Some of the most important changes in a story are those that happen within your characters. They’re powerful because, while the reader may not relate to your character’s actions of slaying dragons or flying spaceships, they can often relate to the internal changes your character goes through as they do these extraordinary things.
It’s these internal changes that we’re referring to when we talk about character arcs. And because they’re so important, they’re a great place to start when editing your work.
In Leslie’s post below, she’ll help you understand what character arcs are and how to discover your own characters’ arcs.
What is Your Character’s Arc?
I appreciate a good character arc. The domino effect of the relationship between circumstances and a character’s behavior fascinates me. I love to connect the dots and find causal connections between happenings. Looking at the way characters change helps me appreciate the author and the challenges of telling a great story. So let’s unpack the character arc.
What Is a Character Arc?
A character’s arc describes the change she undergoes from the beginning of a story through the end. Often called the character’s inner journey, this arc is separate from but connected to the plot and her external journey. We notice the protagonist’s character arc most easily; after all, she is the character who undergoes the most change. However, exploring the arc of the antagonist and other major characters helps you tell a better story with multidimensional characters.
Discovering Your Character’s Arc
If you don’t know how to create an arc for your character, think about the state of her life at the beginning of the story. What are the defining elements of her behavior? Where does she struggle? How might she improve herself or her life circumstances? Once you know that, think about what happens to her during the story. How might the external conflict change who she is, how she behaves, or how she sees the world?
You can also flip it around if you have a better handle on where she ends up. In this case, look at the lesson she needs to learn and consider how far she might grow given the external events in the story. Her arc begins with those challenges in front of her. For example, if your character learns to ask for help and work with others through the course of the story, she might be a loner who is afraid to rely on others at the beginning.
If you know your plot but don’t know how the events will affect your character, get to know her better. Ask yourself what her strengths and weaknesses are. What does she do for a living? What does she do for fun? What’s on her bucket list? Then ask why and how. Why does she want to hike the Appalachian Trail? How did she come to be in her current job? Why does she continue doing X when she dreams of doing Y? Spend some time exploring what she lacks and the lesson she needs to learn.
Setting up the Character Arc
A character grows when conflict pushes him to make choices that are outside of his comfort zone. Something is missing that author K.M. Weiland calls the Thing He Needs. The character also deeply desires something related to his external plot goal, called the Thing He Wants. The need and the desire are often mutually exclusive, and circumstances cause the character to choose between the two again and again. To change, he must finally choose the need and sometimes by doing so he will gain the thing he desires.
Demonstrating the character’s need and desire is important, but also include a characteristic moment at the beginning of the story to set the stage for the upcoming inner conflict and one at the end of the story to show how he has changed. To appreciate the difference, your reader must have a sense of who he is andwho he becomes: Snapshots in time to help the reader understand the depth of the choice he must make and what's at stake.
If you want to explore this topic further, I recommend Weiland’s fabulous series on character arcs or Jordan McCollum’s book Character Arcs: Founding, Forming, and Finishing Your Character’s Internal Journey. For a character-based approach to storytelling, I recommend Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel.
Have you uncovered helpful tips to write a character arc? Is it hard for you to envision your characters’ inner journeys? We invite you to share your thoughts and challenges in the comments below.
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