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Writing Books/"Grey" main character(s)


Hi Max

At the time I'm writing this I am working on my first novel, ever. In the process of writing on my work this question hit me when considering character development:
"Oh no, my main character isn't heroic; the villains is not the personifications of all that is evil! Can a story succeed with characters that have mixed moralities, both being good and evil in their own intrinsic way?”. In short; the main character is a bit unstable, in the grey area as you might say. This is pretty much how I am making all my characters per default before I go on with character development. As of such I would like to know - before proceeding too far - if I should put more emphasis on creating something the reader can immediately have some sympathy for or antipathy against.

A second thought sprang from this:
How long should it reasonably take for the character to fully attain his final personality without losing the reader. This meaning something akin to "growing up" or ascending beyond egoistic behaviour. Such as the petty thief - maybe an orphan - in a medieval fantasy becoming a man of great and refined honour, hellbent on saving his new friends.

Thanks in advance

Hello, Thorbjorn!

You are asking about character development, and specifically about planning your character's arc.  I gave a lecture series some time ago at California State University, Northridge for the Masters Expository Writing course.  One of the lectures was concerned with the questions surrounding character development and arc.  The first part of the lecture discusses the 'why' and 'how' of plotting character development and arc.  I have pasted that part of the lecture below.  Of course, there are certain tools that a writer uses to create character, however, you have not asked about those tools, so, I have left that part of the lecture for a later time - should you decide to ask that question in the future.

Please understand that I am working in a small dialogue box that AllExperts provides.  This box may shift the text, although I know you will still be able to read and understand the text.  Ready?  Here we go!
LESSON FOUR – HIRING THE CREW; Exposition, Dialogue,
and Action

Includes: Script, Manuscript, and Short Story.

  How many of you have been told it is wrong to sit in judgment?
  The entire room acknowledges the question.
  Well, I'm here to tell you that's not true.
  A writer is the crew supervisor, a pied piper forging an active, evolving link between reader and character – an empathic lifeline.
  Empathy allows us to decentralize our egoistic being and walk in our fellow's footprints, to know another's feelings and thoughts.  This knowledge carries the ability to anticipate another's actions, to characterize an individual.
Evolution equipped us with all of the required elements to sit in judgment, and in many cases our survival depends on it!  So, if we write our cast of characters in such a way that they require our audience to judge them, well, then we are involving our audience on a deep level, a level that is important and meaningful.  We are giving our audience well-drawn characters.  
Certain pieces of the mystery are needed to form a judgment, and the audience will wander through their own depths - that which they bring to the story - and the story's labyrinth in search of those pieces.  This is involving your audience in an intense discovery process; they won't be able to walk out on your film or put down your book!
  Memorable characters are those with whom we've felt a bottom line empathic link.  That bottom line is a philosophical arena where a gladiator faces one's 'yes' and one's 'no'.  The effect of a bottom line is that it strongly dictates a person's horizons.
  However, the people we characterize are transcendent creatures.  At any moment in our lives, we live as a bit more and a bit different than the sum total of our experiences.  We meet life creatively taking risks, facing our 'no' and changing it to a resounding 'yes!'  Exceeding our bottom line, we accomplish new horizons.  There may be nothing new under the sun, but each of us views this hoary universe through our experiential eyes, at the same time transcending that vision, adding something more, making the universe our own personal journey.  Psychologists call this transcending experience completing a Gestalt.  Writers call it a character arc.
  Let's take a moment to examine a remark I just made: "At any moment in our lives, we live as a bit more and a bit different than the sum total of our experiences."  
  Well, so, consider the sum of your life experiences, and here you are, sitting here - all of you in the same room, however, perceiving existence differently from one another.  You occupy the same space, but you do not 'live' in the same space!  Imagine you are an astronaut.  You've literally experienced what it is like to not be the center of the universe.  You've floated around up there in the great whatever and have actually stared into the face of an infinite universe owning no center, no edges, nothing to define it!  Now, let me tell you this: when you splash back down to earth, you will never exist as you were before you left.  As a character walking the earth, you are forever changed and dramatically different from the rest of humanity.  As writers, it is our job to discover and emphasize the dramatic differences between characters.
  For purposes of writing character, an empathic lifeline, while important, is not enough.  Characters that leap off the page evoke more than our empathy.  They possess an ability to surprise us by transcending their bottom line.  A character demonstrates its arc through the living Gestalt.  Please, don't misunderstand me.  When I talk about the act of transcending, I am not referring to stages of growth.  There are no stages - only a single dynamic stage where we gradually become available to all that we are, all that is our universe.  When we write characters, we describe a dynamic availability process.  Memorable characters are a combination of what we know about them and their ability to realize the unknown, the potential of their journey.  A character exceeding her bottom line to realize her potential is said to have a strong arc.
  Pro-active characters, characters that meet life creatively and 'make it happen', will have strong arcs.  Reactionary characters, those who are victims of their circumstances, have flat arcs.
  Let's list in order the four elements of a memorable character:

1.    Establishment of reader/character empathic lifeline.
2.    Audience anticipation of character's bottom line, and what such a character's horizons are likely to be.
3.    Audience surprise - character exceeding his bottom line, and demonstrating new horizons.
4.    A new bottom line – arc complete.

End Document

My best to you, Thorbjorn.

Max Roth  

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M.L. 'Max' Roth, Executive Editor


My specialist area is literary and philosophical fiction. I am pleased to answer all queries regarding story, plot, character arc and development, environment, structure, theme, subtext, and conflict.


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