Where is your character right this second? Do you know where he’s going to end up? Will he follow a logical, tension-filled, engaging path? What is his character arc?
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.
In this post, I’ll talk about the importance of character arc, the three main types, how the “worlds” play into your character’s arc, and a coaching tip on how you can start mapping out your character’s arc.
Let’s hop to it!
Why is character arc so important?
Character evolution, the change, is what connects your reader to your point-of-view character (POVC). When we can track your character’s inner journey across various emotional, spiritual, and intellectual phases, then we will not only want to root your character onto glory but we’ll believe and empathize with her struggle every beat of the way.
How do you figure out your character’s arc?
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.
What is your POVC’s story goal? What is it they’re fighting for? This is the outer journey your POVC follows. Next, ask yourself what your POVC needs to learn about themselves and probably their worldview in order to achieve their story goal. Finally, ask yourself why your POVC wants to achieve their story goal. Why are they willing to struggle? Why do they want to change things?
Your POVC’s story goal, the lesson they need to learn along the way, and their motivation behind their choices are what help create the backbone of your character arc.
The Three Main Types of Arcs
- A positive arc means that your character will start off feeling unfulfilled in some way. Her beliefs about herself and her worldview will be challenged. When she learns to overcome her inner struggles she will be able to conquer her external obstacles (including the antagonist). At the end she will be in a better place, personally and physically, from where she started.
- A flat/neutral arc means your character starts off already complete internally, but she will be dissatisfied with something in the external world. She won’t undergo any noticeable internal growth, but she will gain inner strength to overcome/defeat the external issues facing her. The growth we see will be in the external world and the supporting characters–all as a result of your POVC’s actions.
- The flip side to positive arc. 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.
Character Arc from Current to New World
When we talk about Current World and New World, we aren’t necessarily talking about setting. We’re mainly referring to their state of being. While setting does play a factor, we don’t want to limit our assessment of “world” to only time and place. We want to also take into account your POVC’s values, passions, desires, fears, priorities, and anything else that makes up the heart and soul of your character.
Current World: Your POVC’s state of being at the opening of your story.
New World: The state of being that your POVC transitions to when she answers the call to go after her big story goal (Desire).
Look at the opening of your story. How does it compare to your ending? Typically, you want your story to open with your character 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 buys into a False Belief that is holding him back)?
- What are the time and place of the Current World?
- 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?
When you’re ready to map out your New World, ask yourself some questions:
- How is the New World the opposite of the Current World?
- In what ways can the New World seemingly fulfill your POVC’s story goal?
- Does the New World help your POVC hang onto her False Belief?
- Does the New World challenge your POVC’s beliefs about herself and her worldview?
What kind of journey will your character take?
So by now you’ll have an idea if your POVC is on a positive, flat, or negative arc–but that’s just the outcome. You have an entire journey to set him on from page 1 onward. What will he encounter? How far off the beaten path will he need to venture? Who will get in his way? Why is he willing to get up again after being pushed down for the fifty-fifth time?
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 Belief that is holding him back?
- Is your character able to transform the world around him?
Mapping Out Your Character’s Arc
Your character’s intentions and motivations 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.
Step 1: Make sure you know your POVC’s story goal, and be sure it is a concrete, specific goal that your reader can see her achieve through a scene. “My character wants to be happy” is not specific enough. “My character wants to get her GED” is very specific and serves as a concrete goal that we can witness your character achieving–or not.
Step 2: Ask yourself WHY your POVC wants this particular Desire. If you know the answer to this question, you’ll be able to gain insight into your POVC’s motives, values, passions, fears, priorities. Everything they do, every decision they make will be SUPPORTED by evidence that you can draw from their WHY. Not only will this clarify your character’s journey on the structural level, but also on the scene level. It’s powerful information. Don’t brush over this aspect.
Some other questions to help you map out the 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?
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?