Today we’re talking CHARACTERS ARCS. Fiiinally. You guys knew this post was coming. I’ve been teasing it for ages. And I believe it was J.L. Guyer who specifically asked if I’d do a post on character arcs sometime. I am so sorry it’s taking me this long! But we’re here now and I’m excited.
If you’re not super familiar with what character arcs are, basically: It’s the inner journey and growth your character goes on. We all grow and change in some form or fashion through life, and characters especially do since we’re usually sending them off to fight monsters and save the world and all that fun stuff (we’re so nice to our babies). That’ll definitely change a person! Think the scared, wimpy farm boy who becomes a hero, marries the gorgeous blonde princess, and probably becomes a king. He went from a terrified boy to a man who faces enemies and finds the courage to ask the gorgeous blonde princess out. He found his strength and courage. That’s a character arc.
It’s no secret that I am a total character arc addict. But why does this appeal to me so much? And why is it important for us to incorporate them in our stories? Let’s take a quick look at why before jumping in on how to write them.
WHY A CHARACTER ARC?
Seeing someone transform into a true hero (or a villain bwahaha) is just so exciting and satisfying.
It really makes you feel like you’ve been on a journey with the character and know them at a deep level.
No one goes on a world-saving adventure and returns home completely the same person. That’d be extremely unrealistic.
It adds depth to your character.
People read stories for people. And we want to see these people we love change and grow and become their own.
They’re kind of the centerpiece of any plot, so there’s that.
But also they’re super FUN!
And that just scratches the surface. To me, even if you have a mind-blowing plot, out-of-this-world world (lololol), and jaw-dropping prose, if there’s no character growth, what’s the point in the story? We read for entertainment, yes. But I also firmly believe we read to find truths. To seek ourselves in between the pages of books, finding characters who struggle with the same things we do and find hope and encouragement within them. Because if they can conquer the lies they believe, we can too.
A good character arc can live an impactful impression on your reader for years to come.
Basically, they’re pretty important. And you may be thinking now, “Sheesh, no pressure, right???” Actually NO. Because character arcs can be the most fun thing you’ll put in your story. Don’t setout to write the novel that will change the world. That’ll suck all the fun out of writing (and just give you a serious headache and a whole lotta disappointment). Instead, setout to write a good story, and it’ll change the world on its own. And how do you write a good story? CHARACTER ARCS. (I mean, there’s a lot of ways, but I definitely think character arcs are up there as one of the key elements to a good story.)
But now that we’ve established the importance of character arcs, how in this world or any other do we actually incorporate them in our stories??? That’s exactly what we’re about to look at!
STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO
WRITING A CHARACTER ARC
STEP #1: Find Your Character’s Lie
You’ve probably all heard about the Lie Your Character Believes. Basically, this is the driving force of your character. This is the basis of your character arc. If you can find that lie, you’ll know exactly which direction to take the arc. And pretty much everyone has a lie that drives them…in a negative way.
Let’s look at our farm boy. We’re calling him Pete. The lie Pete believes is that he’s a useless farm boy and not good for anything. And so this holds him back, day after day. He can’t talk to the pretty girl, is in denial when Mentor pops out of nowhere and tells Pete he’s actually the king and soon-to-be hero of the kingdom, and doesn’t dare touch Legendary Sword because he’ll probably accidentally cut his leg off with it or something. He’s useless after all.
Now remember, there’s always a reason why a character believes a lie. Maybe Pete has had the village people make fun of his puny size his whole life. Maybe every time he tries to use a farm tool, it goes horribly wrong. Whatever it is, something in his life festered into this lie.
All right. We’ve nailed down Pete’s lie: He thinks he’s useless. Which means his character arc will be him learning he is, in fact, not useless.
STEP#2: The Inciting Incident
Our first step into creating a hero out of a farm boy is his Inciting Incident—that tragic thing at the beginning of the story that pushes our hero into action. Perhaps the villain comes and burns down his farm and kills Pete’s father in the process. Maybe Mentor dies a terrible death. Maybe the girl Pete’s got a crush on is kidnapped by the villain. (Yes, we’re totally running with clichés for the sake of clear examples. Just…er…maybe come up with something more original for your own stories. *grins*)
Okay, so tragedy has befallen poor Pete and now he has no choice but to go on his journey. Step one of the arc has taken place. But Pete is still a nervous, young boy who can’t possibly believe he can save anybody. From here on out, we have to take a step here and there to build Pete up. And by that I mean totally tear him down until he taps into that hero we know is in there. Because torturing our characters is what we authors do best.
STEP#3: The Gradual Journey
We’re past the beginning, have pinned down Pete’s Lie, and pushed him into action. Now it’s time to take him on the long, grueling journey that will (hopefully) slowly but surely beat down his Lie. But what are some events that can help with this?
We have two options in which direction to take this arc:
Bringing out the skills Pete already has
Letting him conquer new ones.
For example, maybe Pete meets an expert swordsman and throughout his journey Pete learns swordplay, thus building his confidence and proving to Pete he’s not so useless after all. OR maybe Pete never does learn to wield Legendary Sword, and instead defeats a bad guy with a rock and slingshot. Because Pete has spent nearly his whole life scaring crows away from the farm with his slingshot. He just never realized it was a useful skill. Both these options builds up Pete’s confidence and shows him he is capable of something. Which means he’s slowly but surely rising above that lie of being useless. Either option is fine. I personally looooove when a character uses a seemingly mundane skill they have to conquer their tasks. But there’s nothing wrong with allowing your character to learn new things as well (or discover they have magic/superpowers, ‘cause that happens a lot too). You can even do both. Or, better yet, use them each together. Maybe Pete learns he’s pretty good at using a bow because his hand-to-eye coordination is developed from using a slingshot.
But we’re getting off track. This is about Pete’s inner journey after all, not actual physical activities. It just takes something on the surface, like the death of a loved one and then learning swordplay, to push the character forward and force them into conquering that lie they believe.
But remember: Character arcs take time. People usually don’t just suddenly change who they are in a day. It’s a gradual road. Nothing irks me more than when a bad guy gets reformed in like 0.2 seconds, after literally hating everybody and wanting to burn the world down moments before. Incidents have to take place to push him into his change.
Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender is the best example of this. Through the course of the show, Zuko went from the villain, to an antihero, to a hero. But it was a looong road.
You have to remember, every action and thought-process your character has is for a reason. You know the saying: Every villain is a hero in his own mind. Cliché yes, but true. Zuko, for example, was just trying to win his father’s favor back, help his nation, and be allowed to return home. He thought the best thing he could do was hunt down and kill the Avatar in order to accomplish this. But after seeing the destruction his father and corrupt sister were causing the world, and having his Uncle Iroh, the one person who truly cared about him, show him a better path, Zuko did eventually reform. But it was a long journey, with many mistakes along the way, to fully open up Zuko’s eyes to the right path. (Okay, but really, if you want examples of good character arcs and storytelling, WATCH THE LAST AIRBENDER. It’s such a fantastic show.)
To sum this step up: Every character journey is going to have its ups and downs. Some things will build the character up. Some things will tear them down. And some things will push them forward. It’s all a learning process. But if you always remember your Character’s Lie, it’ll help you stay focused on that central arc and help you know which events need to take place.
STEP#4: The Dark Moment
Pretty much every good story has this moment, often called the Dark Night of the Soul for your character. This happens about a third of the way in the book. We’re nearing the climax, which we know because everything possible has gone wrong. It looks like the villain is going to win. Pete has been beaten down. The girl he loves is kidnapped, Mentor is dead, his home was burned in a fire, his sword trainer is also dead, the villain is on his way to becoming evil overlord of the kingdom. And here Pete is. A useless farm boy. He’s tried time and time again to prove his use, to be that hero everyone expects him to be. But he just can’t. He’s failed.
Because here’s the thing. Usually, for us to grow, we have to make it the very bottom before we can climb up again. It is there, at the lowest point, that Pete remembers everything he learns, and remembers everything that can be lost if he doesn’t stand back up. Maybe the ghost of Mentor appears and reminds him of what he’s accomplished and what he can do (since this is [Insert Cliché Fantasy Title Here]). Maybe just the thought of Blonde Princess caught in the villain’s clutches is enough for Pete to take action. Maybe he sees a building burning by the villain’s minions and runs in and saves the family caught inside, snapping him out of his funk and making him realize he can help people. He can be brave. Whatever it is, Pete musters up the courage to end this all, no matter what.
STEP #5: The Moment of Truth
We’ve established our character’s lie. We’ve given the inciting incident to push them on their inner and/or physical journey, and they’ve been forced out of their comfort zone and taught some hard lessons a couple of times. They’ve reached their lowest moment but had an incident and reflection time that made them rise above it.
Now we’ve reached the climax and it’s time for the character to either fall back to who they were before or incorporate everything they’ve learned on this journey, face their fears, and rise to that person they are meant to be.
Back to Pete, who’s standing atop the roof of the villain’s ridiculously tall tower, facing the villain down. Except…the villain is big, like really big. He’s got a sword nearly as long as Pete in one hand, and a big ol’ spiky flail in the other. And he’s laughing. Like a lot. Because this is the boy who they sent to defeat him? He’s just a puny farm boy! Mwahahaha! How pathetic.
Pete stands there, knees knocking, fearing the villain is right. He is just a farm boy after all. He never even learned how to properly hold up a sword. What was he doing? But then he thinks on his journey and remembers what he’s accomplished. He remembers that climb up the mountain and surviving an avalanche. He remembers that horde of goblins he managed to trick into falling off a cliff and thus saving a whole village. He remembers that family he saved from a burning building. He remembers Blonde Princess telling him she believed in him. And now he knows, he is more than a farm boy. He’s PETE. He has done so much already. He isn’t useless. And he embraces this, embraces himself wholly. And thus pulls out his slingshot, and does what Pete’s do. He aims and lets a rock fly. It knocks the villain squarely between the eyes, making him stumble back, and fall right off his absurdly tall fortress. *victory music commences*
Pete finally faced the truth: that he is not useless. That he can be far more than a wimpy farm boy. And the kingdom is saved! But how was it saved? Not from Pete being “strong” in a physical sense. But from Pete going through a character arc and defeating that Lie.
If there had been no character arc for Pete, there would have been no story. I mean, I guess we would have gotten a really sad ending that involved Pete dying from a spiky flail bashing into his head. Not exactly the ending we wanted, I don’t think.
But the point is, character arcs are extremely important, and are what keeps your story and your character moving forward. And your readers engaged. Personally, I don’t want to read about a macho warrior who can easily bust into the villain’s tower and stab him in a breeze. That’d be…boring. I want someone I can relate to. Someone who can prove to me that I can conquer my own lies. Someone who struggles just like we do, and may fall time and time again, but eventually pulls themselves back up and keeps fighting, no matter how hard it is. That’s a character who will keep your readers enraptured from page one to the end.
Before I end this, let’s look at some other types of arcs and what to do with them.
“Character Arc” does not only refer to those ascending arcs. There’s also descending arcs. Such as a good person falling to the dark side. Bum bum bummmm. These are funnnnn. *cackles*
These honestly follow along with the same steps, just in a much more negative way. That lie they believe? Maybe it’s TRUE. Maybe throughout their journey, instead of getting positive reinforcement that pushes back the lie, they only discover time and time again that they are what they fear, and it eats away at them until they spiral into villainy. Or maybe they embrace a lie fully, instead of fighting it, which puts them on a descending path.
Let’s look at Morgana from BBC’s Merlin. At the start of the show, Morgana is kind and compassionate and lives a good, happy life. But then one day she wakes up to realize she has magic. Problem is? Her guardian, King Uther, hates magic with an unhealthy passion, and immediately executes any who practice it. Morgana knows, despite being Uther’s ward, that he’d choose his fear and hatred of magic over her. And so she has to hide it, but it gets harder and harder. And as she sees Uther constantly executing people with magic like her, bitterness sets in. It only gets worse as time goes on. The straw that breaks the camel back is when she discovers a terrible secret Uther had been keeping from her for her entire life. Then she has someone come into her life who hates Uther, and continues to poison Morgana’s mind toward him. Until, eventually, Morgana wants him dead. The lie she believes is that her only way to happiness is to kill the king. This festers and festers until it’s her entire life goal. And now we have a good person-turned-villain.
An important thing to remember when writing these descending arcs: Our conscious can absolutely be destroyed. The more bad we do, the more we rationalize that it’s okay. Morgana let her desire to kill Uther grow so deeply, she went from someone who cried at the sight of death, to a person killing people right and left to accomplish her goal. And she was able to do that because her wicked acts and own selfish desires silenced her conscious over time. Not to mention, she thought she was trying to do Camelot a service by killing the man who hated magic. Again, every villain thinks they’re a hero in their own mind.
What if you don’t want your story to hold some major, life-changing event? Or maybe you have a minor character who will go through a much simpler arc than the protagonist? That’s perfectly fine. Not every arc turns a farm boy into a hero king after all. But the same steps still apply in one form or fashion. Perhaps your story is not a big epic fantasy but instead a contemporary romance novella, and you have no intentions of completely transforming your heroine. Then you’d still find that Big Lie she believes and help her through it, even if it’s as simple as helping her find the courage to talk to Cute Boy.
This kind of goes along with the previous one. Because you may be thinking you don’t want an arc. You love your character and you don’t want them to change. They wouldn’t be your beloved character if they did after all! This is where the balancing act comes into play.
Like I said at the beginning of the post, character arcs are kind of the centerpiece of your story. If your character is not growing and learning in some way, it’s not only unrealistic, but rather tiring. Because every big event in our life changes us in some way or another, and most books cover The Big Event of our protagonist's life. They’re absolutely going to change in some way if it’s realistic. BUT. That does not, not, nooot mean you have to transform them into a new person. Occasionally this happens like in the case of Morgana. But, honestly? Her transformation was almost over the top. Because we still are who we are. We grow and change and learn and fall and get up again throughout our entire lives, yes. But we’re still us.
Pete may have finally found his bravery to defeat the villain, but he did it his way with a slingshot. And even though he won Blonde Princess’s hand, I doubt the shy, farm boy is always perfectly eloquent and dapper around her. He’s a little braver, yes, and now knows he’s not entirely useless. But that awkward farm boy is still in there. We wouldn’t want to beat that out of him completely, because it’s him and it’s endearing. I have actually seen arcs that totally took away the character I formerly knew and loved and it was annoying.
Of course, aspects of a person can be conquered fully. When I was little I was paaaainfully shy. Now I barely have a shy bone in my body. But it took effort and practice on my part to get here (as we’ve learned, reformation should not be instant). But just because I’m no longer shy doesn’t mean I’m an entirely different person.
The point of arcs is to make a better (or worse) version of the character. That’s it. It’s to find that lie they believe and help them conquer it. Or to show the effects trauma and big events has on a person. There needs to be some form of change in your character by the end of the novel. But it by no means has to be a ginormous transformation. We want to see the characters we love become better people. But we love them for who they are, and so creating an arc that changes them wholly and completely is both unrealistic and unwise. Zuko went from villain to hero, but he still stayed that grumpy, quiet, sarcastic person we all fell for.
Whew! That was…a lot. And, honestly, I could have said so much more! This post went 3 different directions before I finally settled on what it is. But character arcs are just SO IMPORTANT, guys! They really are the basis for every story. Nailing the art of character arcs is truly the key to creating amazing stories.
With that said, if any of this was confusing or you want me to talk more extensively about one particular aspect of arcs, don’t hesitate to ask! I am by noooo means an expert and certainly do not have all the answers! But I consume a looooot of books, TV shows, and movies, and I’d more than happy to share any thoughts I’ve gleaned from studying them.
TALK WITH ME!
I hope that was coherent and helpful. Do you have any more questions on character arcs? Do you agree with my steps on forming an arc? And what are your thoughts and tips and tricks on the subject? I’m always, always excited to learn more!