How to Build Strong Characters with Brian McBride

So excited to pick Brian’s brain with this topic today. If any of you have ever read a book by Brian McBride (or at least a review of his book), he is well known for creating solid characters! Read on to find out about his method, The Four Point Arc!

The Four Point Arc: How to Build Strong Characters

First off, I’m super grateful for the opportunity to participate in writing this post! I don’t travel the blogosphere enough, so this is exciting! For those who many not know me, allow me to introduce myself.

My name is Brian McBride. I’m a three-time author of Young Adult Contemporary novels with my first in a four-book series of Young Adult Fantasy Adventure novels about to be released. I’ve been incredibly blessed to have won a handful of awards for my contemporary works and have many diverse and unique stories still to come – sadly, I just can’t write them fast enough. Aside from writing, there are three things in my life of the utmost importance: family, faith, and iced tea.

A little over a year ago, I launched into perhaps one of the most challenging industries in the world: professional independent writing. Although, I could probably more easily be identified as a professional Multi-Tasker. I independently published my debut novel, Love and the Sea and Everything in Between. Six months later, I followed that up with my second novel, Every Bright and Broken Thing, and now I am coming fresh off the release of my third, Sons of Slaughter. Within the span of twelve months, I somehow – rather miraculously – managed to publish three full-length novels.

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned about writing in the last year is this: your characters, whether they are primary or secondary, will be the greatest champions of your story. By that, I mean that, out of all the aspects of the story (plot, theme, dialogue, setting), your characters will ultimately carry the full weight of everything else. So, when you’re writing your story, please don’t get lazy with character development. Your readers will notice!

My brother, sister, and I often have long conversations about a certain television network (The CW) that, to us, is notorious for poor/lazy character development. Now, every now and then, one of their shows will have a really incredible and consistent character arc (*ahem* Octavia from The 100). But more often than not, The CW’s characters suffer from a lack of consistent growth. Oliver Queen from The CW’s Arrow, for example. Don’t get me wrong, my siblings and I love him. But for the first 3-4 seasons it seemed his character had grown completely stagnant. I realized why. Every episode, it was the same thing with him: he has a mission, his team disagrees and tries to counsel him against the mission, he goes forward with it anyway, ultimately realizing he should’ve listened to his team, he beats himself up about it but makes the same mistake again. No joke, this pattern occurred just about every single episode for 3-4 seasons. Now, it would’ve been one thing for this to be the occasional pattern, but ultimately, from a developmental standpoint, the character should grow from these kinds of mistakes, right? For Oliver, that didn’t happen for a very long time. He was stagnant for far too long, and, ultimately, I started to lose interest. I fell off the show at about season 4.

In stark contrast, there’s Octavia Blake from The 100. Her story arc was incredible and profoundly developed throughout the show’s run. (The final season premieres this year!) She started out as a girl who needed to be protected, grew to be a warrior independent of anyone else, then grew to be a fierce ruler who would do anything to protect her people, realized she crossed lines she shouldn’t have, then fought for her redemption in the eyes of the people she loved most. I often turn to Octavia Blake when writing to ask myself how I can accomplish in my books what The 100’s showrunners manage to accomplish in the span of the show.

So, naturally, I’ve spent a lot of time curating a character development process. Now, it works really well for me, and maybe it will for you, too! If not, that’s okay! What I did was I created a sort of story crafting tool called The Four Point Arc. I had just incorporated some new POVs into my current Work-In-Progress – The Wardens and the Wall Between Worlds. – and I needed to flesh them out and figure out not only how their stories both fit into my original main character’s story, but also what set their individual arcs apart from my MC’s. Essentially, it’s a four-point outline that details the four primary stages of a character’s development: genesis, opposition, transformation, triumph.

  1. The Genesis: this is where you identify who your character is at the start of the story. What are their interests? What are their goals, their wants? What is their personality? What are their flaws that the story will address? What prior struggles will they be bringing with them into the story? This is where the reader gets to know who the character is, and it should, ultimately, reflect who the character will become. The two must be connected in order for the arc to feel complete – we call this “coming full circle.”
  2. The Opposition: this is where you present to the reader the inner/outer conflict the character is going to have to endure, the thing that is going to, ultimately, shape the rest of their arc. The conflict should, in essence, be something that forces the character to change. It should cause them to realize that who they were in the Genesis is no longer sufficient for they are becoming.
  3. The Transformation: this is where we see the character wrestling with who they used to be and grappling with the conflict that is forcing them to change. This is where they ought to be making active steps toward becoming who they’re meant to be. It is here that the character would begin to move past issues like guilt, grief, shame, fear, pain, etc…
  4. The Triumph: the character has faced oppositions that have challenged and inevitably transformed who they used to be. The character finally comes into their own, steps into their ultimate purpose as the hero of the story. Whether that’s to be the villain, the hero, the sidekick, the mentor, or whatever the case may be. This stage in their arc should be the culmination of all the development in the previous stages. This is where it all comes together. Most importantly, their triumph must be a reflection of their genesis. In order for a character’s development to feel earned – following the literary process of setup and payoff – who a character becomes should always be tied to who they once were. Legacy is created by history. So, when developing your characters, you have to ask yourself… what kind of legacy do I want this character to leave with my readers? If you know where your character ends up, then that will help you determine where they need to start.

Essentially, you should be able to condense or summarize the entirety of your character’s arc – whether it spans an entire series of books, or just one novel – into these four points, each consisting of only a couple of lines for clarity’s sake. By limiting the arc to four points, this can also help you figure out what the most important aspects of your character’s arcs are so that you don’t major on the minors. The four points that you highlight are what should be the primary focus of your character’s arc, because they are what will ultimately carry the weight of the story: the setting, the plot, the themes, everything.

To end, here’s some examples!

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games:

  1. The Genesis – Wants only to keep her family safe. Is forced to join the Hunger Games to save her sister.
  2. The Opposition – Her defiance sparks a revolution while she grapples the trauma of the games as well as the agendas of those she angered and those who wish to use her.
  3. The Transformation – Becomes the face of a revolution. Realizes she can’t fight tyranny alone. Is compelled more by her desire to protect those she loves than her desire to be a revolutionary icon.
  4. The Triumph – Defies the powers that be to see an end to tyranny. Her self-sacrifice sparked a revolution that paves the way to a safer world for her children and the man she loves. What started with a simple act to save her sister, ended up saving thousands.

Beckham Reed from my novel Sons of Slaughter:

  1. The Genesis – Wants nothing more than to leave town, where he feels trapped by abuse and loss.
  2. The Opposition – Stumbles across his grandpa’s cabin, which opens a mental wound. The lines between reality and imagination blur.
  3. The Transformation – Believes himself a monster because of his actions and mental anguish. Slowly descends into violent madness.
  4. The Triumph – Is rescued from himself by his best friend, with whom he is offered a home and family. In the town he once felt trapped by, he finally finds a new family with whom he belongs.

Thank you for reading! I hope this helps you in some small way!

A winner of the 2016 Wattys Award, the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award, and a Finalist in the Readers’ Favorite Book Awards, as well as a Readers’ Favorite 5 Star recipient, Brian was born and raised in the misty mountains of Oregon until he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at 16-years-old. He’s been writing since he was thirteen- years-old and has been reading for longer. Brian is pursuing a degree in Social Work, which he hopes to use to help rescue children and families. Perhaps he’ll work to better the foster care system? Or maybe he’ll join the fight against human trafficking? A fourth-generation pastor, he is deeply passionate about the Church and is pursuing his Minister’s License. Among other things, he is also passionate about the Hawaiian Islands, iced tea, animals, adoption, and the arts.

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