CharactersSavvyBlogWriting Life

The Martian and Stephen King: or why characters arcs are bullsh*t by Leslie Dow

The Martian is one of my favorite books. It’s right up there with the hard SciFi of my childhood when all I read was Clark, Asimov, and Heinlein followed closely by Niven, Bova, and Vinge and a slew of others. I inhaled SciFi only occasionally wandering into the squishier realms of Fantasy and Horror. I’d walk the bookstore aisles looking for the telltale image of a riveted metal panel or a gleaming starship. Andy Weir’s The Martian is a book in that genre and when I read it I’m twelve again reading by flashlight, under the covers, long after I’m supposed to be asleep.

These books are rousing adventures where everyday people drop into extraordinary circumstances and face insurmountable obstacles to achieve some goal. In The Martian, the goal is to survive long enough to be rescued and return to Earth. This is a common goal in these SciFi adventures. The main characters dodge obstacles and through their own ingenuity figure out solutions to unsolvable problems. The one thing common in these books, as in The Martian, there is no character arc. None. Nada. Not a one.

Characters in these SciFi adventures walk onto the stage with all the internal skills they need to succeed. Mark Watney is both a mechanical engineer and a botanist. He’s smart, capable, and brave and has a boatload of common sense. He’s also willing to do what the other experts at NASA tell him when it makes sense. He doesn’t need to mature or grow to beat Mars. To survive he uses the tools he already has, and his talents and knowledge. The story we love is how he overcomes these obstacles, and it’s a darn good one!

This is similar to how Stephen King talks about his characters in his book On Writing. He writes character-driven stories and compares writing characters to unearthing a fossil. The character like the fossil is there, fully formed, only needing the author to unearth for us to see it. It need not grow or change for it to be interesting to read about. Granted, some of King’s characters have a an arc, King focused the theme of The Stand on how people change,  but many of his stories do not and yet we love them.

But how many times have we been told as writers that the characters in our books must grow and change? How many books and classes focus on the character arc and developing a character? Guess nobody told Stephen King or Andy Weir, eh? Which is my point, sure there are amazing stories where characters change and grow and that is the point of the book.  There are also ones where an author drops a likable, smart, and capable character into an impossible situation and we are riveted by the story of how that person figures out how to succeed without needing a single change in their character.

So write the book you want to read. The hell with what anyone else tells you write.

Love this?

Leslie’s teaching a class next week!

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  • M
  • November 1, 2019
Thank you, Leslie!! I get so tired of being told my story MUST do x, y, and z, when just as you say, many of my favorite authors just tell really good stories.
    I know! Right? It's so frustrating. I think the one thing I have learned lately is to tell the story. Focus on that and the rest will fall into place. :)
  • G
    Greta Boris
  • November 21, 2019
Ha! Good point. Was just telling an author friend I was tired of “experts” many of whom have never written a fiction book laying down a bunch of rules for those who have. If we look at the rules as helpful suggestions we’re better off. Jack Reacher hasn’t changed in decades and Lee Childs is doing ok.
    It's true! But I do think we have to keep in mind all these characters are in action/adventure stories. Even King's books are not introspective or very thoughtful. I'm good with that and those are the books that I love. I feel like this is one of ways that new authors can be told that they are not "doing it right" and that's just not correct. :)
      • G
      • November 22, 2019
      Right. I actually teach a class where we discuss the importance of character arcs, But I write psychological suspense and my characters are always contemplating their navels. It’s good to be reminded that not every genre is created equal.
  • M
    Marilyn Carvin
  • November 21, 2019
Thank you! I keep looking at Gabaldon's Outlander and I can see some change in the protagonists, in that they become more able and learn things, but they are very capable, extraordinary beings to begin with. I couldn't see how they spot a lie that they have been believing that has caused them to create trouble for themselves, which I keep reading must be at the heart of the story. I created some "problems" for my protagonists, but they seemed contrived to me. They've managed to expose more of themselves to me as I have continued to revise, so hopefully, their "arcs" won't seem phony or distract the reader from the real theme of the novel. But I guess if I want my protagonist to sing his way through the story, I can! Well, on second thought, my name isn't MGM, so maybe not...
    LOL. I am a huge Outlander fan, and IMO, Claire and Jamie have not grown or changed or anything. Claire still goes off and does decidedly inadvisable things for a woman in the 18th Century and Jaime bulldozes his way (mostly) through complex problems. Gabaldon is a masterful storyteller we don't need her to write characters that change, there is a enough change in her timelines and the back and forth in time to show us how her characters have the complexity to make them interesting. I am pretty sure if you put Claire or Jamie in any situation we could predict how they would react. What is kind of interesting is that her secondaries *do* change! Look at Fergus and Marsalle, for example. They both changed dramatically based on Fergus's trouble with being a one-handed farmer. She also did a pretty good job of having Brianna grow up--OK well maybe not as good as she could have, IMO Bri is immature and often makes willfully stupid decisions and so far has not grown up as quickly as I would expect.

    Anyway, good example! I think we can continue to think of ones but I also think that we will find that characters that do not grow are in stories that are adventure-focused.