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.
Choosing 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?
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