Character Arcs Part 3: A Few Things to Note

Character Arcs 3

Parts 1 and 2 of this short character arc series covered the basics and the process. Part 3 includes a few extras that you need to keep in mind as you’re writing.

Don’t Forget the Secondary Characters
Character arcs can—and should—apply to secondary characters as well. These arcs might not play out on the page in full detail as with the main characters but showing some of this progression will help fill out your world, ensuring an immersive experience for the reader.

This applies to antagonists too. Whether he’s a full-on villain trying to thwart your main character at every turn or just someone who’s acting in opposition to her goals, the antagonist should have his own, well-developed arc. This doesn’t mean he’ll suddenly realize the error of his ways and turn “good.” But he can’t come across as static or he’ll feel more like a cardboard cutout than a living, breathing person.

Start in the Right Place
Trying to decide where to start your story can be daunting. But when you boil the story down to plot and character, the appropriate starting scene usually becomes clear. Look at who your character is and then drop her into a scene just before her world changes. All the reader needs is a hint of her “normal life” so they are grounded in the story world before things go sideways.

Eliminate Backstory
Most writers create detailed backstories for their characters. Only a fraction of that information actually makes it into the novel. Why? Because backstory slows down the pace and stops the forward momentum of the present story. That’s not to say those details aren’t important—they do inform why the character acts a certain way—but usually, they mean more to the author than the reader. So, while characters continually grow and change, the only details that pertain to the current story arc are the ones that matter most.

Show, Don’t Tell
Yep, the Show, Don’t Tell advice applies to character arcs too. As your character changes, you will need to show this progression on the page You can do this through her actions/reactions and dialogue.

The character’s emotional reaction is what’s driving her to change or adapt to be able to reach her goal. How she reacts and the action she takes because of it should play out as a scene, using physical movements and internal thought/reaction to let the reader experience everything right along with your character.

You can also use what the characters says to show her gradual change. Word choice, tone, and speech patterns all play a part in revealing her moods and overall state of mind. Altering these over the course of the story will work in concert with her actions and reactions to show the character growth in an organic way.

When an Arc Is Not an Arc
Now that I’ve convinced you of the importance of creating character arcs, I have a confession. It’s not really an arc.

If you tried to map out your character’s emotional journey, it would involve a lot more ups and downs (hello there, obstacles!) than the word arc implies. What’s important is that your character ends up in a different place on both the X and Y axis (unless you’re writing a flat character, and if you’re doing that you’d better have a really good reason for it!). It’s that change from page one to The End that will give your character—and their story—meaning for the reader.

Character Arcs Part 2: Creating Successful Character Arcs

Character Arcs 2

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.


TRY THIS

  • 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.


TRY THIS

  • 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.


TRY THIS

  • 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.

Character Arcs Part 1: A Journey of Self-Discovery

Character Arcs 1

Stories are composed of two main components: plot and characters. Without these, you are left with a bunch of words on the page that hold no meaning for the reader. Those words might be beautifully crafted, but if the reader doesn’t care about your character, they’ll set your book aside without a second thought. And that’s the last thing you want.

To hook your reader, and keep them invested in the story until The End, you must weave plot and character together.

The first step is understanding who your character is. It’s easy to build a character sketch to nail down whether she’s a soul destined for hell or a snarky outsider with a heart of gold, but these attributes are only scratching the surface. You’ll need to dig deep into the core of who she is by asking a few basic, but crucial, questions. What does she want? How does she plan to get it? What’s holding her back? What happens if she fails?
Knowing the answers to these questions will help you build an arc for your character that creates a compelling emotional journey throughout the story.

What is a Character Arc?
Characters come into a story with certain beliefs and morals and a whole host of experiences that have shaped them. Well-written characters feel like they could step right out of the pages and exist in the real world. So, what is it that makes them seem so alive?

Let’s start with a basic fact of human nature. People change. They evolve, grow, and, yes, sometimes they backslide. No one comes into the world the same person as they leave it. Your characters shouldn’t either. For them to be relatable and believable, they must mimic real life—even if the story world you’re creating includes fantastical elements like future-telling chocolates or wishes that appear out of thin air on slips of paper, as they do in my books. This means imbuing your characters with both positive and negative traits, giving them passion (for family/friends/lovers/pets as well as hobbies/places/objects), surrounding them with supporting characters they can play off of, and using these characteristics to move them through the story.

Which brings us to the character arc. It is the emotional journey that causes your character to change in some way over the course of the story. This inner change occurs in parallel with—and because of—the plot (story arc or external change).

Types of Character Arcs
There are four main types of character arcs: transformative, growth, downfall, and flat. The first three change the character in varying degrees, while the last allows the character to end the story just as she began it. Allowing characters to grow results in the characters coming across as more compelling and dynamic. Which, in turn, keeps readers invested in the character’s life and well-being—both physical and emotional.

Transformative Arc
The transformative arc leads the character through an epic transformation from a normal, everyday person to someone extraordinary. In some cases, this change involves magic or superpowers or some “other” force that literally give them the ability to save the world. In others, the change is spurred by the character’s absolute desire for something and the need to adapt to achieve it.

This arc results in a fundamental change to the character. She ends the book as a “new and improved” version of herself.

Examples include Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Octavia Blake in The 100, and Logan Echolls in Veronica Mars.

Growth Arc
The growth arc guides the character on a more natural progression of self-awareness. Her everyday actions and reactions teach her something new about herself and the world around her. The core of who she is as a character remains intact, but a few key traits are altered, changing her outlook on specific aspects of her life.
This arc results in a gradual change to some, but not all, of her characteristics. She ends the story as a more enlightened, confident version of herself.

Examples include Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice, and Sawyer in Lost.

Downfall Arc
The downfall arc pushes the character to a fall from grace. It’s like the transformative arc but in reverse. The character usually starts the story with good intentions and redeeming qualities, but each choice she makes strips away another piece of who she is until, by the story’s end, she is no longer recognizable.

This arc results in the character losing her sense of self to the intense desire that’s driving her. She ends the book as a shadow of her former self, if she makes it out of the story at all.

Examples include Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Walter White in Breaking Bad, and Cersei Lannister in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Flat Arc
The flat arc follows a character who remains static from beginning to end. Sometimes a character’s beliefs are reaffirmed after a few bouts of doubt. Other times, the story is plot-driven and character growth is not expected or needed for the reader to be entertained.

This arc results in the character maintaining the same characteristics and beliefs throughout. She is neither better nor worse at the end than when the story began.

Examples include Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, Sherlock Holmes of the Sherlock Holmes series, and Diana of Wonder Woman.

Check in tomorrow for Part 2: Creating Successful Character Arcs.