Change Character Arc








In the previous blog post, we overviewed the meaning and the types of Character Arcs. This blog post is about positive-change and negative-change Character Arcs in picture books.

Positive-change arc

A classic example of learning the positive arc is A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens. Initially, Scrooge is a selfish, greedy man who believes money is happiness. He wants money (Want = money)

Three Christmas ghosts visit him—the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This visit redeems him. How? Scrooge learns money is not happiness, and he begs for another chance to live. He was redeemed from his Want (remember: want = money). Here is the crucial point. Scrooge needed to learn something new which was money is not happiness. This was his Need (Need = learns that money is not happiness).

On Christmas day, Scrooge is another person. He has learned about his Need and abandoned his Want.

To make a positive arc, we need two ingredients: Want and Need. The character starts from Want. The Story teaches him that his Want is a wrong attitude and guides him toward his Need. Finally, the character is changed. Want and Need should be related, otherwise, the change has no meaning.

For me, it was a great help to write down Want and Need. And by writing down, I mean taking paper and a pencil. Until the moment I wrote them down, I didn’t know that my manuscripts do NOT have a sound character arc. One of the critiques I often got was that my characters were lost in the middle of the story. I knew the critique was correct, but I lack the skill to repair the broken Arc. This happened because I didn’t know where my character ought to go, so the character rambled around events. I had no destination for my characters, and by destination, I don’t mean an event or a state that the character should arrive at. The destination is the result of the character’s growth.

The character’s Need assists you like a lighthouse. It tells you in which direction the story should sail to reach the harbor. Otherwise, your story will get lost in the stormy ocean!

A good example in a picture book is When Grandma Gives you a Lemon Tree (2019) by Jamie L.B.
Deenihan. The Protagonist is a girl whose grandmother gives her a lemon tree for her birthday. The girl is unhappy because a lemon tree was not in her wish list. Her wish list, illustrated on the first spread, consists of technological devices like Robot dog and all for herself. Her Want is Tech-devices for me. At the end of the story, the girl buys flowers and plants for the garden to share its beauty with others. Thus, her Need is to learn was happiness is in sharing. Abandoning selfishness and thinking of others is a timeless character positive arc.





It is worth mentioning here that both positive and negative arcs are gradual changes. Think of the word \textsl{arc}. It is neither a leap nor a jump. If the book or the film fails to present a gradual change, the audience doesn’t relate to the character.

Negative change arc

In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort is a negative character; an innocent orphan boy started in Hogwarts and ended up as a ruthless soulless man!

A negative arc character shouldn’t be necessarily the antagonist of the story. Michael Corleone in the Godfather film is the Protagonist with a negative arc; at the beginning, he is the innocent third son of the family. In the end, he is an immoral criminal like his father and has no obstacle in killing more people.

A negative arc character can be simpler than the above examples; a person who doesn’t learn a life lesson and faces consequences is also a negative arc.

By reading stories, we learn from both positive and negative arcs. We see how the character’s decisions change the journey, and this is the goal of storytelling.

In picture books, with very limited page numbers, we don’t have enough room to develop two arcs. Thus, you have to choose one of them for your Protagonist: positive or negative. The question is how much a young child (between 4 and 8 years of age) can learn from a negative arc? Is a child able to close such a picture book with a logical conclusion or the black theme of the story leaves an undesirable influence on the child?

For example, This Is Not My Hat (2012) by Jon Klassen is the story of a little fish who has stolen a gigantic fish’s hat. The little fish confesses that it has stolen the hat.




Yet, it insists on keeping the hat and goes hiding. A crab sees the little fish and helps the gigantic fish to find the little fish. The gigantic fish eats the little fish and gets its hat back! The Protagonist didn’t learn the lesson and got eaten! From the point of view of story analysis, it is a good story. However, for me as a mother, I never read this to my 4-year-old son! The punishment is extreme, and there is no trust in the story.

The next blog post is about the flat-arc characters in picture books.

You can read my previous blog post on the craft of writing picture books on PictureBookPedia I publish a quarterly newsletter.  If you haven’t subscribed so far and you’d like to receive it, please subscribe.

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