So, you have you character created and all his/her/its nuances down to a tee. What sort of character arc do you have planned? How does your character think in the beginning of your story as compared to the end? Plotting out character arcs will make your life as a writer so much easier. There are a few common/typical character arcs you can refer to so your character will finish his journey throughout your story’s progression and end up where you want him to.
Is your character on a hero’s journey, a tragic fall, or a flat arc. They are all discussed below in the articles that I have found very informative on this particular subject. Of course, there is a video for you to watch as well from a great YouTuber on character arcs and which ones to use in your story. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
By: Kathy Edens
The standard definition of a character arc is how your main character changes over the course of your story.
The most common form of character arc is the Hero’s Journey. An ordinary person receives a call to adventure and, at first, he or she refuses that call. There’s usually a mentor who helps the hero accept or learn how to attempt the adventure. Think of Yoda in Star Wars.
On the Hero’s Journey, the main character goes through many tests, trials, friends and enemies as he or she prepares for the final challenge. The journey culminates in the hero facing down the opposition where he finally acquires his goal, whether it’s a golden chalice or the princess’s hand. There’s a sort of resurrection where the hero comes from the brink of death or destruction to a higher form of being. Then the main character finally returns home—a hero.
There’s More to the Character Arc
It’s important to note that there’s more out there than just the good guy or gal who’s transformed by the end of the story. Not all characters undergo some major transformation. In some cases, your main character will grow, but not transform.
In fact, most character arcs can be simplified to fit into three different, but sometimes overlapping, categories:
- The Change Arc (aka the Hero’s Journey).
Probably the most common, or at least the most recognizable. By the end of the tale, the main character has conquered and becomes a usually unlikely hero. Some examples include:
- Katniss Everdeen’s rise from poor hunter to revolutionary hero by the end of The Hunger Games.
- Frodo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring begins as an eccentric little hobbit with an ordinary life in the Shire. No one would have expected him to overcome so many obstacles and throw the ring into Mount Doom.
- And remember, a hero is not necessarily a good guy. Look at Michael Corleone in The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Just home from Vietnam, Michael wants nothing to do with the family business, but an assassination attempt on his father forces him to take action and sends him down the path toward becoming the ruthless leader of New York’s most powerful mafia.
- The Growth Arc
This is where your main character becomes a better version of who he or she really is. Another version of the Growth Arc is a Shift Arc where the main character shifts his opinion or perspective about a certain situation or a group of people. Some examples of a growth arc include:
- Skeeter Phelan and her contingent of African-American maids in The Help by Kathryn Stockett. They begin the story timid and oppressed, and through the course of the story, they transform into strong women who take a stand and fight for change.
- Richard Chapman in The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian. In this book, a decent, moral family man throws a bachelor party for his younger brother that gets out of control. The ending is shocking (no spoiler alerts), but it serves to reinforce the main character as an accountable, responsible man.
- Briony Tallis in Atonement by Ian McEwan. Briony is a good girl who thinks she’s protecting her sister and makes an accusation that haunts her the rest of her life. Her life becomes, in effect, atonement for that one moment.
- The Negative or Fall Arc (aka the Tragedy).
Our main character fails, he or she is doomed, or death occurs. Shakespeare was excellent at writing compelling tragedies.
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger gives us Henry who can time-travel and change what has or will happen in his life. His wife Clare is left behind to wonder and worry every time he travels. No spoilers, but this is definitely a negative character arc.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding shows us the ugly side of humanity by marooning a group of British school boys on a deserted island who try to govern themselves with disastrous results.
- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is the tragic ending of Willy Loman, a salesman surrounded by mixed and unaddressed emotions of his family and himself about what life should be.
There you have the 3 major character arcs. People may—and do—argue that there’s more than just these 3 character arcs and perhaps they’re right. It can also be argued that there are no original story lines, just variant degrees of the same plot. I’ll leave those arguments for another article.
Character Arc & Story Arc
You can’t have one without the other. Your story arc informs what happens to your MC to induce change and transformation, help her grow into a stronger version of herself, or become his undoing by the end. When you plan out your story arc, you should create it with one thought in mind: how is this going to affect my main character’s inner world?
If you don’t know where your story is headed, how can you determine how your main character will be affected? And at the same time, if you don’t know how your main character is going to change and grow by the end, how can you decide what events to include in your story that will induce that change or growth?
The best stories have an intimately intertwined story arc and character arc that feed off each other.
How Do You Create a Character Arc?
Now you need to figure out which character arc to use in your story. Ask yourself these three questions:
- Who is your main character at the start of the story, and what are they like?
- What do you want your character to be like at the end of your story?
- What events need to happen to make this change come about?
Knowing where your main character starts out and where you want him to be by the resolution will dictate the character arc you choose.
Remember, your story arc and your character arc are irrevocably intertwined: each plot point on your story arc helps your character change or grow. And your character’s growth dictates how the will respond to each new point on your plot. These two facets of writing work together to get your MC to the climax of your story.
Now to Make Your Character Arc Compelling
It’s safe to assume that in real life, most people are striving to do or be someone better. We all want to feel complete and know that we’re living up to our potential. That’s probably why there are so many self-help apps out there to help you conquer everything from procrastination to eliminating bad habits and even running a marathon (if that’s your thing).
Our journeys are all different because we each have a unique vision of what’s missing from our lives and what it takes to be complete or whole. And what makes a character arc ultimately compelling is taking the universal truths about a life journey and showing your reader how your main character achieves the very thing we all hope for. Is it love? Or perhaps hero status? Maybe it’s ultimate heartbreak. Whatever it is, it’s your character arc.
Crafting Strong Character Arcs For Your Novel
One thing I mentioned was that theme is often revealed through our stories’ character arcs, but showcasing theme isn’t the only way strong character arcs can add to our stories. Character arcs can also introduce riveting internal conflict, raise our stories’ stakes, add complexity to our characters, and create deep emotional connections with our readers.
Not too shabby, eh? That’s why I want to take time today to dig into character arcs — specifically, how you can craft your own with ease. Knowledge is power, right? So, let’s get started…
The Many Approaches to Character Arcs
Character arcs follow the emotional or spiritual journey a character undergoes over the course of a story, and the first thing you need to know about crafting them is that there’s no single correct way to make your approach. As you explore your characters and story idea, certain elements of your main character’s arc will likely fall into place — whether you realize it or not.
For example, you may know that you want your character to overcome a certain fear or flaw as they work toward their story goal, which just so happens to be the crux of a positive character arc. But not every character arc changes your character for the better. Take a look at the three types of character arcs:
- Positive arcs:a character overcomes a flaw or fear to become a better person.
- Negative arcs: a character fails to overcome a flaw or fear and harms themselves or others as a result. (The harm can be physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, or so on.)
- Flat arcs: a character’s morals and beliefs are challenged, but they ultimately hold true to who they are.
In today’s post, we’re strictly going to focus on creating positive character arcs, as they are by far the most common type of arc found in literature.
Mapping Out Strong Character Arcs
Creating a character arc requires a deep understanding of who your character is. Before beginning to map out your main character’s arc, I encourage you to work through my 33 Ways to Write a Stronger Character, as well as my favorite approach to building a character’s personality.
Below, I’ve mapped out the blueprint of a positive character arc. To build a strong character arc of your own, make sure to identify all 11 beats for your story, but don’t be afraid to work out of order. Approach your character arc as best fits your process and story idea.
Beat #1: The Normal World.
At the beginning of a positive character arc, your main character (MC) is in their everyday environment.
Over the first few scenes, showcase who your character is in this environment. What are their current circumstances? Who do they surround themselves with? Consider how these elements affect your MC. Make sure to highlight their personality, and begin to reveal their flaws and fears.
If you can, throw your MC into the midst of an everyday conflict so readers can better understand who your character is before their journey begins.
Beat #2: A desire arises.
For some reason, your character is (or should become) deeply unsatisfied with their everyday normal. Suddenly, they want something. Perhaps it’s love, or a new career, or to gain revenge, or to become famous, or maybe just to be happy.
Whatever the case, your character quickly begins to plan out how they will achieve this desire — even though doing so will challenge their flaws and fears.
Beat #3: A push into the Great Unknown.
Your character’s desire has led them to formulate a goal, but that goal cannot be achieved within their everyday environment. This will pose an initial emotional hurdle for your MC to overcome, and overcome they shall.
The stakes should your character not achieve their goal are high, and so your MC will push beyond their comfort zone and into the Great Unknown. Both their external and internal journeys have begun.
Beat #4: An ultimate fear becomes evident.
Because of the stakes you introduced in beat #3, your character is motivated to achieve their goal. However, at some point in the first half of the story, it should become clear that your MC will never achieve their goal if they don’t change.
This is because of the Lie your character believes, a false mindset (usually built upon flaws or fears) that keeps your MC from achieving their true potential and finding the long-lasting satisfaction they crave.
Their Lie will become the biggest emotional hurdle your MC will have to overcome, and the knowledge of this Lie will amp up your story’s suspense every time your character is forced to face a new conflict.
Beat #5: The Lie is challenged.
After launching into the Great Unknown, your character will face a series of struggles and conflicts that challenge the Lie they believe. However, the MC doesn’t yet have the courage or clarity they need to overcome their Lie.
Instead, they play a game of push and pull, fighting through several instances of conflict made all the more difficult because they refuse to acknowledge their ultimate fear. They even struggle to overcome much smaller emotional hurdles.
Beat #6: A switch is flipped.
At the midpoint of your story, a major conflict forces your character to confront their flaws and fears. Something huge is at stake, and your MC needs to act against their normal behavior it they don’t want to suffer a loss.
No matter the outcome of this conflict, your MC will begin to see that they can change for the better. They find new strength and refuse to continue cowering. As the second half of your story begins, your MC goes on the offensive.
But facing small flaws and fears is one thing. Confronting the truth behind their Lie is another, and your MC still isn’t ready to face the music.
Beat #7: The push and pull continues.
Now that your character has overcome (or is in the process of overcoming) a flaw or fear, they begin to take initiative. They confront the villain or antagonistic force head on, creating conflicts that move them closer to achieving their story goal.
Still, their Lie looms overhead, threatening to undermine all their hard work unless your MC chooses to finally face it.
Beat #8: The Why behind the Lie is revealed.
An event or circumstance in your character’s past taught them to believe their Lie.
Whether traumatizing, embarrassing, or otherwise difficult to face, your MC will try to keep this fateful event private at all costs. However, at some point the secret will come to light (most commonly during the second half of your story).
This instance will likely both relieve your MC and further complicate their actions. Suddenly, they can’t ignore their Lie anymore… But they sure will try!
Beat #9: The Dark Night of the Soul.
Your character’s fight against their Lie will quickly come to a head when they suffer a major loss just before your story’s climactic sequence.
This loss is so devastating that it forces your MC to finally confront what they’ve been trying to ignore: their Lie. And so your MC combats their demons at last, emerging from their loss stronger and more motivated than ever before.
Your character now realizes that achieving their goal won’t truly bring them the satisfaction they crave, at least not until they become the person they need to be.
Beat #10: Revelations are made manifest.
Your character has realized their Truth, and they need to put it into action ASAP because they have emerged from the Dark Night of the Soul and walked straight into your story’s climactic sequence.
It’s during this sequence that your MC will overcome any remaining flaws and fears and use their newfound Truth to become the best version of themselves, in most cases giving them the advantage they need to overcome the story’s antagonist.
Beat #11: Amends are made.
After coming through the final conflict of your story, it’s apparent that your character has changed for the better. Now it is time for your MC to make amends for any hurt they caused before or during their journey as a result of their flaws, fears, and the Lie they believed.
And just like that, we’ve mapped out the major beats of a powerful and redemptive character arc. If you’re interested in learning how to weave your character arc into the fabric of your plot, I highly recommend getting to know the 3-Act Story Structure. It’s a personal favorite structure of mine that I broke down on the blog last year.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind…
As you dive headfirst into crafting character arcs, keep in mind that not all stories need to feature prominent arcs. While some character arcs drive stories, others play second fiddle to the stories’ main plot line, and that’s okay. The important thing is to not overlook character arcs altogether. Conflict always has internal consequences.
Remember, as well, that stories can include multiple character arcs, so don’t be afraid to have secondary characters undergo emotional development, too. Just make sure their development adds to the primary story — otherwise, you have a whole new novel on your hands.
Finally, don’t forget that not all characters change for the better. Many fiction favorites include negative or flat character arcs. Your book can, too. Sound good? Great. Now what are you waiting for? It’s time to begin crafting your very own epic character arcs today!