crafting stunning character arcs the characteristic moment

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 5: The Characteristic Moment

First impressions do count. And your protagonist’s Characteristic Moment is his first chance to impress your readers. Now that we’ve got the basic theory of character arc out of the way and figured out how to set up your protagonist’s inner conflict, via the Lie He Believes, the Thing He Wants and the Thing He Needs, and the Ghost, we’re ready to officially begin writing our character’s story.

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryThe structure of character arc begins with the Characteristic Moment. Throughout the rest of this series we’ll be aligning the major moments in the character arc with the major structural plot points. (If you’re unfamiliar with the basics of story structure, you may find my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story a helpful foundation for what we’ll be discussing in the rest of this series.) The Characteristic Moment (and the Normal World, which we’ll discuss next week) align with the Hook. It shows up the moment your protagonist does—presumably in the first chapter.

Creating Character ArcsIn real life, people may be cautioned against make snap decisions about others, based on first impressions. But, face it: we do. And we’re even less likely to feel conscientious about our judgments when reading fiction. We’ve just opened a book. We’ve never read this author before. We have no idea whether it’s going to live up to its awesome back-cover blurb and prove worthy of our time. Then here comes the protagonist, prancing onstage. What’s he doing? What’s his personality? Does he seem like someone we’re going to end up liking? Does he seem interesting? If not, we’re already halfway to closing the book.

In short, a failed Characteristic Moment can very likely mean a failed story.

Your Protagonist’s Characteristic Moment

The Characteristic Moment has to accomplish several tasks. It has to:

  • Introduce your protagonist.
  • (Probably) reveal your protagonist’s name.
  • Indicate your protagonist’s gender, age, nationality, and possibly his occupation.
  • Indicate important physical characteristics.
  • Indicate his role in the story (i.e., that he is the protagonist).
  • Demonstrate the prevailing aspect of his personality.
  • Hook readers’ sympathy and/or their interest.
  • Show the protagonist’s scene goal.
  • Indicate the protagonist’s story goal.
  • Demonstrate, or at least hint at, the protagonist’s Lie.
  • Influence the plot, preferably directly, but at the very least in a way that foreshadows later events.

This is quite a hefty checklist for the first scene of your story (especially when you add in related structural requirements). No wonder beginnings are so tough! The Characteristic Moment is a work of art. We can’t be content to open with our character doing any ol’ thing. We have to select an event that will:

  • Make the protagonist appealing to readers.
  • Introduce both his strengths and his weaknesses
  • Build the plot

Convince Readers to Invest in Your Character

Even distilled down to these three aspects, the Characteristic Moment is still tricky. We need to indicate the character’s “lack”—the problems in his life caused by the Lie—as soon as possible. But we don’t want to focus too heavily on the character’s negative aspects right away. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hauge reinforces:

 You must establish identification with your hero before revealing major flaws that could reduce sympathy.

If your character’s arc is all about him growing into courage, honesty, and selflessness, then he’s going to have to start out as less than brave, truthful, or generous. But if we tried to open most stories with a selfish, cowardly liar, most readers probably wouldn’t be hooked. And yet, what other kind of Characteristic Moment suggests itself for such a character? We have to indicate his problems, so we can prove how he’s changed by the end of the story, right?

Absolutely. But our foremost job is hooking readers. If you intend your character to be generally likeable, despite his faults, start with that. What do you like about him? What scene can you craft to highlight that? He doesn’t even have to be nice in this scene; he just has to be interesting. Ron Clement and Jon Musker’s Treasure Planet opens with its rebellious teenage protagonist demonstrating his skills and courage aboard his “solar surfer.” Jon Turteltaub’s The Kid opens with its protagonist acting like a complete jerk, but his snide comments are so nasty (and accurate) that viewers can’t look away.

Create a Memorable Scene

Think big. If your character’s chief virtue is his compassion, don’t just settle for having him pat a stray dog. Have him run into NYC traffic just to cross the street and see why a little girl is crying. If he’s known for his bravado, don’t just have him strut down the street. Have him pick a fight with five toughs—and win (or nearly).

Optimally, you’ll be able to work your character’s Lie right into the Characteristic Moment. But sometimes doing so just won’t be possible. We can only keep so many balls in the air while still maintaining logic within the plot. In these instances, you may have to postpone the introduction of the Lie until you’ve crossed off your list a few of your beginning’s other requirements. But you’re always going to want to introduce the Lie as quickly as possible. The Lie frames your character arc—and thus your entire story. Readers need to see proof of your character’s weakness, so they’ll understand what he has to overcome.

What Is a Characteristic Moment?

Your protagonist’s Characteristic Moment could manifest as:

  • A vow, as a child, to be like his father and grow up to “fight them all,” and then, as an adult, a cocky display on his way to being announced heir to the throne—which illustrates key personality traits, the effects of the Lie, and the Thing He Wants Most (story goal). (Thor)
  • A lonely moment, banned from the family circle, spent reading, and then a refusal to submit to her cousin’s unjust cruelty—which illustrates both the Ghost and key personality traits. (Jane Eyre)
  • An on-the-job demonstration of his cranky inability to live in the modern world and his dislike of kids—which illustrates key personality traits, the Lie, and the Thing He Wants Most. (Jurassic Park)
  • A distrust of his mother’s promises and a fearful attitude toward everything (especially pigs)—which illustrates the Lie, the Thing He Wants Most, and the personal weakness he will have to overcome. (Secondhand Lions)
  • A montage showing him being lovingly played with by Andy, and then, once he’s “awake,” a calm and organized leadership of the other toys—which illustrates the Thing He Wants Most and key personality traits. (Toy Story)
  • A cynical, but obviously intelligent, response to babysitting a reporter—which illustrates the Ghost and key personality traits. (Three Kings)
  • A grudging retreat from false accusations—which illustrates the Lie and the Thing He Wants Most. (Green Street Hooligans)
  • A hilariously neurotic morning routine—which illustrates the Thing He Wants Most and key personality traits. (What About Bob?)

Note that some Characteristic Moments are double-sided. Thor’s Characteristic Moment takes place in a two-part series of scenes, the first of which is part of a prologue and shows him as a child. Just as with Treasure Planet, which also starts with a childhood prologue, the character has to be reestablished in his “true normal” as an adult with a second Characteristic Moment.

In Jane Eyre and Toy Story, we see how we can use not just a single Characteristic Moment, but several to prove different aspects of our characters. Jane shows us two sides of her personality—first her lonely, but contented introversion, then her defiant and spirited refusal to be trampled upon. Because of the constraints of Toy Story’s logic, in which the toys must be passive and still when humans are present, Woody’s love for Andy is primarily shown through Andy’s love for him. This is the most important aspect of the story, but we’re also then given a prime example of Woody’s able leadership of the other toys, once he “wakes up” in Andy’s absence.

Further Examples of the Characteristic Moment

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Scrooge is introduced in a lengthy “telling” segment (not recommended for modern books), in which the author flat-out tells readers certain important facts about Scrooge’s miserliness and general lack of the milk of human kindness. By the time we reach Scrooge’s first dramatized scene, we already have a pretty clear picture of his personality. That picture is further emphasized when we enter his frigid counting house (heated by a “very small fire” and his employee Bob Cratchit’s single coal) and proceeds to reject his nephew’s kindhearted Christmas invitation by telling him precisely what he thinks of the holiday and its goodwill toward men. Readers immediately get a sense of Scrooge’s crabby personality, his incisive wit, his Lie (which he basically spells out), and his story goal of making as much money as possible.

Cars directed by John Lasseter: Lightning McQueen’s intro comes by way of his verbalized pre-race routine, in which he claims, “I am speed” and “I eat losers for breakfast.” He then demonstrates his sizable skills, as well as his disdain for his pit crew, in the lengthy race segment that opens the movies. Viewers are given further info, via the commentators, who reinforce Lightning’s Lie by revealing he’s already fired three pit crew chiefs because “he says he likes working alone.” In this extended opening, viewers learn all they need to know about Lightning: his good points (his racing skills), his Lie, and the Thing He Wants Most (the Piston Cup).

Questions to Ask About Your Characteristic Moment

1. What important personality trait, virtue, or skill best sums up your protagonist?

2. How can you dramatize this trait to its fullest extent?

3. How can you dramatize this trait in a way that also introduces the plot?

4. How can you demonstrate your protagonist’s belief in his Lie?

5. Can you reveal or hint at his Ghost?

6. How can you use this scene to reveal your character’s overall story goal—the Thing He Wants Most?

7. Does your protagonist’s pursuit of both the story goal and the scene goal meet with an obvious obstacle (i.e., conflict)?

8. How can you share important details about your protagonist (name, age, physical appearance) quickly and unobtrusively?

Don’t settle for anything less than spectacular for your Characteristic Moment. This is your opportunity to create a fun and effective scene that will introduce readers to your character in a way they’ll never forget—and won’t be able to look away from.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about introducing your character’s Normal World.

Read Previous Posts in This Series:

Part 1: Can You Structure Character?

Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes

Part 3: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

Part 4: Your Character’s Ghost

Tell me your opinion: What characteristic moment opens your story?

Creating Stunning Character Arcs: The Characteristic Moment

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Steve Mathisen says:

    Wow! You put a stunning amount of information into this post. Amazingly clear and immediately useful stuff for me. Thanks!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Characteristic moments – for all that they look so simple on the surface sometimes – are actually pretty complicated beasts. Glad the post was helpful!

  2. You can also try framing character around hero’s journey – works wonders.

    kalbashir.com talks a lot about it (hero’s journey).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Hero’s Journey essentially charts a change arc. Most of what I’ve taught so far in this series can be matched up against various (although often less explicit) moments in the Hero’s Journey.

  3. What a post! You packed a lot of really great information in there. You nailed the first scene on the head. If you can’t hook the reader by the end of the first scene, your readership for the second scene falls off dramatically. Thanks for all the great info!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The first scene is arguably trickiest scene in the book. If we can get that one right, the rest is a piece of cake!

  4. Love the “characteristic moment” checklist. I’ve printed that off! Great blog. Glad I have discovered it. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m a fan of checklists. They make everything so much easier. Glad you found it useful!

  5. Love your concise, practical information, your great examples, and the questions to incite deep digging.
    Having sat down and let my creative juices flow with my story idea until I reached the climax, only to find out I have no real climax, I have stopped to regroup, analyze and replot.
    Thank you for you willingness to share your knowledge. I know it will make my writing better and will provide me with strong characters, a strong plot, and a natural climax for both.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is one of the reasons I love outlining so much. If we can figure out our endings *while* figuring out our beginnings, we can ensure everything is where it’s supposed to be before we even start drafting.

  6. Thank you for commenting on my blog, I really appreciate it. I am indeed enjoying your character arc series of blog posts (characterization and description are the story aspects I struggle with the most). Your article on Character Wants VS Character Needs was fascinating, as is this post. Thanks for your time 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the posts! Many authors find they’re stronger in either plot or character, but it’s a myth we can’t balance our skills through learning. Here’s to being awesome at both plot *and* character!

  7. Hi Katie
    Great post, so much to think about!!
    Two characteristic moments that stand out to me are
    1 The protracted scene at the beginning of Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, which introduces the main character, Hiro Protagonist (yes, really) exceptionally well.
    In movies, the recent Star Trek reboot was terrific, in which we meet Kirk as a child having just stolen his step dad’s car and then again as an adult getting in a bar fight. Everything you mention above done to perfection 🙂
    cheers
    Mike

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I often think of the Star Trek example–and bang my head on the desk, wishing I could come up with something as good. :p

  8. barbara says:

    I’m so, so grateful for all the tremendous advice you put in your books and this blog! Until now I didn’t fully understood the story arc and the character arc – so thank you very much (since I’m only great at reading english, I’m sorry for any misspellings).
    I wish you the best!

  9. Elizabeth Richards says:

    Right now I’m laughing at myself. All the 3 Act plot explanations have just been so much English class theory that was too vague to apply as a model for drafting a novel. Then comes along the teachable moment and I see what I’ve been missing. Thank you for the clarity.

    I shared my first 10 pages with a friend prior to going to a conference critique session and she raised an interesting point. She said my scene “read” like a third person voice but I’m writing in first person.

    I think what my friend is getting at is that while I hint at my MC’s primary trait, it actually comes across as negative. I think that my MC’s primary trait is competence (more specifically competence even in the face of danger.) In the first scene she is irritated by incompetence. But she doesn’t actually get to be brave. (is that two primary traits? bravery and competence or just one–bravely competent?)

    I think I need to show her doing something –like a scenario playing out where she sees that a child will be in danger. She either rescues the child or prevents the child ever being in actual danger. That would tie into her own ghost of having been abandoned as a child.

    Something to sleep on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spot on! It’s so important to show the character actively using an important trait, rather than just commenting on it. Makes all the difference.

  10. Ashton Brooke says:

    Thank you for this series! I’m uber new to writing and my first piece is definitely a work in progress (as in, I have next to no clue what’s going to happen in it) but advice like yours is helping me let go of characters and let them become real people, even if I don’t necessarily like who they become or what that could say about me.

    Anyway, this post was doubly encouraging because I think my first scene definitely shows my main character’s (Suz’s) personality, the problem is that I have no idea where to take her from here. I’m currently trying to develop my three most main characters, hoping that this will help me fill in the details (I’m trying to tackle the Lie and the Ghost right now).

  11. Hi, I don’t know if you respond on older posts, but something you said in this one sparked my curiosity.

    You were speaking of A Christmas Carol and said the beginning is a whole bunch of telling, which is not recommended in modern books.

    1) I’m reading Persuasion right now, and Jane Austen does the same, is that right?

    2) If one is specifically trying to emulate Austen’s style (vocabulary, syntax, &c.), would a “telling” beginning be appropriate and acceptable in that case?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes and no. Yes, it would definitely be appropriate to accurately mimic the style of the 19th-century writers. But since you’re writing for a contemporary audience, you’re also going to need to be aware of their tastes and desires–and most of them would much rather be shown.

  12. Question: if one is writing fan fiction, say based upon a very well-known movie franchise, how can one form the characteristic moment in a way that is not redundant? Presumably the audience is more than familiar with the backstory of the character. Can this moment be less revelatory and more indicative of the tangent this new story is taking? How might this be accomplished?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Whether you’re writing fan fiction or an original sequel, you’ll definitely have a little more leeway with the characteristic moment, since it’s not the first time readers have met the character. This frees you from having to fill in all the blanks on his past and motivation. But you’ll still want to open with a scene that encapsulates the character’s personality and his journey in this particular installment.

  13. Thanks for this great series. Your website is so helpful! I have a question though, my character is very confident, yet I was planning for the opening scene to have her painting something. This painting is influenced by her ghost and one other thing, however is it too much of a clash for a confident character (who will boldly enter the middle of conflict immediately afterwards) to be painting…?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t think painting is at all odds with confidence. Although artistic expression always comes from a place of vulnerability, the person still has to possess a certain amount of confidence to even get to that place of expression.

  14. Wow! That is SO much information. Now I see why I need to spend more time on that first chapter.
    Thank you

  15. This is an awesome, amazingly helpful site! I dont know if you still respond to comments, but I’m coming stuck with the characterising moment only because my characters story goal doesnt officially kick off until the first plot point. She has an initial goal, which is ignited when she is dragged into the whole conflict during the inciting event, but it isnt until the first plot point when she starts to discover what the conflict is really about. How can I convey or hint at her story goal if she doesnt even know it yet?

    I also may be getting a bit confused about the story goal itself. I think it may be because of the wording you used; the thing my character wants more than anything is not technically the story goal. I have managed to make the story goal a concrete version of what she really really wants; but by ‘wants more than anything’ do you just mean within the story itself, because I may be going to broad.

    Anyways, thank you so much for all the work you do on this site, it has been so incredibly helpful!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re right that the Thing the Character Wants Most is more of a broad, personal desire. It is *not* generally the story goal, but it *is* the ground from which the bud of the story goal springs up. In other words, the story goal is always related to and inspired by the Want.

      That said, you can start out your story by demonstrating the Want even before the specific story goal has manifested itself. Establishing the Want in your characteristic moment will foreshadow and set up the coming conflict-based goal.

      • Thank you for the fast response! This helps a lot! I’ve made my main characters story goal just a more specific version of her Want, so its nice to know I can reveal the want early and not worry too much about only revealing her story goal when it surfaces later 🙂

  16. DAVID WOLF says:

    I am so happy to have found this character arc series! This posting, about the Characteristic Moment, has convinced me–and removed all doubts–that I have nailed this tricky business in my first chapter. My MC, Charlie, face scarred from the as-yet-unrevealed act of arson he committed at age 8, sits at a Starbucks, his scar tucked out of view as he loiters until he sees an attractive young woman sit down with her latte. He memorizes her features, then limps away, fantasizing an ice-breaking conversation between them, until he curses himself for giving in to such indulgences. He reprimands himself: “I may be a murderer, but I’m no creep.” He goes to work. He’s an insurance investigator. Later, he takes a call from his hated partner, who asks, “Did you kill my wife?” In the jocular conversation that follows, it comes out that this particular wife was next in line for Charlie’s tender mercies. But someone else has beaten him to the crime. He’ll spend the rest of the book trying to find out who, and why their own pigeon happened to get herself killed. He doesn’t believe in coincidences. If the homicide cops link the husband to the crime, their entire scheme–some 20 kills–could well unravel. So that first chapter reveals his need–for love, and the Lie he believes: he’s not worthy of love. (The lie is reinforced by the scar, that tell-tale evidence of his depraved act and his depraved soul.) Another version of the Lie: all he’s good for is killing women.

  17. Should every main character have their own characteristic moment? Such as the antagonist and the supporting characters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes. Ultimately, every character’s introduction *will* be a characteristic moment, whether or not the author purposely planned it to take full advantage of its potential.

  18. Although you stated that the Characteristic Moment should reveal the character’s gender, I once read a wonderful YA Fiction book by Darren Shan called Zom-B.
    Since it was written in first person, it didn’t have to reveal the gender of the POV character. It gave the reader the impression that they were male, but near the climax the MC’s father referred to them as his daughter.
    This was done on purpose by the author to start a theme/moral in the series that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

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