How to Figure Out What Your Character's Arc Should Be

How to Figure Out WHAT Your Character’s Arc Should Be

Over the last six months and three series, you’ve gotten a pretty good idea of how to structure your character’s arc–whether it’s positive, flat, or negative. But what you may still be wondering is how to figure out which arc you should choose for your character.

Creating Character ArcsChoosing your character’s arc is every bit as important a decision as choosing the right plot. Get it wrong in the beginning, and, at best, you’ll be facing massive rewrites. Some stories will pop into your brain with an obvious character arc already in tact. But other stories will require a little more forethought. Fortunately, picking the perfect character arc for your story requires nothing more than the answers to three questions.

What’s Your Genre?

Genre won’t always be the deciding factor in the type of character arc you portray, but it should definitely be a consideration. As Harold Crick learned in Stranger Than Fiction, stories follow certain patterns: “Tragedy you die. Comedy you get hitched.” Positive arcs get happy endings. Negative arcs get sad endings. In The Moral Premise, Stanley D. Williams goes on to explain:

Genre films create certain audience expectations for the protagonist. Often the protagonist’s arc is known by the audience before the movie begins. Such expectations about the construction of the genres may predetermine how the protagonist reacts to the story’s moral premise and conflict. This is because, as Thomas Schatz explains in Hollywood Genres, genre movies deal with fundamental cultural conflicts that can never be ultimately solved but yet offer a solution, if only temporary and idealistic.

Broader “umbrella” genres such as fantasy, westerns, and historicals can tell just about any kind of story. But most romances, for example, are going to require a positive or flat arc.

Where Does Your Character’s Arc Begin?

Character arc is always the final sum of your story’s ending minus your story’s beginning. If you can figure out who your character is in the beginning of your story, you’re already halfway to writing his arc, much less knowing what it is.

Is he in a comparatively good place in the beginning? If so, then he’s either in a flat arc (in which he’ll have to leave that good place and fight for it when it is threatened) or a disillusionment or corruption arc (in which he will leave the good place and never return).

Or is he in a less-than-good place? If so, he’s either in a positive change arc (in which he’ll journey toward a better place) or a negative fall arc (in which things get even worse).

Even more importantly, what does your character believe in the beginning? If he starts out believing a Lie about himself or the world around him, then he’s either at the beginning of a positive change arc (in which he’ll overcome the Lie and reach a positive Truth), a negative disillusionment arc (in which he’ll overcome the Lie and reach a negative Truth), or a negative fall arc (in which he’ll never grow into the Truth, but instead embrace an even worse Lie).

If he believes the Truth, then he’s starting out on either a flat arc (in which he’ll use that Truth to transform the world around him) or a negative corruption arc (in which he’ll fall away from that Truth).

Where Does Your Character’s Arc End?

This brings us right back to the old “happy ending or sad ending?” question. If you know your character starts out believing a Lie, but ends up happy, then you know he’s going to be following a positive change arc. In Plot vs. Character, Jeff Gerke writes about figuring out this type of story:

Now it’s time to imagine what the alternative [to the Lie] could be. If you are Fate in this story and you’re not going to let [your character] remain in her miserable stew, what are you going to try to get her to change to? What is the happy other possibility you’d like her to see and possibly seize?

In other words, a story with a positive change arc will always end with the character in the opposite situation to the one in which he found himself in the beginning. The character will have changed, and the world around him will reflect that.

Same goes for a negative change arc, but in reverse. Characters in disillusionment and corruption arcs will end in a place that’s a darker reflection of their beginning, while characters in fall arcs will end up in a place that’s the same as the beginning, only worse.

Flat arc characters won’t change themselves, but the world and the characters around them will be drastically different from how they were in the beginning of the story.

Double Check Your Character’s Arc

Based on your answers to these three questions, you should be able to identify which arc you want your character to follow and start plotting accordingly. But before you rev your engines too much, stop a moment to double check yourself.

Is the arc you’ve identified your strongest possible option? Do your story’s beginning and ending contrast each other strongly enough? If your protagonist had to face the events of the climax in the beginning of the story, would he react to them in the same way he does at the end? If he would take pretty much the same action at both the beginning and end of the story, you know his change arc isn’t strong enough.

This holds true for flat arcs as well. Although the character’s personal Truth and integrity may hold fast throughout the story, he shouldn’t have the motive or understanding to act in the same way at the beginning as he will in the end.

The general question of “which character arc” is every bit as important as the specific story details of the arc itself once you start plotting. Before you ever put pen to paper, take a moment to figure out your character’s arc and make it as strong and memorable as possible.

Tell me your opinion: Is your character’s arc a positive change arc, a flat arc, or a negative arc?

How to Figure Out What Your Character's

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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. Marissa John says:

    I have an observation & a question. I write romance. Which really has 2 protagonists. I realize I have a heroine with a positive arc & a hero with a flat arc. But his flat arc impacts on & creates the heroine’s positive arc. He changes the world around him more than he changes himself. IOW the hero’s arrival is the impetus for the heroine changing her life. And still delivering the HEA (happy ever after).

    Is this possible?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely! In fact, you’ve hit upon the nugget at the heart of all character arcs: the impact character. Flat arcs and change arcs always exist in synchronicity. They fuel each other. I’m going to be addressing this in a post on impact characters soon.

      • Marissa John says:

        Then this was a timely post. Thank you for sharing. I’ll look for your impact character post. This is really helping me break through some blocks on getting the 2nd book of my series going. I was trying to make a story that didn’t want to be told, with 2 positive character arcs dovetailing through the story, as I used in book 1. I found myself re-treading old stuff and not liking it.

        I realize I used this flat arc/positive arc pattern before in one of my ‘trunk’ manuscripts that I still hope to use someday, only I gave the heroine the flat character arc (and impact character status) and the hero was the one with the positive character arc. Physically, the heroine’s circumstances change dramatically for the better as the story goes on, but inside she is the same rock-solid, stalwart person at the end of the story, seemingly unaffected by all the apparent changes around her. The hero was the opposite. It created a unique dynamic for the romance, a story where how the hero was changed (for the better) by the relationship was really the focus of the story. They remain one of my favorite pairs but I need to turn their story into a romantic fantasy to suit my ‘brand’.

        Some day, eh?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Just to be clear, “impact” character status in no way lessens a character’s importance. Flat character arcs are, in essence, always going to belong to impact characters – but flat character arcs are often great choices for the protagonists.

  2. thomas h cullen says:

    Is Croyan only special, relative to his role in The Representative?

    ….No: proof to the contrary lies in a part of his experience with Mariel, during the day of her practice Arbitration.

    If from no other part of the narrative, for all its political and contextual weight and substance, then from certainly this can a reader know Croyan’s way:

    Someone memorable – someone of cool, sound, and reliable mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Characters are almost always defined within the context of their supporting characters.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        The Arbitration is the text’s most story-like part: without this, despite how politically explosive the text’s other parts are – to the effect indeed of posing a real threat, to the current worldwide political order – Croyan wouldn’t in fact get himself the chance to “shine”.

        It’s not quite so black and white as that, in truth, but it’s still the general case that without Mariel’s Arbitration, the person of Croyan himself wouldn’t be as revealed – in all its rare quality. (Even within the most rare of stories).

  3. Thanks for the whole series and this post! I love that you quoted Stranger Than Fiction. That’s a great movie on character development. My favorite arcs are the ones that look like a negative, but turn out to be a positive one at least imply a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the kind of arc I know I want for the story I’m outlining and the kind of arc I’m considering for many of my other ideas. However, I’ll definitely consider other arcs since you’ve made me an expert on them, haha!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just saw Stranger Than Fiction recently. Is it surprising that my favorite character is the crazy author? :p

  4. I have 2 protagonists but both are undergoing their own change arcs. And they are both fueling/being the catalyst for each other’s progression through their arcs. I read what you mentioned about impact characters…is it possible for 2 positive change arc characters to morph together and help generate the changes in each other? I would assume it would…but I am running into some difficulties because I feel it’s more like choreography trying to get these two in that delicate balance they need for their arcs to make sense, rather than plotting. Ha ha.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are two possible routes you could go with this. 1) The characters are following variations of the same positive arc (fueled by variations of the same Lie), in which case another character or characters could perform as the impact character for both of them. 2) They’re following totally different positive arcs, which allows their individual strengths to help each other find their Truths.

  5. I guess not too surprising unless you mean that you find her relate-able. I would like to think you’re not as unhappy and lonely as her. You do have a blog full of adoring fans after all. 🙂

  6. I am writing a story about two lead characters (friends actually). One with negative arc, the others is still a mystery to me. He is a character who is not interested in his pre-determined destiny. He wants to do something else. More adventurous. And then, end up doing the best possible thing to do at the time. So want kind of character arc would that be?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It could be positive, but it also sounds like it’s potentially flat. If the character already possesses the understanding necessary to do the right thing and just has to grow into the opportunity, then it’s probably a flat arc.

  7. Hi there! I’ve read dozens of your blog posts since discovering your site a week or two ago and I this same question keeps popping up in my mind. I’m working on the first book in a series and while I want the book to incapsulate a completed story, I don’t necessarily want a completed plot or character arc. Is it “acceptable” for the character arc to progress over several books rather than the span of one book? In my mind I feel like it is, but I don’t know if this would create dissatisifaction in the reader.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The short answer is definitely. The long answer is that, just as with the plot in each installment of a series, the arc in each book needs to be semi-concluded in some way. In essence, try to focus on a “mini” arc in each book, which, when put together, will combine into the big arc over the course of the series.

  8. Thanks for this. My ending has been a bit of a bugbear for me as I’ve already rewritten it and I’m still not happy. I was hoping through many drafts it would just happen. Now I see I need to establish that negative disillusionment arc to set up the best ending.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s the thing about endings: they only work if the beginnings are set up to support them. Yet another reason I like outlines. 🙂

  9. I’m working on a project where a character has an arc that doesn’t fit any of these descriptions. She does change quite a lot, but she starts out in a good place and ends in a different good place. At first she’s settled and genuinely satisfied with what she has, and then she finds an unexpected passion and pursues it successfully, so she goes from being passively happy to being actively happy, if that makes sense. How does your model adjust for more complex characters and stories?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That sounds like a positive change arc to me. The Lie might be something to do with her passivity, which she then learns to translate into active happiness.

      • I think you’re interpreting “passive” as a bad thing, which isn’t how I see it (or how the character sees it).

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Granted, but the fact that the character changes in a not-negative way would still seem to conform to the positive change arc structure. Obviously, I’m working off a very limited knowledge of your story, but that’s what my gut is saying.

    • thomas h cullen says:

      I like your willingness to be creative, and to just follow your desire.

      Subversion of the expected is the very essence of art.

  10. Your whole character series has been phenomenal. I’m using it to rework a story I changed considerably, enough that the characters changed (I even had to add a new one). Your series has been great for helping me figure out the pacing of the story, and to make sure I have all the elements.

    But I’m turning now to my antagonist, and I’m stumped. I turned to the negative change arc, assuming that it would be fit for the antagonist. But after reading the posts, that clearly isn’t necessarily the case.

    Can the antagonist have any of these types of character arcs? Or is there something inherent in the antagonist that means it will be a certain kind? I know the antagonist is going to fail to attain his goal, and it will be b/c he refuses to change/adapt. But does that mean it’s a negative arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The antagonist can follow any of the arcs–and the negative arc is *often* an obvious choice. But, surprisingly, the flat arc is the more frequent option. Antagonists often function as impact characters who are already in possession of a Truth (whether universally true or not) that acts as a catalyst for the protagonist’s change arc. You might also enjoy this post, which addresses minor characters, including the antagonist, and their arcs.

      • Thanks for replying! And yes, read the post on the Impact character – enlightening. I hadn’t considered my antagonist being the Impact character. Can there be more than one Impact character for a protagonist/story? I think my “main” secondary character is my protagonist’s impact character – in that he represents the Truth and prompts her to start believing in it. Hmmm, I’ll have to look at this character arc again and consider the possibilities! Thanks!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          If you have additional subplot Lies, you’ll need an impact character with a Truth for each of those Lies (although, of course, one character *can* fulfill all those roles). You can also have more than one impact character represent the same Truth, but this is essentially extraneous. It’s usually tighter and better writing to use different characters to impact the protagonist in *different* ways.

  11. Do you think it would be enjoyable to read a Flat Arc where the character fails to change the world for the better? In essence, it would follow everything you outlined in your series on the Flat Arc, but the protagonist’s climactic moment would result in failure, as it does in Negative Arcs, and leave the protagonist still believing in the Truth. Could this be interesting? I have no designs on writing such a piece, nor can I think of any examples, so I can’t get specific, but this strikes me as an unexplored possibility in the structure you’ve developed here.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. That would be basically a variation the Disillusionment Negative Arc. But you’d want to make sure that the “world” still experienced an obvious negative arc, instead of remaining static, so that the story still offers evolution.

  12. In my book, my protagonist has two character arcs.

    Now before you say I’m insane, hear me out. Because that’s most people’s reaction when I say that.

    In the very, very beginning she is a completely flat character. Then in the fifth chapter, she finds out she is a witch, thus beginning The Lie (that she’s a monster).

    That’s her first arc, but her second is really the main focus of the story. That’s when she goes from thinking she’s a monster to believing that she, well, isn’t (The Truth).

    Any ideas on what I would call this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds to me like a change arc all the way through. She still has a Lie in the very beginning (that witches in general are monsters), even though it isn’t personal yet.

  13. Hi there! I realize this is an old post, but I have been doing a lot of reading and research lately about characters, character arcs, plot, etc. Your blog posts have been really encouraging to me, and I have learned a lot from your writing!

    I have a current WIP with three POV characters, consisting of a protagonist, cotagonist, and antagonist, all closely related to each other due to the plot. I am wondering if you think it would be too convoluted or awkward to make the protagonist with a flat arc, the cotagonist a positive arc, and the antagonist with a negative arc. Is that too much going on, do you think? I’d love to hear what you think! Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Theoretically–not at all! As long as all three characters are changing in ways that demonstrate different facets of the same theme, it has the potential to be very complex and powerful.

      • Wow, thank you for your quick reply. That makes a lot of sense! I forgot about how one central theme could bind them all together; I have individual themes for each of my POV characters, but I can now see how a overall theme would unify the plot. Thank you very much!

  14. Because I am making a series of books (I have ~10 general plots in mind, though most of them are simply vague ideas), I have all three.

    My inspirational protagonist experiences a flat arc in which he makes a mistake and tries to fix it, and his principles are challenged by his town, which tries to tell him his mistake was a good thing; his perseverance eventually frees the town from its corruption.

    My nerdish protagonist experiences a positive change arc in which he must learn to let those close to him be close to him, and to be willing not to control every detail of his life.

    My disturbingly dark antagonist experience a negative fall arc in which he is offered a chance to escape his broken home, but instead murders his family and becomes the leader of a powerful cult.

  15. If there is one thing I’m really struggling with, it’s my Prtoag’s character arc. I can’t quite put it into words (which is the whole problem for a writer, eh?) so bear with me as I try and stumble though this.

    She starts out the story with the intention to live up to her father’s legacy, and slowly over the course of her adventures she comes to the realization she doesn’t need to, and then inadvertently creates her own. At first blush this looks to be a positive change arc, with it’s own Truth and Lie (from what I understand) and it starts out and drives her through most of the story.

    Problem being, as far as I can tell it’s not the main (or maybe not the only?) Truth and Lie she deals with. There’s a Lie that the antagonist believes and he spends a great deal of time trying to convince Miss Protag of it, and a good deal of the story has her figuring out combating him on this as well, convincing Mr. Antag of his Lie. Which kind of makes her the Impact Character of the antagonist’s story, which might also look like she has a Flat arc?

    Which equates to my lady protag kind of having two arcs at what is mostly at the same time. Her personal discovery and the enlightening of the antagonist. But the two arcs are really only related by the person who goes through them. If anything, her personal development arc ( where she is undergoing a positive change) is a subplot to the overall arc (where she’s the impact character.)

    Basically I have no idea what I’m doing, but the story idea as to firm a hold on me to let me do anything but my best to write it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds to me like you’ve got her on a positive change arc in the main plot with a flat arc as a subplot–which is totally legit and possible. Most characters will know several Lies and Truths that may or may not play out across multiple subplots.

      • I was looking at it backwards. Oh, that makes so much more sense.
        I kept looking at it as the conflict with the antagonistic character is the main plot, because of course it is, overcoming antagonist = plot right? But that isn’t always the case is it? The story’s action isn’t what drives the plot really, it’s the various obstacles she encounters as she goes through her arc, giving her a reason to why she’s discovering her Truth.

        Thank you so much. It was giving me fits because my MC was the character I understood the least out of my cast of important people. I’m trying to get all of my ducks in a row before this November, and this bit was a major issue for me. I’ll probably be bugging you again as I go though your posts. This darn story is so determined that I actually need to go though and make myself a better writer to do it justice.

  16. Do you think it’s easier to write a positive character arc than a negative or flat? Is there a character arc that is the most easier to write?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      They all have their challenges, of course, but I tend to think the Positive Change Arc is the easiest, if only because it’s the most familiar–and the easiest to satisfy readers with.

  17. Jana Stout says:

    I have a secondary main character that I’m working on drumming up her character arc better. She’d be the main character in a sequel so I want her set up well here even though the book isn’t (mostly) about her. This story would become her Ghost in the next book.

    Right now she is a child and has a Want (to be a normal kid again) and Need (to be cured of a deadly illness) that get fulfilled around the midway point by the Protagonist. Then she’s kind of flat, although an important part of the Protagonist’s Negative Arc and getting to the Climax.
    Is that ok to finish up a character arc half way in the book? Should she then have a new Want/Need? A new Lie/Truth to follow toward in the second half? Or should her Want/Need be something different that doesn’t become fulfilled until later in the book?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If you’re wanting to set up this book as her Ghost, then I would suggest creating a Negative Change Arc for her in this story–something that causes her to believe her Lie in the next book.

  18. Sarah J. says:

    “This holds true for flat arcs as well. Although the character’s personal Truth and integrity may hold fast throughout the story, he shouldn’t have the motive or understanding to act in the same way at the beginning as he will in the end.”

    This was super helpful! I’ve been trying to figure out if my protagonist’s arc lately and this summed it up perfectly! She is a flat arc. Through trials and encouragement of others her truth grows to a new level that causes her to do things she wouldn’t have dreamed she could do in the beginning.

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