Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

The character arc is a strong tool for adding an emotional layer to a story.

For most novels, the character arc is a critical part of the tale. It’s the emotional layer that makes readers care about all the cool plots and exciting scenes we put before them. Readers enjoy seeing how a character grows, and how they handle the emotional trials of the story.

Just like a plot, the character arc has several turning points that fall at specific structural moments throughout the novel. There’s wiggle room as to where, but they generally fall along the same path as the plot, since the plot is what triggers or impacts these moments.

Not every story needs a character arc, though, so don’t force one into your plot-heavy thriller just because people say you should. Character arcs are useful for novels that make the growth of the character part of the story and part of resolution.

(Here’s more on why you might not need a character arc)

Establishing the Protagonist’s Flaw

This usually appears in the opening scene or first few chapters of the story. It shows the protagonist in a situation where their flaw is making their life harder or making them unhappy—whether they know it or not.

This is the moment where we tell our readers, “Hey, look. This is the issue this character is going to have to deal with and overcome in this story. Wanna see how they do it?”
  • The loner character faces a problem she can’t solve on her own.
  • The hopeless romantic has yet another disastrous date with the wrong “perfect” man.
  • The workaholic cancels on his family and creates trouble at home.
Often, this flaw is part of the opening scene’s conflict, working as a bridge to get the protagonist (and the story) from the opening to the inciting event. It’s part of the plot catalyst, causing trouble for the protagonist or making their existing problem worse.

Why this turning point is important:
It establishes the protagonist’s internal issue and conflict, and gives us a starting point on which to build the emotional arc of the story. It also helps to clarify what that emotional arc is. It’s not unusual for an opening scene to have little to do with the overall plot, but it’s there because it’s exciting and works (or so the writer thinks) as a hook to get readers into the story.

(Here’s more on creating character flaws)

The Protagonist’s First Mistake

This usually occurs around the inciting event, and might even be the reason the inciting event happens. The protagonist messes up because of their flaw and gets into trouble. It might be a bad decision, or believing someone they shouldn’t, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but their flaw and emotional issue contributes to them being in this situation and screwing up.

This is the moment where we tell our readers, “See why this poor character needs to fix this problem? Look what it’s doing to their life!”
  • The loner character refuses help and winds up in a dangerous situation that hurts her in some way.
  • The hopeless romantic ignores all the warning signs and advice of friends to go out with a guy she knows is wrong for her, but fits all of her “perfect man” idealizations.
  • The workaholic makes a conscious choice to choose work over family, knowing it will cause trouble but rationalizing it away.
Often, this mistake triggers the realization that maybe the character can’t keep doing the same thing and making the same mistake any more. They’re not yet ready to change, but they’re starting to realize there actually is a problem.

Why this turning point is important: People don’t change without a reason, and it’s never “Because I think I should.” Outside forces create enough negative pressure to force them to consider their behavior and try to adjust it to avoid repercussions or discomfort. The mistake is a way for us as writers to apply some tough love to the character so they—and readers—can see the error of their ways before it’s too late (not that they’ll listen, of course). It foreshadows not only the growth, but the stakes and consequences as well.

(Here’s more on ways characters can screw up their decisions)

The Attempt to Grow Fails

This is typically seen in the middle of the novel. After making mistakes and realizing that something does indeed have to change, the character tries to fix their life. The first attempt to change doesn’t go well, because they haven’t truly figured out the problem. In many cases, the character is looking only at the symptoms of the problem, not the true cause.

This is the moment where we tell our readers, “This poor character thinks X is the problem, but they’re still not paying enough attention to what’s really going on with them.”
  • The loner character thinks she just needs to call in backup, but the person she asks for help nearly gets them killed because she doesn’t really trust them to do their job.
  • The hopeless romantic thinks she’s just being too picky, so starts going out with men who have nothing in common with her, yet still fit her “perfect” vision.
  • The workaholic skips a work event to spend time with his family, but he keeps checking his email or sneaking away to get some work done and isn’t really there.
Often, this attempt to grow is the lazy character’s way out of the problem. They put forth the bare minimum of effort to change things, because fixing the real problem takes too much work or requires facing truths they’re not ready to face.

Why this turning point is important:
It shows the character trying to make progress, which moves the character arc goal forward. It also let’s readers know that this person can indeed change, but they’re going to need a little more time and help to do it. From a plot standpoint, it typically creates a situation where the antagonist can get the upper hand, raising the stakes and creating more conflict for the second half of the novel.

(Here’s more on crafting strong character arcs)

A Major Screw Up or Rejection of Growth

This usually happens at the end of the second act, and triggers the dark moment of the soul. The character has been trying to change (consciously or unconsciously as the story requires), and it hasn’t gone well. They get into a tough situation they can’t deal with, and fall back on old behaviors to get out of it instead of embracing what they’ve learned so far. It goes very, very badly and makes them question what they’re doing, if it’s worth it, and if they’ll ever be happy.

This is the moment where we tell our readers, “See? This is why I’ve been trying to get them to change the whole book. This is what’s going to happen if they don’t get their act together.”
  • The loner character is worried her new-found friends might get hurt, so she faces the big bad guy alone and winds up injured, captured, or both. She thinks she’s not good enough and should give up.
  • The hopeless romantic meets a guy who’s actually good for her, and that scares her, so she rejects him because he doesn’t fit the “perfect” vision she’s clung to her whole life. She thinks she’ll never be happy and she should just spend her life alone.
  • The workaholic has to say no to his boss at work in order to make his family happy, and he blows the situation out of proportion so he can justify canceling plans yet again. He thinks there’s no way he can be successful at work and make his family happy.
Often, this is the moment when the character has no choice but to face that the problem is them and they’re the only one who can do anything about it. They might not be ready to accept it, but they can’t run from it any longer.

Why this turning point is important: It makes the protagonist realize things do have to change, and gives them a direction to go to change it. Not only does this provide strong motivation to move the plot into the third act, it revitalizes the character and gives the story a new place to go.

(Here’s more on the act two disaster and dark moment of the soul moment)

The Realization of Growth

This happens at the end of the story and helps the protagonist succeed in the climax. They’ve tried everything else, they’ve made mistakes by resisting change, and they know what their problem is. They’re in a situation where they know their old behavior isn’t going to be successful, so they have no choice but to embrace the change and do what they know deep down they need to do.

This is the moment where we tell our readers, “This is who this character really is, and if they survive this last battle they’ll be able to live happily ever after.”
  • The loner character accepts that she needs people in her life, and trusts those who want to help her, and together they defeat the bad guy and save the world.
  • The hopeless romantic accepts that her “perfect” ideals are superficial and a way of protecting herself from getting hurt, and she goes out with a man who truly is perfect for her and finds happiness.
  • The workaholic accepts that there is a balance between work and family and he doesn’t have to sacrifice his job in order to enjoy his family.
Often, this realization comes during the climax (or just before), when the protagonist faces a choice. Defeating the “bad guy” (however that appears in the story) means doing things differently, and old habits will clearly not work. The only way to win is to embrace the change they’ve been struggling with all book.

Why this turning point is important: It’s the end of the arc and the payoff for the reader. It gives the plot victory emotional resonance and makes the win sweeter and more satisfying. The protagonist has earned this victory and their reward, and they deserve the happiness and success it grants them.

(Here’s more on the climax and what makes a good ending)

The character arc is a strong tool for adding an emotional layer to a story. It helps make readers care more about the characters and their problems, and makes the novel’s resolution more satisfying.

Do you use a character arc in your stories? How much do your characters grow?

*Originally published March 2018, Last updated February 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. So timely. I'm starting a new book....a crossover between two series where the two protags meet. The story has the potential of getting complicated, but this really helps. Thanks.

  2. Excellent steps. Or to summarize,

    The wrong path he's on-- and an example of its cost.
    A wrong-er turn he takes to fix it-- and an example of its cost.
    And finding the right way.

  3. Thank you... SO MUCH. This came right on time. I love so much your advices, and their crystal clarity.

  4. Another thank you! I'm in revision-planning mode and needed this reminder. Also, if you're taking future-topic requests, I'd love to see you expand on the sentence "Not every story needs a character arc, so don't force one..." Amen! I've read enjoyable novels without character arcs; in fact I find them refreshing and different. But in romance or women's fiction, the well defined character arc seems expected to the point that some arcs feel artificial/forced.

  5. I swear you have ESP. You, somehow, seem to know exactly where my WIP is and what help I need. It's the second draft and already I've re-written the first chapter and I'm revising as I go (I guess that makes me a pants/plotter person). I'm about to print this piece out for future reference. Thank you so much.