by Debbie Burke


Today, I’m pleased to host cozy mystery author Kay DiBianca who shares her fun and unique perspective on character arcs. Kay is a familiar name around The Zone, offering frequent, insightful comments. Welcome to Kay and the horse she rode in on! 

It was a day for speed. A wind-at-your-back, smile-on-your-face day when a youthful gallop overruled frumpy caution, so we barreled down the dirt trail into the park and around a blind turn. As the bushes on our right gave way and the road ahead came into view, a terrifying specter suddenly loomed up in the middle of the trail, no more than fifty yards in front of us.

Dixie, my high-strung, prone-to-panic filly, slammed on the brakes. I had no idea a horse could stop like that. Two stiff-legged hops – thump, thump — to a dead halt.

I went straight over her head. Turns out an English forward seat saddle is particularly ill-suited for sudden deer sightings.

As I was flying through the air, anticipating an unpleasant reacquaintance with Mother Earth, Dixie began some kind of crazy cha-cha in reverse, trying to flee the tiny deer creature. I was still holding on to the reins, however, so she couldn’t turn and run. Instead, she made a determined dart backward, dragging me along in her wake.

You might be wondering why I didn’t just let go of the reins and save myself from a mouthful of dirt and a painful awareness of my sudden change in circumstances. I’ll be honest with you. I would have let my horse drag me into the next county before I allowed her to return riderless to the barn. I have my pride, you know.

Body-surfing down a dirt trail at the whim of a frightened animal is an excellent way to focus one’s mind.  I’m older now, but sometimes I still get that urge to gallop furiously into the next adventure, no matter what form it takes. But when I recall that day in the park, the awful taste of grit in my mouth, the look of terror in Dixie’s eyes, and the acrid scent of fear in the air, I pull back the reins on my emotions and proceed at a deliberate trot.

Whether dramatic or not, we each have a set of experiences that have transformed the way we view the world. Likewise, we all know the characters we write about must change from the beginning of the story to the end, and the change must be meaningful.

So TKZers: Tell us about a character in one of your novels that went through a metamorphosis. Was it a dramatic, once in a lifetime experience? Or a slow coming to grips with reality over the course of the story? How did you accomplish the change in a way that would grab your readers?

I’m deeply grateful to Debbie Burke for giving me the opportunity to post to the Kill Zone Blog. And thanks to all the TKZ contributors and commenters for allowing me to be part of the journey.




Kay’s delightful cozy mystery, Dead Man’s Watch, features characters the reader cares about.

Available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple Books.

28 thoughts on “WHAT MY HORSE TAUGHT ME ABOUT CHARACTER ARCS – Guest Post by Kay DiBianca

  1. Kay! Thanks so much for your post after being a long-time contributor to the comments section. That’s quite a story. You can really put one in the moment. Even though I knew you were going to come out of things okay you put my heart in my mouth. When that happens I know I’m reading terrific writing.

    I hope you gallop through a terrific week with nary a stop nor stumble! Have a great one, Kay!

  2. Great post, Kay, and good analogy. I have to ask. What was the terrifying specter of a small deer creature that frightened your horse? I’ve seen dogs respond that way when confronted by a coyote in the trail ahead.

    Okay, character arc: Most of my characters change slowly over the course of the entire book. In my middle-grade fantasy series, I did have one little math genius, Fin, who needed a quick change. After observing one of the magic gang take her flying barrel cart (without any visible sign of a propulsion system) into a straight vertical launch to 100 feet, toss out her cell phone, then dive straight down and swoop under the phone, catching it just before it hit the ground, Fin took his finger out of the air with his invisible calculus problems and became a believer in the magic.

    Thanks for your post today, Kay.

    • Good morning, Steve.

      Your story about Fin sounds fascinating!. I’m visualizing the “magic gang” doing their stunts. i can imagine fertile ground for story-telling and good opportunity for character development.

      The terrifying specter was the deer. My horse was very young and highly sensitive to anything that changed in her environment. We had been on those trails countless times and had never seen a deer or any other animal. It’s not unusual, I think, for a horse to shy away from something that surprises them. Dixie just made an art form out of it.

      Have a great day, Steve.

  3. Good morning, Kay. This is probably the fifth or sixth time I’ve read your story so the suspense should be decreased by now b/c I know what’s coming. But, like Joe, I still felt that sharp intake of breath once again.

    Thanks for being TKZ’s guest today!

    • Good morning, Debbie! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to guest post today. It’s truly an honor. I remember you telling me once that taking advantage of the Kill Zone Blog wisdom is like getting an MFA. I agree.

      I sometimes get a sharp intake of breath myself when I think of some of the adventures Dixie and I went through. 🙂 I’m grateful that I came away from those years with great memories — and without any serious injuries!

      Thanks again.

  4. Good morning, Joe! Thanks for the kind words. Much of the credit for anything I’ve learned about writing goes to you and the other folks at TKZ. So much wisdom and knowledge on this site.

    I find writing to be just as thrilling as a fast gallop on a bright day — and a lot less of a strain on the body.

    Have a wonderful day, Joe.

  5. Welcome, Kay. Thanks for your post. I can’t pinpoint a specific book/character. Some have dealt with drastic situations, some just have ‘normal life bad stuff’ thrown in their way, but they all follow a longer path to acceptance.

    • Good morning, Terry.

      This notion of character transformation is so interesting to me. I had some difficulty coming up with a meaningful character arc for my main character. Because I’m writing a cozy mystery series, the main character tends to be the constant fixture in the story. Still, I try to have her come away with some new understanding at the end of each book.

      Have a great day!

  6. Great story, Kay! I could envision the scene unfolding, and like others have mentioned, I knew you were okay but still hoped for a happy ending. Well done.

    Character arcs: Since I write two series, my characters go through an arc with each book and a larger overall arc throughout the series. In my latest thriller, I AM MAYHEM, the MC goes through a major metamorphosis which changed her forever. The trick, I think, is planting the seeds in previous books so the major metamorphosis makes sense once it’s revealed to the reader.

    • Good morning, Sue! Thank you for the kind words. Dixie and I always had happy endings to our adventures, although some of the endings were more painful than others.

      I appreciate your advice: “The trick, I think, is planting the seeds in previous books so the major metamorphosis makes sense once it’s revealed to the reader.” Yes! As I write my cozy series, I realize I need to keep the big picture in mind. So much to think about.

      Thanks again.

  7. This is a great post and thank you for the insight. My main character in my current WIP is going through a metamorphosis that involves PTSD. This had made him the anti-hero of sorts. I hope to grab the readers; that they would want to see him overcome his personal demons when faced with a challenge. At least there’s a lot of hope on my part :).

  8. Good morning, Ben!

    As a reader, I long to see characters overcome their demons, so it sounds like you’ve got a great setup for your readers to become engaged.

    It’s interesting that you have a character going through PTSD. I also have a character in my WIP with the same issue. He has trouble communicating because of the trauma he’s suffered, and that makes him suspicious to some people. I want to set up a metamorphosis for him in the final reveal of the mystery that’s believable and satisfying for my readers.

    Like you said, “there’s a lot of hope on my part.”

    Good luck with your book!

    • Yes. Hope is the key word in there. It’s such a huge risk with no idea what the payoff might be. Either people will love it or hate it.

  9. Loved your guest post, Kay! Wow! I’ve only ridden a horse a few times in my life, fortunately the horse remained calm. That’s a great analogy for a character arc.

    I put my hero Mathilda Brandt through a series long character arc. She had to master her anger, and take charge of the situation she found herself in. At the start, when she’d been paroled at 21 from “special corrections,” she just wanted to keep herself out of trouble, and take care of her grandmother and younger sisters. But trouble found her. A secretive government agency gave her a choice: go back to prison for rogue Empowereds for life, or work for them, and they’d help her family.

    This led her both on an arc to master her anger, take charge of her situation, but also, to alter her understanding of what was really going on in the world and the secret history that had shaped the world.

    Thanks for a gripping read this morning!

    • Good morning, Dale! Thank you for your kind words.

      Wow. It sounds like you developed an amazing transformation for Mathilda in your series. Did you decide on the complete arc for the character before before you started your series? Or did it develop as you went along?

      I haven’t written such a complete transformation for a character yet. But maybe I’ll take that on some day …

      Have a great and transformative day!

  10. I had a good idea of the arc I wanted to put her through, but of course, some of it deepened as I wrote the books. I’d worked on a serial version of the series, done in the fashion of an-arc driven TV series, a few years earlier. That hadn’t panned out, but had laid the groundwork in my imagination for what became The Empowered. I really fell in love with the character and her found family. That was probably the biggest thing I discovered as I wrote the book–the family she found to go with the family she had been clinging to when the series began.

    Have a wonderful day, too!

    • It never ceases to surprise me how much my writing changes *me*, the author. By putting words on paper, real or virtual, I shape the way I think and connect with the world. Maybe it simply solidifies what I already believe, but that’s also a form of transformation.

  11. Kay, we need to trade horsey war stories. My slow gallop and sharp turn on a trail I knew very well turned into a leap of terror on Lady’s and my part. A large tree had fallen taking down another with it creating a wall with one tiny hole for a human and a horse to jump through. With no space to stop, I threw myself half off the Western saddle, my head and shoulders below her neck and against her withers, only one stirruped foot and a hand clutching her mane remaining to hold me on the saddle, and I trusted my horse. She leapt, my back slammed the top of the tree, and we were through. I stayed in the saddle. Surprisingly, I only had a massive bruise, and she was fine. Lesson: trust your partner and this is what instant terror feels like. It’s also one heck of a way to try to murder someone. I used it in my first novel. The hero survived, too.

    I used to be the Internet’s writing teacher to go to about writing action and violence. Number 1 on Google for years! One question was always how do I write violence when I haven’t really experienced it. I’ve never been punched in a fight, but I have had a horse’s head slam into my face when she jerks her head up. A six-hundred pound horse’s hard head just about equals being punched by a heavy-weight fighter. Take what you’ve experienced and extrapolate.

    • Oh, Marilynn. You and I have a lot to talk about! I can fully identify with your experience. Sometimes there’s no alternative but to hang on and hope for the best. I also got whacked in the jaw one day when I was a little too far forward and Dixie threw her head back. It’s the only time I’ve ever been hit in the face, thank goodness, but I know what it feels like.

      Btw, i have several chapters devoted to horse-back riding in “Dead Man’s Watch.” The horse’s name is Lady.

      I think the horse/rider partnership is great fodder (ha!) for stories. I loved horse stories as a kid, and I notice there are a lot of them on Netflix. Maybe I’ll jump into that arena one of these days.

      In the meantime, Happy Trails!

  12. I totally can relate to what happened to you. First time I ever rode in an English saddle, my horse reared up and I grabbed for the saddle horn…that wasn’t there. Ended up pulling the horse backward on me. But we both survived.

    The analogy is perfect. Most of my characters go through a slow metamorphosis.

    • Oh Patricia! That would have been my nightmare scenario. Glad you and the horse were okay.

      Most of the people I know who rode horses had a few scary experiences along the way. And yet, for whatever reason, we all found something of value in the time we spent with those beautiful creatures.

      Maybe we should write a story from the horse’s POV. That could be amusing!

  13. OMG! What a frightening experience! So glad you lived to tell us about it, Kay! And it’s obvious you’re a very talented storyteller. Must buy your cozy mystery!

    Looking forward to being on your blog next Tuesday! 🙂

    • Hi Jodie! Sometimes an experience is over before you have time to be frightened. Riding a highly spirited horse can present lots of unexpected adventures, and I think I had my share with Dixie, but I’m happy to say I came away all in one piece!

      Thank you for your kind words about the article. Coming from you, that is a great compliment.

      I am thrilled that you will be my guest on my blog next Tuesday. Your interview is so informative and helpful for writers. For TKZ folks: please drop by kaydibianca.com next Tuesday, July 13, to read and respond to Jodie’s interview on the craft of writing blog.

  14. Great story, Kay! Just about my only contact with horses comes from watching Mr. Ed way back when I was a tadpole! (A few shows in the Western genre, too, I might add…)

    In my two forthcoming novels, my MCs grow and change. (Since they aren’t “out there” yet, I don’t want to say much more.)

    In one WIP, there is only one POV, and she grows from a fearful, severely regimented OCD wife and mother into a…let’s just say, a monarch butterfly dancing on the breeze.

    In the other, there are nine MCs with five PsOV. All of those five characters travel their own arc and grow into more than they were at the start. The relationships in this one are rife with secrets, tragedy, and lies…which lend to the tension in the story. Not to mention a fourteen year old girl who thinks she’s in charge of something! 🙂

    • Good afternoon, Deb!

      I’m excited about your two forthcoming novels. I’ve been introduced to a few of your MCs on your blog, and I must say they’re a fascinating bunch. I’m anticipating fireworks.

      Nine MCs and five POVs? You are an ambitious person. Now I’m really interested to read these books.

      Best wishes for much success.

  15. Sorry for this late response, Kay; I’ve been kinda snowed under lately. But your story about Dixie was great fun to read, mainly because of the way you showed it rather than just telling it–I could taste the grit and smell the fear. And while I had wondered how in the world you could tie that to a character arc, you really did an outstanding job!

    My horse Thunder sent me over his head twice in one day (I’m a slow learner) once, and I was using a western saddle, so sometimes it’s the determination of the horse and not the low pommel that gets you…


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