The Confidence Arc

One of my favorite character stereotypes is the confident character.  Richard Campbell Gansey III, Dorian Havilliard, even Valerie Solomon from Tessa Gratton’s story on Merry Sisters of Fate.  There’s something about the character who has it all, who has an all-purpose mask they crafted for themselves over the years.  Of course, since we write crafted fiction, this mask never stays on.  Something will happen to tear it off, and there— that’s when you really enjoy the character.

Half of me wants to be such a character with such a mask.  Half of me just wants to write millions of those characters.  For the convenience of everyone, and especially me, here’s a step-by-step how-to on creating the confident character.

Phase 1: Wow.

You can introduce characters anyway you want, depending on the first impression you want to make.  The first time you introduce this character, how do you want them perceived?  Do you want them modest and retiring?  Do you want them eccentric and in the background?  No, you want them full blast.  Give them all the confidence you can cram in.  On a scale from one to ten, fifteen— this must be the person people glance at and say, “She’s going to be Supreme Galactic Admiral in about twenty years.”

The point is to make an overpowering sensation of control.  This person is confident because they have everything, they know everything, and they cause everything.  Whatever happens, they are the epicenter.  The confidence is a by-product of a perfect life.  That’s the impression you want to give.

Phase 2: Ew.

The big part of this arc is the reaction it creates.  Confidence is an interesting animal— in real life, it’s nice to have around.  In fiction, however, it has a different effect.  A confident villain is a scarier villain, because she’s absolutely convinced her plan will work.  Not overconfident, of course, but rightly so.  The hero is outmatched in every way possible, and she knows it.  That’s a confident villain, and for the purposes of a story, it works.  It makes the hero more of an underdog and makes it more satisfying when the villain loses.  Fiction rests on the idea that anything can happen, even upsetting the unflappably assured villain.

In real life, we like confidence.  In fiction, it’s really annoying.

This character we’re trying to create is on the good side.  Confidence is not a trait you want on the good side.  Confidence means we know we will win, so you don’t have to keep reading to find out.  Might as well stop here.  The reader gets quickly annoyed with this confident character, even as they’re in awe.  How do you take care of that obvious flaw?  You hang a flag on it.  You make the main character (not the confident character— this arc works best if the confident character is a side character) more sympathetic.

When the confident character walks in, the main character gets annoyed.  If you’re doing your job right, the main character is already struggling with problems, and this confident character is ruler of the universe.  The confidence, as I said above, is a by-product of a perfect life.  Thus, the main character (imperfect and struggling) becomes jealous and annoyed.  Sympathy for the main character, progression in the confident character’s arc.

Phase 3: Oh.

Allow some time to pass.  The main character is still annoyed, but they’re stuck with this confident person for a while.  Because the confident person is in close proximity to the main character, things are going to go wrong around both of them— it’s obvious the character doesn’t have a perfect life, but it’s also obvious that it’s the main character’s fault most of this is going wrong.  If the confident character was alone, the flowers would be blooming and the woodland animals would be offering up their nuts and berries in delighted servitude.

The mask begins to slip.  It takes a while, but something shakes the unshakable confidence.  The mask gets slapped back into place.  Something else tugs at it.  It gets shoved back crookedly.  Finally, something happens that rips the mask away completely.  This character is not a dragon with armor-thick scales, but a turtle.  It has a strong shell it uses often, but in the end it’s still squishy inside, like anyone else.

The confidence is no longer there.  It’s no longer true— it never was true.  This character is human and flawed and bumbling around in life, and just manages to put a good face on it.  You might gape in awe at the Ruler of the Universe side of the character, but it’s the Little Beagle of Vulnerability you fall in love with.

From here, you may do what you wish.  The Oh moment is the goal, the emotional hit that sticks with readers.  That’s the moment readers start really liking the confident character— he puts the mask on despite all that he’s gone through, and all that he’s feeling on the inside.  The confident side of the character might still be a jerk, still annoying, still way too happy, but it’s justifiable considering the real side of him.

Be careful, however, not to fake this.  Having a confident character— hard on the outside, chewy on the inside— is much different from having an arrogant character.  Do not expect people to like an arrogant character just because he likes puppies.  Similarly, do not expect people to like a character who is just confident.  There’s a balance here, and the Oh moment is far more important than the Wow or the Ew.  Make sure the Oh counts.  Make sure it’s there for a very, very good reason.

The confidence arc is fun to read and to write.  I think I’ve written a couple characters like this, but without thinking hard about the actual arc I’m creating.  Take this into account and make sure your confident character works for you instead of against you.


8 thoughts on “The Confidence Arc

  1. Ooohh… good post! I don’t actually have confident characters…no wait, never mind, I do have one. I haven’t written her yet, but she definitely fits this arc. Since it’ll, sadly, be a while before I get to write her, I actually think I might be able to apply this post to some other characters, though…sort of. I have a character who’s under-confident (even worse than me, believe it or not), but she sometimes wears a mask, around certain people, and… okay, honestly, she’s so complicated she doesn’t even make any sense to me anymore. Somehow, I need to figure out if she fakes confidence to hide her low self-esteem, or if she doesn’t hide it, or…what. This post I think gave me an idea on what to do with her, though.
    And it also gave me an idea on how to fix another character’s arc…

    I think I’m rambling. Anyway, good post! This was helpful, as you can see. Hehe.

  2. Two days later and I’m still struggling to come up with a good comment.

    The only thing I am certain of is that I need to talk to you about how this applies to Gansey. Because I’m not sure about the “Oh”.

    The other thing, which I am not very certain about at all, is that this seems like a formula for other things as well. It reminds me of Pride and Prejudice, sort of… but maybe that’s just because I associate Gansey and Mr. Darcy.

    1. Gansey is the most transparent with the Oh moment, actually. Stiefvater outright says it a couple times.

      I’d say yes, this works for Darcy too. He has a mask up, it slips, and you discover there’s a chewy inside under the crunchy outside. (I like that metaphor way too much to acknowledge how disgusting it is.)

      1. Hmm. *makes mental note to look for it next time I reread Raven Boys*

        (I’m trying very hard not to acknowledge how disgusting that metaphor is…)

      2. It’s not in Raven Boys, though. That’s the thing. It definitely pops up in Dream Thieves, and accented in Blue Lily, Lily Blue.

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