March Recap: Character Arcs

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Apr 3, 2010 in Reviews |

Phew! Well, I made it through March, barely. Turns out there are lots of good stories out there without any sort of character arc whatsoever, which made finding those with them a little tricky.

We’ve got four stories to look at this month:

Review #14: Bearing Fruit by Nikki Alfar A young woman bathing in a creek gets knocked up by an errant mango, then sets off to find the father of her child.

Review #15: The Kiss by Lauren LeBano A little girl has a goblin for a playmate, but as she matures, she learns he’s after more than just her friendship.

Review #16: Saving the Gleeful Horse by K.J. Bishop A giant living under a bridge makes a questionable bargain to save a special little horse from a cruel fate.

Review #17: Bridesicle by Will McIntosh A half-frozen mail order bride’s life depends on the delicate lies and sweet nothings she whispers into the ears of strangers.

So out of the dozen or so short stories I read this month, these four were the only ones where a character arc stood out to me. It’s not a huge sample, but I feel comfortable enough to say that short stories have character arcs at least as often as they don’t. Maybe it’s too much to expect characters to grow in 5000, 3000, 1000 words. Certainly, if the change comes across too abruptly, then the arc will feel artificial or corny. It’s also possible that my tastes for science fiction and fantasy have more of a literary slant, and maybe if I’d read more pulp or action/adventure styles, I’d come to a different conclusion.

Nevertheless, the four stories for this month’s craft focus did character arcs well, and good ones do give me the warm and fuzzies inside. So what made them work? In Bearing Fruit, the character goes through physical changes as well as emotional ones. She’s mysteriously pregnant and being ostracized by her family and friends, and yet decides to take control of the situation and seek out the unknown father of her child. She goes from innocent and carefree to vengeful to calculating along her journey, and tries to claim her happily-ever-after back however she can get it. She makes the hard choices, and as a result, grows as a person.

Annie also makes some tough decisions in The Kiss. She decides not to banish the goblin out of her life completely despite her mother’s worries. She kisses the goblin when she’s feeling vulnerable, and offers up her own child to him when her life as a single parent becomes more than she can bear. Annie appears to be going through changes on the outside — dealing with the complexities of life as she goes from childhood to adulthood, but something at her core remains the same: the way she uses the goblin and is never really a true friend to him. Annie’s arc leads her right back to where she started, a bratty little girl who barely cares about the feelings of others.

The characters in Saving the Gleeful Horse and Bridesicle also make tough decisions, which makes me wish I would have gone back and studied more stories that didn’t have character arcs to see what types of decisions those characters had to make. Maybe forcing characters into these lose-lose situations is an effective tool for revealing character. I’m not going to lie, this craft focus was a tough one for me. I didn’t know what to expect or really what I was looking for, but this definitely makes me want to look more closely at this topic in the future. But at least I got to read some amazing stories, which is never a bad thing.

March’s Must Read goes to the story with the character arc that rang the truest to my ear, a happily-enough-ever-after tale where when life hands you mangos, you make mango-ade: Bearing Fruit by Nikki Alfar!

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