Shaping the Character Arc
A Look at Character Arcs
So, what is a character arc and (for the purpose of this post) How does that shape a story?
Simply put, it’s who a character is when the story begins and who a character becomes by the end.
Interesting, but why are some characters more memorable than others? What keeps a reader turning pages? Sometimes readers close books and put them aside, and they don’t know why. (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not plot alone.)
When readers find something that connects them to the character, they’re willing to go through almost anything to see the outcome.
Get the reader to care about the character!
Nuts and Bolts
That’s great, you say, but how do you know what readers care about?
I found an interesting book called TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS AND WRITE by Olivia Hawker. I’m sure there are tons of great books on the subject. I’m not entirely sure this information is all that new, but something finally clicked for me. It was the right book at the right time. It connected the dots on writing character and how to write compelling ones people will care about.
I’m going to share my takeaway. Using the basic information and structure, I came up with a template that made sense to me. Here is a downloadable worksheet. Feel free to use whatever you find helpful and toss the rest.
At the heart of every story, there are five elements:
1. The character.
2. The character wants/needs something (the external Goal).
3. The character has something that keeps them from that goal.
4. The character must find a way to overcome the obstacle.
5. The end: do they succeed or fail?
What makes a story unique is a combination of the following:
1. The Character Arc
2. The Theme
3. The Pace
This varies depending on genre and the desired outcome.
How to structure a compelling character arc
Once you know what the character wants, what’s preventing them from getting it, and how to overcome it, you need one more variable to throw into your character soup. Ready?
Every character needs a fatal flaw. There must be something internally that works against the external goal. Memorable characters discover a weakness within themselves. The character must overcome this flaw, along with the external obstacle. It’s the two working together that makes the character human and not a blob waiting for the next exciting thing to happen. I repeat, make them human with real flaws. Don’t be afraid to give them faults—even Superman had kryptonite.
A character’s flaw will shape the story by limiting how he/she will respond to the given situation. It’s important because that’s what everything hinges on. It’s what holds the character back from getting the thing they want most. (Readers love a struggle they can sympathize with and root for.) The flaw is the vehicle that drives the character to the place they need to be by the end of the story. It limits their choice with every plot turn. *Here is a list of flaws from the wonderful folks at One Stop for Writers. If you haven’t checked them out, it’s a wonderful resource! *List of flaw chart*
Point One: A main character must have a flaw that keeps them from getting the external goal—or at least slows them down. The internal struggle to get the external goal is what keeps readers in the character’s corner. (Even when they make stupid choices… the flaw is part of their charm.)
Point Two: What is it the main character wants most? How will this work against the character flaw? How will each obstacle they face conflict with or prevent them from obtaining their goal?
Point Three: Who is the antagonist? It doesn’t necessarily have to be the bad guy. It can be the person/thing standing in the way. (It may even be themselves.)
Point Four: [This is where the magic happens!]
· Opening scene.
· Inciting incident.
· Balance of the character’s flaws in relation to their goal along with pace/theme.
· Structure plot by repeating the questions:
· What can go wrong?
· How does this escalate the conflict?
· Keeping the flaw in mind, how does this set a new goal?
NOTE: I sometimes find the term inciting event misleading. It doesn’t have to be an actual event. It can be as simple as looking into the stars and thinking there must be more. An inciting incident is what taps a character on the shoulder and makes them look around and need something in their life to change. It’s even better if a character finds themselves in a situation that will make a reader sympathize with them.
Point Five: The end: Success or failure of the character.
So here are five aspects to consider when looking at a MC, using GONE WITH THE WIND as an example. (It’s okay to oversimplify.)
1. Who is the main character? (At the beginning of the story)
· Scarlett O’Hara
2. What is the external Goal?
· Have Ashley Wilkes fall in love with her
3. Who is the person/obstacle that keeps them from reaching their goal?
· (Varies throughout: his marriage, the war . . .)
4. [What changes will drive the story]
· Throughout the story, her obstacles and her obsessive behavior force her to change, grow.
5. Who is the main character? (By the end of the story)
· Scarlett has made many sacrifices for herself, friends, and family. She has shown she’s more than a pretty face. She is a survivor. She does not achieve her goal by the end of the story, despite finally realizing her obsession is pointless, that, in fact her obsession with Ashley kept her from seeing true love. She does, however, have a new goal—Get Rhett back. (And I do believe if given enough time she would have.) 😉
Once you have an idea of the core conflict (five is a good rule of thumb), there will be enough to sketch out an arc and a brief outline of the story.
I’m not an outliner, but this has helped me keep myself on track and stay true to my characters. It also keeps me from hours of speculating . . . what happens next? Because I’m aware of my character’s faults, I know how they will respond. It limits their choices and mine. I hope you find these tips and the worksheet useful.
~ Cheers and happy writing! ~