Peter Dunne’s book Emotional Structure has given form to something I’ve always thought was simply intuitive: the character arc in a novel.
Dunne emphasizes that emotional structure has to come before plot, because the plot is used to reveal the emotional structure. If you haven’t thought about emotional structure before plotting out your novel, fret not. You can apply Dunne’s ideas to revise your novel as well.
Dunne sees the emotional arc of a character as having an evolution where one step follows another in a structured way, no matter what the particulars of your story or plot. It goes something like this:
Our hero has survived so far by developing habits to avoid pain. Without these habits, or crutches, her life is too risky. Now some kind of PLOT EVENT happens and her habitual defenses no longer work. She’s forced onto a new path, for the moment, in order to get back to “normal” where her habits will work again. Then more PLOT happens, and now her tools for survival aren’t working anymore. Her emotional walls start to crack, her weaknesses are exposed, maybe weaknesses she wasn’t even aware of. Her old habits are useless. She must be brave, take a risk or leap of faith. This is a huge moment of vulnerability. But she learns something: that she can change. Here she learns something about the thing that caused her to build those defensive habits in the first place. She has to face this past to free herself, and the PLOT connects this moment to her physical survival. In that moment, she grows. She may be clumsy and frustrated in using her new emotional tools at first, but she has to use them in order to survive.
You can see how this emotional structure is pretty generic, but also how the plot is (in Dunne’s view) existing solely to force the hero’s fears to the surface. The life threatening plot isn’t there to kill your hero, but reveal her (and the co-protagonist is there to help things along).
I encourage you to read the book to fully understand how this can play out for your novel. The book rambles along – oddly not as structured as you might expect! – but there are several insights throughout Emotional Structure that make it worth the time to read.
Do you plot out your protagonist’s emotional arc, or do you intuitively pants your way through?