Do you know where your character is right this second? Do you know where he’s going to end up? Do you have a logical, tension-filled, engaging path for him to follow?
Character arc, writers, is one of those necessary pre-writing decisions you need to make for your story. The type of character you want to portray will come through the arc you put him on. Conversely, the arc will help drive your character toward his story goal.
There are three major types of character arcs: Positive, Flat/Neutral, Negative. While there are some variations with the Negative arc, we’ll only focus on these three in this post.
How do you figure out your character’s arc?
Step 1: The easiest starting point is the end. That’s right, if you know how your story will end, this will give you a pretty good idea what kind of arc your character will follow.
- A positive arc means that your character will end in a better place, personally and physically, from where he started.
- A flat/neutral arc means your character doesn’t change internally, but the world and supporting characters will change as a result of your character’s actions.
- A negative arc means that your character will end in a place that is darker or worse or completely opposite to where he was in the beginning of your story.
Step 2: Now look at the opening of your story. How does it compare to your ending? Typically, you want your character to begin in his Current World, where we can see him in his day-to-day life. We get to know some key points about your character based on his feelings towards his Current World.
- Is your character dissatisfied or disillusioned or unhappy (in which he believes a False Mindset that is holding him back)?
- Is your character in a good or happy or satisfactory place?
- Does your character open the story believing that while things aren’t all that wonderful, he knows he can make a change for the better?
Step 3: Next, think about the overall journey you envision your character taking. Even if you haven’t written it down, take some time to imagine how he might go from beginning to end. If you come up with more than one possible route, that’s fine, just take notes. Call upon the Muse to give you the most imaginative stuff. This is part of what I call Discovery—every idea is fair game and should be recorded in some way.
- Does your character need to leave the good place to fight for it when it is threatened?
- Is your character forced to leave his good place for a darker place?
- Does your character overcome his False Mindset that is holding him back?
- Is your character able to transform the world around him?
Deciding on your Character Arc
Your character’s intentions need to line up with the arc you’ve chosen for him. Make sure that the character you envision fits this kind of arc. This is especially important if you think your character could fit into more than one arc. Take some notes and journal out a summary of the reasons you picked your arcs, diving deep into your character and his motivations.
Some ideas to help you home in on the right arc for your character—
- Pick the strongest arc that provides the reader with the least chance of predictability and the most enjoyment of your story.
- Do your beginning and end create a circle that illustrates the character’s journey?
- If your character had to face the Final Showdown at the beginning of your story, how would he handle things?
Now that you’ve pinpointed your character’s arc, you want to make sure that the world he’s in at the start of your book fits the arc you’ve chosen.
Your Character’s Current World
This is part setting, part character, part conflict, part hook. The Current World grounds your reader so that we have a clear understanding of what your character is up against, his heart’s desire, and why we should care what happens next. The Current World will help us believe your character and his motivations.
Keep in mind—the Current World is not exclusively where your character lives physically. It is also how he feels and thinks.
Some questions to consider—
- Is the Current World wonderful on the surface, but reveals its more sinister foundation as the story progresses?
- Is the Current World trapping your character, making him feel passive, bored, ineffective, unworthy?
- Is the Current World deadly or dangerous or menacing?
- Is the Current World a generally good place with a healthy balance of positive and negatives?
- Is the Current World challenging or difficult for your character?
Designing your Current World
Play around with potential ideas to find the most evocative starting point for your story. Even if you have a firm idea of your opening scenes, try exploring other options. Remember—you’re aiming for the strongest arc possible and that means your story needs to open at the most captivating moment to hook and reel in your readers.
Some questions to consider—
- What is the physical setting of your Current World? Bring in all the senses.
- Does your Current World reflect your character’s False Mindset or Truth?
- Do we see your character engaging with the Current World so that we can sense how he feels about it?
- Are we able to understand why your character feels the way he does about the Current World?
- Do we know what your character is up against?
- Do we know why your character has stayed in the Current World?
Your character arc will evolve throughout the story based on plot points, conflict, interactions with other characters, subplots, etc. Your character will have to deal with the Current World in some way that requires change (his change or the change of others), launching him into his New World. All of this growth and change is easier to manage if you have the foundations of the character arc in place.
What character arc is your protagonist following? How does his Current World size up in relation to his attitude at the opening of your story?