I was critiquing a young adult novel today and launched into a wee lecture about character arcs.
Most novels and even short stories have characters who have arcs. Just like the word implies, the arc of a character starts in one place and ends in another. Having an arc implies change. And, in general, when reading fiction, we like to see our characters change.
I think this is because we like to believe that we ourselves can change. We read fiction sometimes so that we don’t have to got through all the conflict and obstacles that our characters do. And it is much easier to be an armchair quarterback, watching others change, than it is to change ourselves.
In fiction, we create our characters so that they want something. Then we place obstacles in their paths so they can’t get what they want. And then we have them figure out how to get around those obstacles. In so doing, they either reach their goal, decide they don’t want it, or don’t reach it. But the mere fact of facing all that conflict hones their character and they end up different than how they were when they started.
In order to change, our characters beginning situation must be well-defined. A good way to do this is to overdo it. If you have a character who is remote and distant, make her twice or three times as remote and distant as you think you should. If you have a character who is larger than life, make him really larger than life.
This is what I call the Make-up Theory. If you were going to appear on stage you would put on make-up with a trowel as opposed to the usual knife in order for the audience to be able to see your expressions. So, too, with your characters–in order for your readers to understand them, you need to over-empasize their emotions and their personality traits. We writers are at times timid creatures and we tend to be nice to our characters when in truth what we really need to do is make them suffer as much as possible.
Once you’ve made your character as remote and distant as possible, you need to decide how she is going to be at the end. Is she going to realize how lonely she is and begin reaching out to people? Is she going to try this and decide it is not worth it? Or is she going to remain the same throughout the novel?
A note of caution here: you can write a novel with a character who does not change. If this is the case, however, than the people around the main character will most likely change in reaction to her not changing. For instance, a daughter could be trying and trying to connect with her mother, the remote main character. But the protaganist simply cannot change. The daughter, though, realizes this and decides to quit feeling guilty about it and is able to move on.
Another option is what Rust Hills calls "the end of the last change to change." In our example, the remote main character would think about changing, perhaps make a slight effort to, and realize it is not going to be worth it. So back she goes to her distant self. Many short stories deal with the actual moment that the character is faced with change–whether she decides to or not.
So begin with a well-defined character one who is well and truly made-up, and then proceed onwards to see how she reacts to the obstacles you place in her path. Even if you don’t know exactly what happens to her all the way through the story, you can at least have an idea of what her character is at the start and at the end–and this will help you plot the story.