in playwriting and the Clauder Competition for best new play in New England.  Additional awards include a Boston IRNE Award for Best New Play, a Bunting Institute Fellowship at Harvard/ Radcliffe, a Whiting Foundation Grant-in-Aid,  the Joseph Kesselring Award for Drama,  a New England Emmy, and a Quebec Cinemateque Award.

Laura teaches playwriting at MIT where she was awarded the 2009 Levitan Prize for Excellence in Teaching.  She has also been a frequent guest artist at Tufts, Harvard, Wellesley, Skidmore, and the University of Iowa.

Alice Bliss, her first novel, published by Pamela Dorman Books at Viking/ Penguin has been widely acclaimed in print and online reviews and has been chosen by Barnes & Noble for their “Discover Great New Writers” program for Fall 2011.

Foreign rights for Alice Bliss have been sold in the UK, Italy and Denmark.

For reviews, interviews, etc please visit:

For additional information about Laura’s theatre work, please visit:

11 thoughts on “Revising Your Novel Part 2: Character Arcs

  1. This is SUCH a fantastic post, ladies–with such great points and tips. It is so important-and something I remind myself to do with every read–to look at what the stakes are for your individual characters–to always ask if they are high enough for the reader to not only care, but root for that character–and stick around to see if that character gets what he/she needs/wants.

    Laura, I especially appreciate your point that each main character deserves/must have an arc of their own and not just be support players. Too often I find myself forgetting that–but when I re-read with an eye toward each character, it becomes clear who needs fleshing out.

    Thank you both so much for these explanations and reminders!


  2. I read this post just as I’m sitting down to attack my own revision, and worrying about just such things — are my secondary characters just there to highlight my main character’s interior journey? This check list helps a lot.

    Another thing I remember an editor telling me once — a scene should be doing several things at once. I think, so should secondary characters.


  3. Pingback: Revising Part 3: The 6 Most Common Dialogue Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them « women's fiction writers

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