The basic process for developing a character arc stays the same across all arc types. And, no surprise, it starts with asking those questions mentioned in the introduction. What does she want? How does she plan to get it? What’s holding her back? What happens if she fails?
From there, each piece builds on the next as life grows increasingly more difficult for your character until she reaches her “make or break” point. Then, with everything on the line, she will make a decision that drives both the plot and character arc toward satisfying resolutions. If not, everything you’ve written to that point is all for naught.
Identify Character Goals and Motivation
To determine what kind of character arc is right for your story, you must first know what the character wants (goal) and why it matters (motivation). These two things will be the driving force for the plot. They will also provide the undercurrent of emotion that is fueling the character’s decisions and actions.
Your main character will have an overall story goal that spans the whole book. At the same time, she will have smaller goals within each scene and chapter that act as stepping stones, leading her toward that larger goal. By understanding your character’s goals and motivations, you’ll be able to put her in situations that challenge her, causing every scene to be chockful of emotional tension.
- Brainstorm a list of things your character wants:
- Focus on her deepest, longest-held desires, which should have a direct link to her emotions.
- Ask: What would make her happy? What’s missing from her life? What would she do anything to protect? What would she be devastated to lose? What does she want to change about herself or her life?
- Cull the list to include only the goals that will force her to grow or change:
- Ask: Will she still want it tomorrow or next week or a month from now? Does she have to give up anything or change a deep-seated belief to get it? What will her life look like after she gets it?
- Determine her motivation for reaching each goal:
- Ask: Why does she want it so badly? How far is she willing to go to get it? What is she willing to give up in return? What makes one more important than the other things she wants?
Set Up the Stakes
The main driving force in a story is what will happen if your character doesn’t get what she wants. This is your story’s stakes. To be an effective driver, the stakes need to be the worst-case scenario for your character. Keep in mind that every character will have a different definition of the end of life as they know it based on their personality, beliefs, personal support system (family and friends), experiences, etc.
Stakes don’t always have to be life and death to make the goal worth fighting for, but it must feel like life and death to your character.
Whether she’s a chosen one tasked with slaying vampires to save her town from being swallowed by the Hellmouth or a woman struggling with her weight—and how she sees herself—as well her guilt over her beloved father’s death twenty years before, the consequences of her failure must be high enough that she’ll do everything in her power to come out on top.
- List the possible outcomes for your character not achieving the goal:
- Ask: What’s her worst-case scenario? What, if anything, would make it even worse? How would her life change forever?
- Be specific:
- Use your character’s unique backstory to give meaningful detail to these answers.
Uncover the Emotional Wound
Once you’ve hit on that worst-case scenario, you need to examine why it’s the worst. Every character (and human for that matter) has emotional wounds that alter how they view the world and themselves. These wounds can also be called fatal flaws or misbeliefs. They are the lies we tell ourselves to keep from getting hurt again. So, of course, you’ll need to poke at your character’s wounds at every turn to provide internal obstacles for her to face in parallel with the external, plot-driven obstacles thrown in her path.
- Isolate the incident in your character’s past that caused the emotional wound:
- Ask: Who in her life had the power to hurt her that deeply? What made it so awful that she couldn’t move past it? How did it fundamentally change her perception of the world and herself? What would her life be like if this incident had never happened?
- Keep drilling down until you reach the heart of why failure would be so catastrophic for her, emotionally.
Create Character Agency Through Obstacles and Emotional Reaction
The word “agency” comes up a lot in craft discussions. But it’s not always a term that writers, especially new writers, understand. Essentially, giving a character agency means making her active in her own story. She must make decisions and take action to drive both the story and her own growth forward. These decisions don’t always have to be the right ones. In fact, having your character make some ill-advised choices along the way, thanks to the emotional turmoil you’re putting her through, will help show how much she’s grown at the end.
Think about how boring the Harry Potter series would have been if Harry just lounged around the Gryffindor common room waiting for something exciting to happen. Instead, he chose to constantly break the rules—and put himself and his friends in danger—all because he was driven by his desire to protect those he loves from Voldemort.
Like with Harry, the obstacles a character faces throughout the story should always tie back to her emotional wound. This forces the character to push out of her comfort zone and start to change.
Put Your Character’s Growth to the Test
Story arcs are built on cause and effect. This happens, so this happens, so this happens and so on. Every decision a character makes leads her into the next. Character arcs follow a similar pattern, but they are based on the character’s emotional reaction to the plot and the obstacles that are thrown at her. It looks more like this:
Obstacle arises -> emotional reaction -> purposeful action to overcome obstacle ->
new obstacle arises -> emotional reaction -> purposeful action -> new obstacle arises
This cycle repeats, constantly making her life worse, until she’s down to two options: give up or finally see the light.
As writers, it’s often hard to cause our characters pain. They’re a part of us after all. But challenging them—pushing them to their limits—is the only way to move them closer to reaching their goals.
If Harry walked into Hogwarts that first day already equipped with the emotional fortitude to defeat Voldemort, there would have been no book, let alone seven of them. It took losing so many people that he loved for him to learn that spells had limitations, but love was strong enough to save the world.
So, every time you find yourself taking it easy on your character, find the one thing that will hurt her the most in that moment and put it in her path. Your readers will thank you for it.
See the Light
For your character to have the strength and emotional fortitude to push through her last, near-impossible obstacle, she must first realize the lie (emotional wound) that’s been holding her back. Because you’ve woven this wound throughout the story, the plot has been leading your character to this Aha moment from the start.
She will emerge from the darkest point of her story (commonly referred to as the dark night of the soul) and this revelation will be the spark that ignites her change. In doing so, it will equip her with everything she needs to finally reach her goal.
Complete the Journey
The story can’t end until your character has either achieved what she wanted or decided it wasn’t what she needed after all. For the story’s resolution to feel earned, it must directly tie to the character’s emotional journey. After being put through the wringer for a few hundred pages, your character—not to mention your steadfast reader—deserves a few moments of peace.
Check in tomorrow for Part 3: A Few Things to Note.