What My Horse Taught Me About Character Arcs

“No one can teach riding so well as a horse.” –C.S. Lewis

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Two years ago this month, I wrote my first guest post for the Kill Zone Blog, and I will be forever grateful to Debbie Burke for offering me that opportunity. Later that year, I became a regular contributor, and I have loved the experience so much, I thought I’d celebrate this anniversary by re-posting that first article.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I liked writing it.

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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.

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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. Whether the arc is positive or negative, the change must be meaningful.

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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?

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Cece Goldman reluctantly faces her fear of horses and learns to ride in Dead Man’s Watch. She learns a few other things about herself along the way.

16 thoughts on “What My Horse Taught Me About Character Arcs

  1. I know that feeling of the horse going one way and you going the other. Some lessons are more painful than others. I’m so glad Debbi invited you to post on TKZ!

  2. Good morning, Patricia!

    Dixie was a very spirited horse, and she and I parted company a few times over the years.

    TKZ is the best. I’m so grateful to Debbie and all the other folks here.

    Have a great week.

  3. Good morning, Kay. A post worth repeating.

    My father loved horses, so I spent my youth repairing fences (the grass is always greener on the other side…). I had several “mishaps” with horses, so never learned to love them like my father did. Beautiful animals, love to watch them run or pace, I just don’t want to be on them.

    My most interesting character metamorphosis is in my WIP where “Fin” (finger in the air, doing calculus problems in his head) changes from a shy recluse to an angry warrior when the drug cartels threaten him and his family. Haven’t seen yet how all that is going to play out, but it’s fun “watching” him develop.

    Have a safe 4th of July.

    • Morning Steve!

      Your Mad River Magic series is fertile ground for characters to have a transformation. It’s fun to follow their antics and watch them grow.

      Have a safe and happy 4th.

  4. My police chief in my Mapleton series is changing slowly over the course of the books. He accepted the job–reluctantly–as a favor to his mentor, and been growing into it since book 1, Deadly Secrets, thrust him into solving the first homicide in the town’s collective memory.
    He has had/is still having many aha moments along the way, but each adds to his growth.

    • Your Mapleton series is a great example of character growth and transformation, Terry. Even though I jumped into the middle of the series, Hepler’s character arc was evident.

      Have a fabulous 4th.

  5. Great story, Kay! I’m not much for horses, but my grandmother had an old nag that we used to ride when we were kids. It would hardly walk around the corral when we got on her, but to us it was a rodeo… 🙂

    In my new novel, releasing this fall, No Tomorrows, Annie transforms from a fearful, severely regimented schedule-follower to . . . nope, not gonna tell ya! Her past catches up with her and it becomes the catalyst for the morph.

    I hope I’m like her when I grow up.

    Go get ’em, Monday!

    • Love the story about your grandmother’s horse. My uncle had an old gelding that three of us cousins would get on. We thought we were first-rate cowboys while Ol’ Dan trudged along ignoring our shouts of “GiddyUp!”

      Annie sounds like a great character. Looking forward to No Tomorrows. (Sounds like a contradiction in terms.)

  6. Happy Anniversary, Kay! At TKZ, you started hot out of the gate and continue to keep us readers galloping alongside you with your excellent posts.

    In the eight books in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series, the dual protagonists undergo major epiphanies in each book, combined with overarching growth through the series.

    Tawny starts out as a sheltered, dyslexic, small-town widow who trusts the wrong man and nearly dies b/c of her naivety. Tillman is her cynical lawyer (and later her boss) who trusts no one ever. As they work together, he comes to trust her but still keeps secrets that lead to ongoing trouble personally and professionally. She develops confidence and grows wiser but still sometimes throws caution to the winds b/c of her emotions.

    The writer also underwent a metamorphosis. The character of Tillman was so intimidating that I didn’t go into his POV until the fourth book. Then I discovered how much fun it could be inside his head.

    So glad you’re part of TKZ’s family, Kay!

    • Thank you again, Debbie, for opening the door for me!

      Your Tawny Lindholm series is another great example of characters growing and changing with each book. I’m looking forward to what Tawny and Tillman will be up to next.

  7. And, that, boys and girls, is why I used a Western saddle for trail rides. The pommel in the ribs when ducking under trees was more than worth avoiding the pain and humiliation of flying over a horse’s head.

    Horses taught me a lot about fear, hiding fear, adrenaline, pain, discipline, strength, and love. Those fictional scenes of mayhem I’ve never experienced in real life were much more real with those experiences.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Marilynn. There’s a lot to be learned from our equestrian friends. I had my share of lessons in all those emotions you listed.

      Have a great 4th.

  8. “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?”

    The change takes place over about 6 months. David, a 5th grader in my MG/adult novel, has lost his mother. He unconsciously copes by playing computer games. He soon becomes addicted to them, much to the detriment of his grades. His good friend, Sharon, does what she can to help him, using treasures they’ve discovered on their imaginary voyages aboard the Silver Dream: “The Book of Answers,” the “Great Clock of Now,” and a “thinking cap” made from her old baseball cap. These don’t work very well. Finally, she gives David their “Medal for Not Running Away,” and he lets his father catch him playing a game that night. The problem is addressed, but not the underlying issue.

    Soon after, Sharon and her mother run away from her violent alcoholic dad. When David finds Sharon’s doll and her diary in the Silver Dream’s “hold,” he realizes she is gone and breaks down from suppressed grief over his mother’s death, triggered by the loss of Sharon. His doctor quickly realizes the problem and sends him to a therapist. Despite an upbeat conclusion, his arc can only be completed by being reunited with Sharon. I’ve titled the sequel, “Over the Sapphire Sea,” but have not begun to write it.

    • Hi JG.

      Very interesting story and character transformation. Also sounds like you’ve set up a captivating series. Good luck with it.

      I read the first part of Sail Away on My Silver Dream. Very nice.

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