How to Build a Character Arc
A WRITER CAN POUR plot twists, solid conflict, steamy sex, non-stop action, and a fluffy kitty or two into a story and still miss the heart of the reader if the main characters in the story fail to demonstrate some sort of character arc. Readers relate to characters through their goals, motivations, and conflict, but also through their flaws, disappointments, and their triumphs. Characters that fight a flaw or inner demon and conquer it (or in a tragedy, fail to conquer it) will touch the reader on a deeper level.
Character flaws or emotional baggage give the reader something to relate to, and character arc, or growth, gives the reader something to feel good about. Remember The Little Engine That Could? It’s a simple story, but a good example of character arc. The Little Engine couldn’t pull the big load up the hill; he was too weak. But after he learns to believe in himself, the reader gets to cheer him all the way to the top of the hill while he chants, “I think I can. I think I can.” He learned to believe in his ability (growth of character), and so he triumphs over the difficulty he faces.
In more sophisticated stories, the character arc is still the same principle: the protagonist must overcome inner beliefs and limitations to overcome the major obstacle blocking the successful conclusion of the story. In a love story, the hero must often accept love is real, or he is worthy of love. The heroine often learns to accept her feelings for a man she pre-judged or hated. Heroines we love find out their inner strengths. Heroes we love accept their emotional need. If neither of them learn anything, give anything, or grow, the story feels less satisfying than a flavor-free rice cake.
So how does one demonstrate character arc?
Certainly not by preaching.
“Brandon looked deep within himself, realized he’d never done anything for anyone other than himself, and despised his selfishness. Vowing to become more giving of himself, he threw himself over the ever-weak Heather to shield her from the shrapnel.”
Makes you wonder if you’ve contracted food poisoning, doesn’t it? To avoid nasty information dumps and unconvincing melodrama, you must begin your character arc on the very first page in which you introduce the character. We need a glimpse of his flaw(s) in the very beginning, and a little pruning of his character in each plot point of the story. You may have a great Ah-ha moment somewhere in the story where the protagonist sees herself in a new light and turns over a new leaf, but there needs to be a lot of steps leading up to that sudden flash of light—a slow chipping away that exposes the problem more and more.
How your character changes can happen in a number of ways, and may depend on his or her personality. Here are a few shift types to consider:
Core Believer to Backslider
You aren’t likely to have a person who is passionately communistic suddenly become an entrepreneur. Change like this does not happen in a flash. It would have to be forced by a need to survive or help someone he loves survive in a world where his system has let him down. By the time this guy’s communist beliefs have succumbed to his need to survive, it will be hard for him or the reader to know what he believes, and no matter where your reader stands on the issue, the character’s loss of grounding will speak to the reader’s heart. Left in a state of betrayal of belief, the story is a tragedy. If you bring the character to embrace his new belief, you can attain a tender triumph.
Who am I?
In this shift of paradigm, the protagonist holds one belief, and through a course of eye opening experiences (and possibly a big upset to make them see it), decides they were in error. In this shift, the protagonist jumps ship from one belief to a new one. There is no doubt left in the protagonist’s or the reader’s mind where the character is in their belief. Most love story heroes fall into this category; they start out believing love is not real and end up believing they can’t live without it. You’ll also find this type of shift in a story of religious conversion like that of Saul on the road to Damascus.
A twist on this character arc is when the change comes in the beginning of the story, surprising the character. The reader then gets to witness the cementing of the new belief and the character’s adjustment to it.
Growing a Spine
Here we have the protagonist who knows who he or she is, but never had the opportunity or reason to do something about it. Like the difference between dough and bread, this character still has the same basics inside of her, but the story brings her true potential to light for her and the reader. It’s a feel good character arc, and one that lets the reader appreciate the quiet guy types—think: Indiana Jones.
The Crushed Grape
This one takes a while to develop, but it can result in a subtle yet glorious character arc.
Like a crushed grape can become a stunningly wonderful wine, some of us rise from tragedy as far better people than we were before.
Remember your ten-year class reunion? If it was typical, it was one major session of “measuring up.” Where are you living? What do you do? Did you hear about so-in-so’s big break? I’ve heard of people who rent cars to impress former classmates. But something changes by the twenty-year reunion. People want to know about your life, your kids, and they share some of the disappointments and losses they’ve suffered. People tend to become less superficial and more open to others after they’ve lived in the real world long enough.
If you want to demonstrate a character who has become a fine vintage of humanity, it’s going to take time. Crushed grapes take time to ferment. They may go through some stages that are decidedly nasty, and they need time and care to make it to their best potential. So, unless your story is good enough to warrant the length of War and Peace, you’re going to need to introduce the tragedy that crushes your protagonist early in the story, possibly before the story begins.
Be careful how you portray your character’s recovery.
For instance, don’t give your reader a heroine who has suffered rape in the first chapter and suddenly make her fearless and indomitable two days later. By the end of the book she might overcome a lot of fears, but this isn’t going to happen right away.
Another mistake writers make is to change the character’s personality in their effort to show their growth. Don’t do it. If your heroine is a complete bitch in the beginning, remember one little tragedy is not going to change this. Along life’s path, big and little things can temper her bitchiness, but she won’t be a believable character if there isn’t a shred of the shrew left at the very end. In Driving Miss Daisy, we see Miss Daisy slowly but surely change from an arrogant, bitchy, elitist with a spine of steel to a semi-bitchy woman of privilege with a spine of steel who loves the man she never wanted to have in her life. See? She didn’t change completely, but she softened, ripened, and become something glorious in the end.
Now and then we see a character gone bad. The boy who finally makes good on the bad things people always thought of him in the first place. The cop who became corrupt. The woman who leaves her children to pursue the love of a man. This change in character can come about in any way. The result is a character who has succumbed to some baser emotion. Sometimes we see them as tragic, sometimes triumphant. Jack in Lord of the Flies becomes so cruel and evil-minded he seems tragically beyond redemption. However, in The Count of Monte Cristo, we see a man who started out as a nice guy revel in revenge—and we can’t help but cheer him on.
You can mess with a reader’s head with a reverse character arc.
In many stories we have what is called the Big Black Moment. It’s the moment when the heroine thinks all is lost, and there is no hope. The monster has returned from the depths and has her in his clutches, she’s going to die in the way she’s always feared the most—but wait. Somehow, she manages to free a hand and clasp onto that same knife that killed her father and plunge it into the monster’s heart. She had nightmares in the beginning of this story. She could never get away from the monster. But now she has beaten him despite her fear, despite her feminine weaknesses, despite her uncontrollable urge to eat chocolate all the time. Why?
Motivation, baby. Somewhere in the course of the story she has changed. It could be someone has taught her a great deal about herself and her strengths. It could be she has fallen in love and love has given her greater motivation to live, survive, and overcome. Or, somewhere in the story she was sick of fear or weakness, and she now refuses to tolerate it.
It doesn’t matter what the motivation of the hero is, it matters that the reader can believe it.
Would a tough guy killer care about the kitten caught up in the tree? He might. Maybe he has a soft heart for animals from the very beginning of the story, or maybe that kitten happens to belong to his little girl whom he adores. It’s also possible the kitten looks like one he had as a kid. Make sure to give your reader a damned good reason to believe your hero’s change of heart or shift from his or her normal behavior.
You can use your character arc as the overall theme of your story, but it isn’t necessary. A story could have an overarching theme of forgiveness while your main character’s greatest growth is overcoming alcohol addiction. She may experience the forgiveness of others, but her growth may have little to do with it. In my opinion, a story gathers more layers of interest when the theme and the character’s growth is not the same subject.
If you want to rip out your readers’ heart, the character must either fail to grow —like Scarlet in Gone With The Wind, or the character may experience all the growth and choose to go against his or her new self in order to gain a greater good for others. Tragedy is much more overt when the good guy dies or fails, but it is equally disturbing when the character arc is missing, reversed, or when it fails to serve the character’s interests.
The above article is an excerpt from The Plot Thickens: 21 Ways to Plot Your Novel
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