Character Arcs and Reader Expectations

Lately I have been wondering about characterization. What is it actually? If an author makes a point of drawing a heroine as self-sufficient and independent but in the middle of the book, she turns needy and clingy, is that a problem with characterization or is the author putting in a touch of realism?

I know an individual’s confidence and self-assurance can vary from situation to situation but I have discovered if an author writes some aspect of a character’s personality down, if I read it, then I expect that character for the most part to act in that manner. Rightly or wrongly, if an author draws a character in the beginning one way, then while they may grow as people, I don’t expect them to regress for no good reason. When I say this, I am not talking about situational reactions. I can easily give an author a lot of leeway if I understand why a character is acting a certain way. For instance, Deborah Smith’s heroine Cathryn Deen from The Crossroads Cafe goes from gorgeous, self-assured, and privileged to isolated, solitary, and desolate after a horrific car crash destroys her movie star looks. Instead of people looking at her in awe they turn away in horror. Her personality and her feelings about herself make a dramatic change, but it’s one that makes sense under the circumstances.

As another example, recently I read Don’t Cry for Me by Sharon Sala for review. The heroine is written as resilient, independent and self-sufficient. She has come back home from Afghanistan due to injuries that she suffered there, and she is also dealing with PTSD. However even though she deals with her issues throughout the book, whenever the going gets tough, she stays true to her characterization.

However, the first time I read Robyn Carr’s Moonlight Road, I had a difficult time with the characterization of Mel, one of the recurring characters. She is the heart of the community, both wise and caring. But out of the blue she comes up with this wild idea and she turns selfish and self-centered. I kept thinking, “Has she lost her mind?” Ultimately Ms. Carr convinced me that Mel’s reaction was situational based on something that had happened in the past- Mel just hadn’t dealt with a loss, suppressing those emotions. Of course suppressed emotions can’t stay buried forever, and they resulted in her irrational behavior, but it took me a while to follow that arc.

Staying true to the written parameters of a character is a true art and definitely not straightforward task. I am sure that all authors have a picture in their head of their characters, but the author then has to add in plot devices and conflict plus make the characters come alive on the page. As a reader, I think it is easy when all these ingredients are added into the mix, for the lines began to blur. Let’s face it, no author intends to write a TSTL heroine(I hope!) but it might happen if she is focused on providing conflict within the story, instead of remembering her character. In the hands of a less-talented or less-experienced author, the characters’ emotions and how they act can change from one situation to another. It seems that some think the solution to one-dimensional characters is to demonstrate the range of all human reactions without regard for who their character really is.

While I talked about plot devices and conflict, I didn’t mention character growth. While I can’t say that I demand character growth in every book, I tend to expect it most of the time. Character growth is another element that adds depth and richness to the story. However, for me character growth doesn’t mean a change in characterization. I can’t tell you how many stories I have read about a quiet, retiring heroine who rarely dates, but suddenly she is overcome with lust and jumps into bed with a perfect stranger. Or a thirty-five year old hero who never had a healthy relationship and who is a loner, but love changes him into a gregarious family man at the drop of a hat. Believable character growth for me involves having the hero or heroine overcome an obstacle or roadblock to their happiness, not a complete personality transplant. For this reason, tortured heroes or heroines can have too much dramatic alteration for me to easily accept.

The amount of change in the character, the time frame, and of course, the author’s skills all play a part in my willingness to believe. As an example, I adored Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ What I Did for Love. Right after it was released, I read comments from many readers who had issues with Bram’s transformation. However, as I saw it, Bram’s only issue had to do with learning to love and commitment. He had already turned his life around financially. He had solid friendships as well, so it was easy for me to accept this one change. Did it happen quickly? Sure, but when an author uses humor I find that it is easier for me just enjoy the story. And of course Susan Elizabeth Phillips is a very talented author and wrote this well.

Now for your input- what do you expect from characters? Do characters that change with each situation seem more genuine to you, or do you have the expectation of a certain type of behavior from them?

– Leigh Davis

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12 Responses to “Character Arcs and Reader Expectations”

  1. LeeB. says:

    I expect characters to stay true to the descriptions the author has provided early in the book. If they grow, that’s fantastic.

    But as you said re characterization, I really get ticked off when authors present a heroine (and it’s ALWAYS the heroine) who is super talented, super smart and super fantastic at her job and then as soon as she meets some guy, she starts making all sorts of uncharacteristic mistakes. I mean, really?!?! And yes, as you say, that might be part of the story but I don’t buy it.

  2. Carrie says:

    Unlike you, I pegged Mel as self-centered early in the series. I disliked her agenda-ridden self-righteousness so much by Forbidden Falls that I stopped reading and never picked up the series again. So I’d say her character changed abruptly early on when Mel adopted the martyr-mother role and blamed her husband for getting her pregnant twice.

    You wrote: “Character growth is another element that adds depth and richness to the story. However, for me character growth doesn’t mean a change in characterization.”

    This is very well said. I want characters to grow and change in organic ways, not in one sudden, dizzying leap. I’m fed up with bad-boy and/or tortured heroes being instantly changed/healed by the love of a good woman. Now he suddenly wants roots and children and has a sunny disposition. Or the strong motivated career woman who drops her thriving law practice to be a stay at home mom. Don’t get me wrong, I left my career to be a SAH mom, but if someone had written about me (which would be very boring) at least my decision would have been in character. I made no bones about wanting to get married and have a family. Working was always secondary. If there is going to be a change of heart, readers need to see it happening gradually and in a way that makes sense.

    • Leigh says:

      Carrie:
      You wrote: “Character growth is another element that adds depth and richness to the story. However, for me character growth doesn’t mean a change in characterization.”This is very well said. I want characters to grow and change in organic ways, not in one sudden, dizzying leap. I’m fed up with bad-boy and/or tortured heroes being instantly changed/healed by the love of a good woman. Now he suddenly wants roots and children and has a sunny disposition. Or the strong motivated career woman who drops her thriving law practice to be a stay at home mom. Don’t get me wrong, I left my career to be a SAH mom, but if someone had written about me (which would be very boring) at least my decision would have been in character. I made no bones about wanting to get married and have a family. Working was always secondary. If there is going to be a change of heart, readers need to see it happening gradually and in a way that makes sense.

      Completely agree with you. As a reader I need to see the transformation.

  3. maggie b. says:

    I think staying true to a character is very important both within a book and for the duration of a series. This was always something that bothered me re Suzanne Brockmann where a character went from this messed up sort of crazy guy like Wes in her TDD books to Mister easily domesticated in Nightwatch or Dave in her trouble shooters books, who went from nerd to super agent. When you don’t stay true to character, it can ruin a whole book for me.

    Character growth, though, where I can see the character changing and developing is exactly what a good book is all about. I love to watch this happen.

  4. farmwifetwo says:

    I like my character to stay true to her upbringing and her circumstance. I am reading one right now where she had a good upbrining – different, but good – and she’s an uptight, self-righteous…. you get the jist. Just to give her “character”….. ummmm….no.

    I also dislike how women aren’t allowed to be “sexual” in many books. She can’t have had more than one partner… he can be a….. you get the jist there too.

    Another spot is the TSTL one… when you are in danger, do what you’re told by those that know better than you. Tell people what is going on. Believe what you are told and act accordingly.

    Lastly, is this crap about how some guy or girl dumps you in highschool and you are forever damaged from having a relationship. Excuse me???? Get over it… get over yourself and move on.

    And I agree with Carrie’s SAHM comments. I too had only planned to be home a short time and go back to work… I didn’t plan on 2 boys that required fulltime supports and someone to be here to supply them. A reasonable choice given the circumstances not just because everyone should do the same.

    Oh…. I have many issues with “character” in books. For me “character” is the story, not the plot. So it’s a “button”.

    • Leigh says:

      farmwifetwo: I like my character to stay true to her upbringing and her circumstance. I am reading one right now where she had a good upbrining – different, but good – and she’s an uptight, self-righteous…. you get the jist. Just to give her “character”….. ummmm….no.I also dislike how women aren’t allowed to be “sexual” in many books. She can’t have had more than one partner… he can be a….. you get the jist there too.Another spot is the TSTL one… when you are in danger, do what you’re told by those that know better than you. Tell people what is going on. Believe what you are told and act accordingly.Lastly, is this crap about how some guy or girl dumps you in highschool and you are forever damaged from having a relationship. Excuse me???? Get over it… get over yourself and move on.And I agree with Carrie’s SAHM comments. I too had only planned to be home a short time and go back to work… I didn’t plan on 2 boys that required fulltime supports and someone to be here to supply them. A reasonable choice given the circumstances not just because everyone should do the same.
      Oh…. I have many issues with “character” in books. For me “character” is the story, not the plot. So it’s a “button”.

      Lately I have hit a couple of books where the heroine is just a B*tch to the hero from the get go and he immediately falls in lust. I can understand men wanting a challenge, but being attracted immediately to a witch on wheels? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

  5. Eliza says:

    I expect any and all kinds of variations in fictional characters, just as I do in real life people, that is, those who behave consistently no matter the circumstances, those who routinely act inconsistently, those who show gradual growth, those who regress with certain triggers, those with different styles for different situations, those with both highs and lows, those with erratic personalities, phonies with excellent acting skills and so on.

    The only thing I really don’t expect is a perfectly straight character growth arc–maybe it’s possible but I doubt it since it’s the nature of life to throw curve balls when least expected. Since I don’t expect it in life, I don’t expect it in romance. I’ve known plenty of real people to act seemingly out of character so why can’t fictional people? Perfectly intelligent people routinely make mistakes or fall for the wrong people or decide to take a left turn when a right turn is the smarter choice.

    Early Classics? Sure. That’s a different ball of wax before the late middle ages until the beginning of novel writing when authors no long felt they had to follow the literary canon for what was acceptable as art.

    But these days? I don’t expect consistent characters any more than I do unrelentingly consistent people in my life. A happy ending is a must in a romance for me but discovering the varying facets of a character’s life is a good deal for me.

  6. willaful says:

    Mel is a character who never worked for me because I couldn’t get past how indifferent she was to the fertilized eggs (IIRC — maybe it was just frozen sperm) she and her husband had produced. If my husband died and I had some of his genetic material around… well, I certainly might choose not to use it but I would be seriously conflicted, to say the least.

    So I guess my big thing is a character who acts in a way that I can’t believe any thinking, feeling person would ever act.

    Also retconning. Reform your villain all you want, just don’t retcon him to do it!

    • Leigh says:

      willaful: Mel is a character who never worked for me because I couldn’t get past how indifferent she was to the fertilized eggs (IIRC — maybe it was just frozen sperm) she and her husband had produced. If my husband died and I had some of his genetic material around… well, I certainly might choose not to use it but I would be seriously conflicted, to say the least.So I guess my big thing is a character who acts in a way that I can’t believe any thinking, feeling person would ever act.Also retconning. Reform your villain all you want, just don’t retcon him to do it!

      You know I say that she is the heart of the community because she has her finger -along with Jack with almost everything that happens in the community. I will admit that her book is not my favorite.

  7. AAR Lynn says:

    For me, it all boils down to the writing. If someone seems to change personalities at the drop of a hat with no real reason, it’s hard for me to find them believable. For example, I’ve read some romantic suspense where the heroine(often in law or law enforcement) is smart, professional and capable, but then at a crucial scene, she suddenly morphs into someone completely dependent. However, if the author writes the character change well, then I am more willing to follow it and believe that this character really would change in that way.

    Tortured heroes and heroines don’t generally bother me because I’ve read some good ones. I thought the hero in Beau Crusoe was a good one and so was the hero in The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie, and then of course there’s Flowers from the Storm.

    • Leigh says:

      AAR Lynn: For me, it all boils down to the writing.If someone seems to change personalities at the drop of a hat with no real reason, it’s hard for me to find them believable.For example, I’ve read some romantic suspense where the heroine(often in law or law enforcement) is smart, professional and capable, but then at a crucial scene, she suddenly morphs into someone completely dependent.However, if the author writes the character change well, then I am more willing to follow it and believe that this character really would change in that way.Tortured heroes and heroines don’t generally bother me because I’ve read some good ones.I thought the hero in Beau Crusoe was a good one and so was the hero in The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie, and then of course there’s Flowers from the Storm.

      You are absolutely right in that it does boil down to the writing. Still tortured heroes or heroine can be problematic for me. Sometimes I feel like that are drawn from the profiles of men and women who snap, and go off and kill their co-workers. And everyone then says oh they were a loner – so quiet. He/She didn’t socialize and kept to himself. A hero that won’t let a woman in the house and has sex in his car has some serious issues.

  8. I love all these insightful comments. I love a tortured hero most, because his redemption is the hardest to write. In series where characters reoccur, I don’t mind if they change a little bit, as seen through different characters’ eyes. But, don’t like it when they change radically.

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