Here’s an easy way to develop character arcs in your novel.
Years ago, I sat in on an amazing workshop at an RWA conference. Michael Hague's Using Inner Conflict to Create Powerful Love Stories was one of those workshops that discussed a topic I already knew, but he presented it in such a way that I saw a super easy way to apply inner journeys to my stories (something this plot-focused gal can always use).
While the workshop was about romance specifically, the pieces of Hague’s inner conflict template work for any character journey. He calls the overall arc the “journey from living in fear to living courageously.”
To put it in more familiar terms—the character arc: the growth the protagonist undergoes over the course of the story.
A character who grows, is a character readers can root for.
Yet we don’t always give them a chance to grow, even when know what that growth should be. Selfish to giving, shy to outgoing, distrustful to trusting. We keep the general growth theme but fail to make it part of the story, or let it help drive the plot. Often, it’s because we don’t know how. Does it need its own subplot? Is it something that drives the story at all or is it just emotional internalization? We’re lost, so we don’t take advantage of the character arc.
Let's take a peek at Hauge's basic inner conflict arc:
Longing or Need: The thing the character longs for or needs in the story.
Hague describes the longing as the desire the character is aware of, wishes for, and could change if they actually acted, but they never do.
The need is the thing that will make their life better, but they don’t know they need it yet. They can’t identify what’s “missing,” though they know something is and that lack is making them unhappy.
If this doesn’t say “inner goal” I don’t know what does. Your protagonist will have a clear exterior goal (plot), but their dream, their wish, the thing that will save them if they only realized it, is the internal goal. The longing or the need.
- If the need is to be loved, the longing might be to enter a relationship.
- If the need is to feel financially secure, the longing might be to get a promotion or find a better job.
- If the need is to see justice done, the longing might be to catch the killer.
- If the need is belonging, the longing might be to get accepted by the popular clique or make a friend.
- Joining a dating site
- Asking for a promotion or looking for a better job, maybe even changing behavior
- Following clues and investigating suspects
- Approaching people and striking up a conversation
(Here’s more on Woe Is Me: Strengthening Character Goals)
Wound: A past wound or hurt that is a current unhealed source of pain.
Can you say backstory? Something bad happened in the protagonist’s past that affected them so profoundly it shaped them as a person, and still influences their decisions and actions years later.
Talk about character motivation.
The wound might be some deep dark secret, or it might be how the character grew up. It changed them, and had this not happened, they would have become a different person. This is often the thing you want to explain at the start of a story so the reader “gets it.” (But don’t do it).
(Here’s more on Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)
Belief: What the character believes due to the wound. How it shapes their worldview.
Now we’re talking serious point of view filters. Whatever happened to your protagonist, the thing that shaped them, was so profound it created an entire belief system for them.
This is the filter through which the protagonist sees the world. Their past experience (the wound) colors how they view their current life. They’ll make decisions based on or influenced by this belief.
Hague used Shrek as an example. Shrek grew up as “a big scary ogre” and everyone ran away. In his mind (his belief), he’s nothing but a big scary ogre and unworthy of love. He expects people to run from him. He expects people to hate him for who he is (or thinks he is). He learned early on that people run from him, and this has shaped who he is and how he interacts with the people and world around him.
But as we learn later in the movie, this isn’t true. In fact, his fear that he is big a scary is what causes him to act that way and chase people away. It isn’t until he starts behaving like himself that he finds the love and acceptance he always wanted.
(Here’s more on View to a Skill: Understanding Point of View)
Fear: What terrifies the character emotionally; some version of experiencing that wound pain again.
This is another way of saying “stakes.” This is the hard part in many internal conflicts, because it’s not always clear what’s at stake. Understanding a character’s fear helps you figure out what the protagonist is afraid of experiencing again. They’ll do anything to prevent that.
Shrek is afraid of rejection, so he’ll isolate himself and chase people away before they have a chance to reject him. Being rejected by someone who matters to him is his fear. What’s at stake is him opening himself up and having people run away again, proving that he truly is a big scary ogre unworthy of love.
What’s at stake is proving the fear is true.
This works especially well for internal conflict because the risk is typically emotional.
(Here’s more on The Wheels of (Character) Change)
Identity: The false self the character presents to the world. The emotional armor that protects from the fear, created by the belief, that came from the wound.
This is where it gets fun. A character’s identity is what they want everyone to see (the ogre). It's the wall they’ve built to keep people from seeing the real them, the person who was hurt and still feels that pain. This is the façade, and how they show themselves to the world.
This is how your character acts, and interacts with others. This is who they’re going to be at the start of the story. This is the person who needs changing, because this person is based on lies, and on that wound and belief system. They’re not a “real” person even though the character has spent a lifetime making them real. But this fake persona, this identity, is what’s making them miserable.
It’s the starting line for the emotional character growth and the beginning of the character arc.
(Here’s more on Compelling Character Arcs in 4 Easy Steps)
Essence: What lies under all the emotional armor. The real self.
And here’s the finish line for that character arc.
This is the person the character truly is or wants to be. They discover who they are over the course of the story by what they experience through the plot. By the end of the novel, they make a choice/realize/come to accept this and act in a way that allows them to win. The acceptance of the essence is often what allows them to figure out the plot piece they need to succeed in the climax, so this is closely linked to the plot arc.
(Here’s more on How to Find Your Character’s Breaking Point)
How to take this guide and apply it to your plot.
After you’ve figured out all the pieces to this inner journey, you can look at your plot and see where you can push the character’s buttons.
Whatever the fear is, craft situations that force the character to face and experience that fear. Make that fear the thing they need to overcome to succeed in the external plot. Look for ways in which acting from the character’s essence (who they really are or want to be) allows them to win, while acting from their identity (the false persona) makes them lose.
Establish that fear and identity (the starting point for the character growth arc) in the beginning of the story. Show an example of them getting an opportunity to face that fear, but running from that fear instead.
Set up the status quo, and introduce that longing or need. Don’t explain how they got the wound, just show the effects of that wound and fear. Show the belief by how they live.
Since they’ll need several steps to achieve their growth, show examples of them failing by acting from their identity due to fear of the wound. Then show them gradually winning, by acting from their essence and facing that fear.
Overcoming that fear is what allows the protagonist to make the switch from living in fear (where they hide behind that identity to avoid the wound) to living courageously (where they live in their essence and be who they really are), then at the climax that fear is going to be present in some way. The final test so to speak.
Major plot turning points are great moments to layer in the conflict by having the plot decisions conflict and/or hinge on something that also forces that character to grow. To summarize:
- Inciting event (first failure establish identity)
- Act one climax (second failure, a hint of the essence is revealed)
- Mid-point reversal (first attempt to live in the essence, doesn’t go well, but the essence is seen and realized)
- Act two climax (fear of failure makes the protagonist run from their essence instead of trying to embrace it like they did at the mid-point)
- Climax (protagonist digs deep down, embraces their essence, and wins)
(Here’s more on The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc)
While you don’t have to stick to this basic structure, it is an easy (and proven) way to see how the internal conflict and character growth can aid with plotting, and increase the tension and conflict for the entire story.
If you want more, Jami Gold has written two great posts inspired by the same workshop:
Michael Hauge’s Workshop: Are These Characters the Perfect Match?
Michael Hauge’s Workshop: An Antidote to “Love at First Sight”
Internal conflict can deepen a novel and add a compelling emotional layer to the story.
I suspect character-focused writers probably do a lot of this instinctively, just as plot-focused writers tend to be natural plotters. If you lean more toward the plot side, this is a useful guide to ensure you haven’t forgotten, or skimped on, the internal conflict of your novel.
EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and follow this guide for the protagonist in your current WIP. Look for ways to deepen their character arc.
How do you handle character arcs and internal conflict?
*Originally published August 2012. Last updated January 2021.
Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).
With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.
This book will help you:
- Understand what conflict means and how to use it
- Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
- See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
- Determine the type of conflict your story needs
- Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back
Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.
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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Great post! I love how much you were able to get out of his workshop even though you're not a romance writer. :)ReplyDelete
That's a sign of great teaching, I think!
This is brilliant:
"[A]t some point in the beginning of the story you’ll show an example of them getting an opportunity to face that fear, but running from that fear instead. Set up the status quo, and introduce that longing or need."
This idea will fit in great with the post I do tomorrow too. Yay! Very cool! :)
Thanks, Janice! I've bookmarked this post so I can come back over and over - I think it will be very helpful for both plotting and character development. And I love the fact that the instructor used Shrek as an example - it's so easy to understand that way.ReplyDelete
Great tips on character arc Janice. You make me feel like I was at the workshop. I love the Shrek example. It makes it so much easier to see because I know the character.ReplyDelete
This is great stuff - such as I always expect to find here. Real and sensible advice.ReplyDelete
Thanks again Janice - I always get something great out of your blog.ReplyDelete
Right now I've realised I haven't gone deep enough with my protagonist, I've been relying on a recent tragedy to drive him through the story, when I've just realised there are deeper drivers at work before the tragedy. Ah must run off and work on it now!!!
Thanks, Janice! I was really interested in Jami's post on this recently (so much so that I ran out to get Michael's book, but my library only had a 20-year-old copy, so I'm not sure this is in there). I'm really glad to dig into this more!ReplyDelete
What an incredible post, Janice! I can't believe how much it helped clear my mind for my WIP. Absolutely amazing. Thanks so much for sharing!ReplyDelete
Amazing post! I love how you connected the external journey with the inner one, and gave us sign posts to boot. I am going to apply this to my outline, right now.ReplyDelete
You bring up an interesting point about Shrek. I thought the sequel was good, and it's probably because Shrek has to reaffirm his essence to Fiona's parents. Fiona doesn't think he's a big scary ogre, but her dad does.
The third movie felt a little flat for me, and I think the lack of this bit was why.
Thanks again for the great post!
Wow, what great information! Thanks. Now I'm off to check out Jami's posts.ReplyDelete
Hope it's ok with you, but I planned on linking to a couple of your posts tomorrow :)
This is the most helpful information on creating an emotional arc I've ever read. Thank you for posting. :)ReplyDelete
Love, love, love this post! Great way of seeing the story arc. Thanks so much for sharing!ReplyDelete
Jami, I'm in awe of your Hague-inspired posts. I read them and wonder what I missed!ReplyDelete
Miranda, I love movie examples for that reason. Odds are folks have seen it and can understand the example.
Natalie, totally. If you ever get a chance to hear him, I highly recommend it. He was awesome.
Sarah, aw thanks! I aim to please :)
Raewyn, cool! Glad this sparked ideas for you, too.
Jordan, she did great posts on this workshop. I've added Hague's books to my to-buy piles as well. I love the way he talks about writing.
Kreann, most welcome!
Elizabeth, I felt the same way about the movies. Two and three were, eh. Four went back to the original concept and it worked very well. They did a nice flip from the first movie.
Julie, absolutely, thanks for sharing :)
Jennifer, most welcome! I thought the way he broke it down was so clear and useable.
I've attended Michael six hour workshop. This is a great summary of it, Janice. :DReplyDelete
Janice, I attended that workshop too, but I have to say your summary is awesome. I scribbled notes so fast in his workshop that I'm still trying to decifer them. You've presented his material in a very concise, easy to understand way. Thank you so very much for sharing with us!ReplyDelete
Stina, nice. I'd love to do that some day. He was great.ReplyDelete
Jenna, thanks! I took a lot of notes on that part since it helped me fix something in my current WIP. Glad I did!
Great post, as always. You have a true gift for explaining complex techniques. :)ReplyDelete
This is a very good roadmap to create character arcs and showcase inner conflict and change. It's not the only type of map, though. The inciting incident can be an extraordinary circumstance that forces the character to act from her essence, and be surprised by it (it's not a failure, but unexpected success). Then the old fears come raining on her parade and gradually plunge her into a personality crisis. The only way to get out of it is by facing the wound dead on (at the climax when the plot explodes), and this time assuming control of her emotions and actions, thus rebuilding her personality. At least that's what I've done in my WIP. ;)
Veronica, excellent addition, thanks! I like that model a lot, actually. Adding it to my template files :)ReplyDelete
I've never seen character and narrative linked so clearly before.ReplyDelete
Thanks! Michael Hague really makes it look easy. If you ever get a chance to attend one of his workshops, do it. They're fantastic.Delete
This is the deep shit; i'v been loooking a looot on understanding the chracter arc and this is it; thanks redhead (it's a compliment you're beautifulReplyDelete
Thanks so much! Hague is amazing and he makes this all so clear.Delete
One of my favorite posts so far! I can see a little clearer what my character arc will be now.ReplyDelete
Thanks again, very useful, as usual!
Most welcome, glad it was helpful.Delete
Nicely done. Just what I was struggling on...ReplyDelete
Thanks! Glad you and the post found each other :)Delete
What a wonderful post. I found it most helpful when you defined need from longing. Well done.ReplyDelete
Happy to help. Looking at those two as separate things also made this click for me when I sat in on Hague's workshop years ago. Such a clear split between the inner and outer conflicts.Delete
Fabulous post. Thank you for the summary and easy to understand action tips!ReplyDelete
Most welcome :)Delete
Thanks for this amazing post Janice, it's really helped me understand Hauge's story theory and terminology (and made me order his book too!).ReplyDelete
I have a question though, please bear with me. What is your opinion on incorporating aspects of the protagonists Wound into the actual story? I know you said not to explain the Wound in the story's beginning; I get that it should only be hinted at, or the effects only shown through character behavior.
But what about later on in the story, is it okay to reveal the character's Wound and incorporate some kind of twist about it? For example, if it turns out that the story antagonist was actually the one that murdered the character's parents? Or does that cheapen the character arc?
That example's a bit over the top but I was thinking my protagonist's Wound would be the disappearance of her sister, which she feels guilty over. But when the sister turns up later in the story and it turns out the main antagonist was involved in kidnapping her, I'm wondering if that sort of "shift of responsibility" cheapens what the character has gone through to conquer her guilt.
If his book is anything like his workshops, I'm sure you'll love it.Delete
Hinting at the wound is good, since healing that wound is likely part of the story. If the antagonist murdered the parents, and the story is about finding out who killed them, then that would be part of the plot arc. If the plot focuses on other things and the protagonist needed to know who killed the parents to move on with their life, then it would be part of the character arc. But it can also be both, if it falls into the core plot and the character arc.
I don't think it cheapens it. The guilt is real, she felt it, and just because the truth is different from what she thought doesn't devalue her feelings.
This is Brilliant. Im a ghost writer with 70,000 word memoir due in 2 months. The client is as different from me as sardines are to poetry. Every outline Ive done so far she's rejected. I think...I think this is the answer. Thank u soo much.
Thank you so much, Janice. I am making copies of these pages, reading the articles you mentioned. This is a whole workshop for me in itself. And I want to know who Michael Hague is, now. The community is so blessed to have such talents :)ReplyDelete
He's great, and if you ever get a chance to sit in on one of his workshops, do it. :)Delete
This is an excellent resource. I have a fairly thorough character outline already, but did not take the all important developmental arc into account. I will have to bookmark this along with the others from your wonderfully informative site.ReplyDelete
One possibly stupid question, though: Does this same progression apply to the antagonist as well, just with a different outcome (instead of embracing the essence and winning, they fall prey to the belief and lose)?
It can apply to them, though you don't usually see a character arc with the antagonist. That doesn't mean they can't have one, they just don't typically grow. It would probably depend on how much of the antagonist's story is seen. If they're a POV character, you could certainly give them a strong story arc and more depth.Delete
Thanks for posting. It looks like I am on track with my characters and their development.ReplyDelete
Great post! A big thank you from Brazil.ReplyDelete
My main character is an angelReplyDelete
Great post. Thanks for taking the time to put it together and sharing.ReplyDelete