Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Grow Up Already: Creating Character Arcs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A strong character arc will weave its way through the turning points of the plot.

A character arc is the internal struggle and progress a character goes through over the course of a novel that changes them in some way. It's usually connected to the internal conflict so that what they do (the plot) forces changes in who they are (the character arc). It can sometimes be confused with character motivations (a character worries over something so they act to prevent that something) but why a character acts is different from how they change because of their actions. Motivation drives the actions. Growth is the result of the actions.

But should the writer know where the character is heading/motives before the first draft? Is it bad if you don’t?" Heck no.

For a lot of writers, that journey is the reason they write the book in the first place. I may know my plot inside and out before I write a first draft, but that draft is when I find out who my characters really are. My second draft fills in the motivational gaps and fleshes out the character growth.

That said, it is a little easier if you have an inkling of where you want to go, because you'll have some direction and won't just write willy nilly. (There's nothing wrong with willy nilly, it's not for everyone). For example, your story theme might tell you your protagonist needs to learn the meaning of love, or that revenge is best served cold, or that puppies make life better, and this lets you know your character arc will somehow end with that lesson learned. You may not know the path of that journey, but you'll head in the right direction to get there.

I would recommend figuring out why the protagonist wants what he wants, because that will help you understand what's at stake. A story with no stakes is a pretty dull story, even if it's filled with exciting scenes. If there's nothing to lose, there's little fun in seeing if a character wins. If the only reason your protagonist is acting is because you told him to, there's a good chance you'll hit that wall around page 100 and not know what happens next.

Character arcs can take many forms.

Some folks plot them out and know every step a character needs to take to reach the arc ending, others let their characters run and see where they go. Both are acceptable ways to do it.

Here are some things to consider when creating a character arc:

1. Where do you want the character to end up?

Most novels end with the protagonist undergoing some kind of growth, but not every protagonist needs to grow. Characters in a series often keep the protagonist as is, since the enjoyment is coming back to an old friend. 

Even in a series I still think it's a good idea to have some growth. Watching a character make the same mistakes all the time gets old fast and they lose all credibility. But if the whole point of the book is to show the protagonist changing, then knowing that change will help get you there.

2. How much does the character need to suffer to achieve this change?

Nobody changes just for the fun of it. Something made them reevaluate their behavior and they realized they needed to make a change or else. Sometimes the suffering is minor if the change is small, like realizing they could be a bit more polite when dealing with co-workers. But for real change you need real incentives. So if your protagonist is going to evolve in a major way, the events that forced that change are likely to be equally major.

(Here's more with The Catalyst for Character Change: The Dark Night of the Soul)

3. Who or what brings about that change?

This helps a lot in the plotting department. Character arcs often show the protagonist exhibiting the behavior that needs to change and it turns out badly for them. Eventually, they’ll do the right thing and be rewarded. They don’t do this on their own, though—someone or something forces that change and makes the character take a hard look at themselves and their life.

(Here's more with The Wheels of (Character) Change)

4. Change works both ways.

Negative reinforcement might gain positive results, but bad things can also push your protagonist away from the change they need to undergo. It's often the Dark Moment event, where they feel defeated and wonder if it's all worth it. There might be some bad times ahead before that change occurs.

(Here's more with The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Internal Conflict That Make Sense)

5. Not all growth is good growth.

The character usually exhibits the behavior that needs changing and it turns out badly for them early on in the novel. Eventually, they’ll behave the right way and be rewarded. Typically, this takes many small steps in a longer process to make the character take a hard look at themselves and their life. Identify the clear path (even if there are setbacks) between the beginning and the end of the novel.

(Here's more with What “The Profit” Can Teach Us About Characters and Change)  

6. How does the change reflect your premise or theme?

Odds are the arc is going to connect to the theme or premise, since character growth is a common vehicle for illustrating theme. Look at what the story is about on a more conceptual level, and if the character arc can help illustrate that idea. Pinpoint where the character arc illustrates the theme.

Once you understand these elements, you can spread them out over the novel so the arc, well, arcs. Look for the moments when:

The protagonist’s flaw is established: This is usually seen in the opening scene or first few chapters.

The protagonist makes their first mistake: This usually happens on or around the inciting event, and might even cause the event.

The attempt to grow fails:
The first attempt to change usually doesn’t go well, and is often seen around the end of Act One when the plot problems start putting pressure on the protagonist.

The protagonist is blindsided by weakness: It’s common for the flaw or weakness to cause unexpected failure, often around the midpoint of the novel. It's a moment when the character is surprised or caught off guard because of their flaw.

The protagonist has a major screw-up or rejects the growth: This usually triggers the classic Dark Moment of the Soul just before the climax (Act Three) starts, and it’s the personal demon the protagonist must face in order to move forward. 

The protagonist realizes they've grown:
This is the culmination of everything they’ve learned and experienced over the course of the novel, and the result of the soul searching they did during their Dark Moment.

(Here's more with Making Sense Out of Character Wants and Needs)  

Nothing  says you have to know all of these things going in. You don't even have to do all of them, but they should get you started thinking about how your character arcs can help you plot. These are the whys that make those whats happen.  

Do you know your character arcs before you start writing? 

*Originally published January 2011. Last updated May 2023.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. You write so many post I find useful (as a new writer). This one is also a keeper. Thank you.

    I believe I once read in a John Gardner book how sometimes, not knowing where you're story is heading can be a good thing. The theory being that if the writer isn't sure of the next step, the reader will be surprised as well. I took that approach with just a general idea and hit the wall at, you guessed it, 100 pages!
    I still don't outline before a first draft because the fun of writing, for me, is creating the story as it comes to me. After my story is finished, I'll write an outline chapter by chapter to organize my story so it isn't complete gibberish. Then again, I don't have any deadlines to keep so working this way is fun and without pressure.

  2. I agree with Charlie. This is a keeper post!

  3. I wrote five pages of notes thanks to this and FINALLY found the missing piece to my novel.I heard the click when it came together. I swear. When I (ever) get it published you'll be on the acknowledgments list Janice! Thanks.

  4. Puppies do make everything better! Can I steal this as the main theme of my next book? ;)

    Good post! You can see this development in the best of books. Everything adds up to get the character where he/she needs to be. It's so rewarding when an author gets it right. I shall strive to do the same.

  5. Your posts are some of the most helpful. I appreciate the time and effort you put into helping others! Thanks from an aspiring author!

  6. This is a great post. Hmmm.... how others around my hero influence character growth. That's definitely worth thinking about. :)

  7. Another amazingly helpful post. I think newbies as well as older hats can get use from this. Thanks!

  8. Charlie: That surprise thing is one of the reason I like to write myself into a corner. Sounds like you have a good process there, and there's no reason yo change that when you do get a deadline ;) What works, works!

    Holly: Thanks!

    Anon: That's awesome ;) I never get tired of hearing a post helped. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

    Sarah: The puppies are all yours :) And I'm striving for the same thing. Here's to both of us getting it right.

    Roberta: Most welcome :) I've been where you are and know how lost and frustrated I was during those times. This is my way of saying thanks to all those who helped me. Paying it forward so to speak.

    Chicory: Thanks! The other characters really do make a difference. In Shifter, Aylin is pretty instrumental is making Nya see stuff she might not want to see. Friends and sidekicks can be great devil's advocates to your protag.

    Carol: Most welcome. I find just writing them useful. They remind of what I ought to be doing and makes me think hard about what I am doing.

  9. Thanks, Janice, for a very informative article. I wish you had included a brief explanation of what exactly a "character arc" means.

  10. Prem: Added that to the post now! Thanks for bringing that up. It's a tricky thing so I might have to do a full post on that alone.

    E. Arroyo: Thanks!

  11. I've printed this article and it goes in my "Janice Says" folder. Thanks.

  12. "...why a character acts is different from how he changes because of his actions." Whoa- strange how you can run into ONE sentence (in an article full of useful advice) that blows your head off your neck. A light bulb moment? Don't know - I'm still fumbling with the switch. But, I know it's something profound, something simple, something I should probably already know....

    1. That's one thing I love about writing (and hate I guess, lol). Sometimes you just need to hear advice from a different perspective, or phrased a different way, and it suddenly clicks.

  13. Janice, I just found you! Where have you been? LOL Seriously, I get different answers on this from writing experts, so I'm going to ask you, too. I write culinary mysteries--in a series. I'm finishing book four and planning books five and six (the last in the series, I'm pretty sure). Does my protag have to change in each book or does she just have to make steps in the change and be finally altered in the last book?

    1. Welcome! If you don't want her to, she doesn't have to. You have total control there, so do whatever feels right for you.

      However, I personally have stopped reading many a series because the protagonist makes the same dumb mistake every single book (others might not be as picky about this as I am, and it is a matter of personal taste). So even if the character doesn't change, I feel it's a good idea to let them learn a little from their experiences and make *new* mistakes to avoid it feeling repetitious. But there are popular series out there that have the character make the same mistake all the time and their readers love them, so it does depend heavily on personal preference :)

  14. Thanks so much for the input. My protag does continually ignore the advice of others and go where they tell her not to go. Hmm. I better check her out.

    1. It'll depend on the situation as well. Part of being a protagonist is to ignore warnings. You'd have to decide if ignoring others always resulted in her "being stupid" or if it was just normal plotting. For example, if she's constantly told "don't question gang members by yourself" and she ignores that, and every time she questions a gang member she winds up nearly dying and has to be rescued, she might look pretty dumb after a while.

      Does that make sense? It's more about what she's doing. If she's acting "too stupid to live" then readers might get annoyed with her. If she's trying to do the right thing no matter the cost, they probably love her for it.