The Hardest Part of Writing Good Character Arcs —and How You Can Make It Look Easy!

The Hardest Part of Writing Good Character Arcs—and How You Can Make It Look Easy!

Character arcs are easy, right? Somewhere in between the beginning and the middle of the book, the character changes. What could be simpler? And yet, when we get right down to the nitty-gritties, character arcs are also pretty darn hard. Why? Because humans never change in simplistic, easy, on-and-off-like-a-light-switch ways. We change slowly, sometimes invisibly, and always inch by complicated inch.

Creating Character ArcsWhen we, as authors, try to replicate the complexities of these massive life changes on the page, we often trip ourselves up. We know that if the character’s change is too simplistic, it won’t ring true. But when we try to make it more multifarious, we often just end up getting lost within all the clutter we’ve created.

But we don’t have to get lost! One of the most common reasons for over-complicating a character arc is just that: we’re over-complicating it. And we’re doing so simply because we’re missing out on one of the most basic truths of creating change within a character.

The #1 Mistake Authors Make With Character Arcs

You ready for this? Here it is: The number one mistake authors make with character arcs is that they try to remake their character into someone new.

Nope, I’m not being contradictory. A character’s arc is all about change. But that does not mean the character becomes someone new by the end of the story. Whoever he is at the end is still the same person he was at the beginning. George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life is still the same George Bailey he was at the beginning. None of his fundamental personal pieces have changed: they’ve just been rearranged.

The Hardest Part of Writing Good Character Arcs—and How You Can Make It Look Easy!

Where so many authors trip themselves up in creating change within their characters is by trying to create that change out of nothing. They’re trying to turn the character into something entirely new–something of which there is no clue in the story’s beginning.

Maybe this will sound familiar: You know you want your character to follow a positive change arc. That means he has to be a better person at the end of the story than he is at the beginning. He’s going to end up being a powerful, merciful, generous, beneficent ruler at the story’s end. So you naturally (and quite rightly) look to the opposite of all those traits to create the character at your story’s beginning.

Dreamlander NIEA FinalistI did this years ago when writing the first draft of my portal fantasy Dreamlander. My protagonist started out as a massive jerk and a total loser. He was jobless, cranky, irresponsible, immature, and intractable. Why not, right? He was supposed to change. Can’t have change if the character starts out perfect.

But here’s the problem: this character wouldn’t change. That first draft was difficult for a lot of reasons, but one of them was simply how stubborn this character was. I couldn’t get him to evolve, and every time I tried, it felt forced and unnatural. Why? Because the character I started out with didn’t bear even the seeds of the personality traits I wanted to nurture into growth over the course of the story.

The Crux of Realism in Character Arcs

You might remember one of our Most Common Writing Mistakes discussions, from a couple months ago, about how the two halves of any story–the beginning and the ending–must hang together as part of a single whole. Same goes for character arcs.

In order to be realistic and believable, character arcs cannot introduce new elements in the second half of the story: both sides of the character must be present from the very beginning. If your protagonist is going to end the story by giving away his fortune to those more needy than himself–as does Mr. Deeds in Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Deeds Goes to Town–then that generosity needs to be latent in the character from the very beginning.

The Hardest Part of Writing Good Character Arcs—and How You Can Make It Look Easy!

If you want your character to turn into a confident leader–as I did my protagonist in Dreamlander–then the potential for confidence and charisma must be obviously buried within the character from the very first chapter.

The foundation of every character is the internal battle between the Lie the character starts out believing and the Truth he will grow into. In some sense, the character is already going to know this Truth at the beginning of the story. There’s a part of him that already believes it.

George Bailey knows that serving his community and protecting them from Old Man Potter will create a far more fulfilling and important life than chasing adventures and wealth across the globe. But here’s the thing: he doesn’t like that Truth. He likes the Lie–that he’d be happier following his own selfish desires–much better. So he starts out in a place where he’s not so much unaware of the Truth as he is in adamant denial of it.

If you start out with a character who has zero capability for understanding your story’s Truth, then you’re essentially creating a character who has no internal conflict. He has no reason to overcome his Lie. That internal conflict is the engine that powers your character’s change. As such, both the Lie and the Truth must be alive within your character from the very beginning of your story. Otherwise you have no story.

How to Pull Off a Believable Change Within Your Character

For the full lowdown on how to evolve your character over the course of the story, you’ll want to check out my 15-part series on the positive change arc. Today, let’s explore a quick overview of the steps necessary to create believable change within your character by first making certain the possibility for change is present:

1. Begin Your Story With a Demonstration of Both the Lie and the Truth

We all know about beginning our stories with a characteristic moment that introduces our character to readers. This moment is supposed to illustrate the character’s starting point within the story. As such, we often want to create a characteristic moment that illustrates the character’s current enslavement to his Lie.

But that’s not quite enough. We also have to make sure we’re illustrating the character’s latent understanding of and desire for the Truth. Sometimes we can do this simultaneously in the same characteristic moment; sometimes we need two separate scenes to illustrate both sides of this character.

The important thing is to make certain you’re foreshadowing the character’s change and showing readers the character’s potential for growing into a Truth-driven person.

2. Begin Revealing the Truth

As your story progresses, the Truth should become more and more evident to the character. He’ll resist it for most of the first half, but it needs to be a steadily convincing argument. You can’t hammer away at the Lie all through the first half, then expect the character’s embrace of the Truth in the second half to be fluid.

3. Give the Character a Reason to Resist the Truth

Right from the start, and with increasing force throughout the story, the character needs to be presented with convincing reasons to resist the Truth. If the Truth wasn’t painful or inconvenient in some way, why wouldn’t the character reject the Lie right from the start? Just like Senator Jeff Smith in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, there needs to be compelling reasons for a character to want to cling to innocence and ignorance in the face of corruption.

The Hardest Part of Writing Good Character Arcs—and How You Can Make It Look Easy!

4. Give the Character a Strong Motive to Pursue the Truth

At the same time as the character is being tempted to reject the Truth, he also needs to be given a strong underlying motive that will compel him to keep pursuing the Truth–sometimes in spite of himself. Despite everyone’s arguments that he could do more good for his state by bending to the political machine, there’s a part of Jeff Smith (the part that believed the Truth from the beginning) that can’t help returning time and again to his Truth that “the lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.”

5. Realize Your Character’s Arc Is an Awakening

Frank Capra's American DreamCharacter arcs aren’t about change so much (per se) as they are about awakening. I’ve been using examples from Frank Capra’s classic movies throughout this post. In the marvelous documentary Frank Capra’s American Dream, director and producer Marshall Herskovitz offers commentary on how Capra’s masterful presentation of his characters’ awakenings was the key to why his stories remain so compelling:

It is so consistently well done from film to film, which is the depiction in the change of the character over time. And it is a depiction of the ambivalence within a character. How one side of a person’s character will outweigh the other side in the beginning, and then slowly over time, it shifts and the other side outweighs. It’s so remarkable and so incredibly hard to do, and he [Capra] does it in all his films. He does it as if it’s easy, and it’s the hardest thing.

As you’re planning your character’s change from Lie-believer to empowered wielder of the Truth, take a moment to make certain both sides of your character are present from the very beginning. Only then can you begin slowly shifting that character into a realistic evolution–rather than an unbelievable hairpin turn from jerk to angel.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you presented your protagonist’s latent potential to embrace the Truth in your story? Tell me in the comments!

The Hardest Part of Writing Good Character Arcs —and How You Can Make It Look Easy!

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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. I’ve been writing forever, and so I’ve heard all this before. It’s all great information.
    When I first started writing fiction I was aware of a couple of ‘rules’. This made writing a novel easier, actually. I have a simple mind… :-}

    The rules?
    – Start with a problem ~
    – Stick with your character ~
    – Arrive at a climax ~
    – End with a ‘come-to-realise’ denouement.

    Voila! The character has changed.
    That was it.

  2. I liked the notion of character arc being more about awakening than change necessarily. I hadn’t considered this. Also, introducing this ‘believing the lie’/dissatisfaction with the status quo’ concept early in the novel is something that has been missing from my first 30 pages. So, thanks for giving these insights. One thing I’ve wondered is: can an MC have a negative character arc and still be engaging? Jack Torrance in ‘The Shining’ follows such a route, although his son acts as a counterpoint to balance things out. I don’t think Danny would have been half as interesting if it wasn’t for his father’s descent into alcoholism and madness.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Certainly. The classics are rife with fascinating negative arcs! I talk more in depth about negative change arcs here.

  3. I belive it is even more important when writing negative arc. People usually does not so happy about the nice guy becoming the bad guy, so they would not swallow it easy. I often meet opinions about some stories like: “Wait, why this character become evil? He was such a good guy! Stupid autor ruined him!”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely agree. Readers need to see that darkness from the very beginning. If Heathcliff or Raskolnikov had started off as the boys next door? Hmm, doubt they’d be classics!

  4. Very interesting, it definitely had me thinking. However, the post also got me thinking about Scrooge in The Christmas Carol. He was one person who definitely changed in the end but at the beginning you have no inkling that he has the ability or desire to. Is he the exception here?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hmm, that’s a good point. Technically, of course, the good side of Scrooge was there from the beginning–from his childhood and young manhood. You’re right that readers don’t get to see those traits in old Scrooge right away, but the change itself works *because* it’s made clear throughout the story that there *used to be* a good heart lurking inside old Scrooge.

      • Yes the good side of Scrooge was there in his youth but you see from his experiences as a child and young man the things that made him into the heartless person that we meet at the very beginning of the story.

  5. Excellent, thank you.

  6. Katie, this is an especially intriguing post to me. Its already getting me to think more deeply about my protagonist’s arc in a story I’ve been planning for awhile and I will probably re-read it sometime. As I was reading the part about a character awakening v.s. changing, Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” came to mind. Recently, I re-watched for the first time in years and observed that the protagonist, Chihiro seemed to “awaken” more than “grow” (a quote from him on Wikipedia confirmed that it was his intention). If you’ve seen it (if not you should!) do you have any thoughts?

  7. This was a really great post, thanks!

  8. I think the role of courage must also play a strong role in the shift from Lie to Truth, as you structure character arc in this post, Katie. I really think motive, which is what you focus on, is hugely important. But, in real life as in fiction, two individuals faced with the same circumstances that bear out one course of action as preferable and healthier, nevertheless may choose two different directions–one that indeed leads toward the Truth (and this is the courageous individual) and another who stays the course (i.e. the Lie) despite all evidence pointing in another direction. How would you suggest the character trait of courage impacts a protagonist’s ability to “shift” within the story so there is indeed an arc? Thanks, Jay

  9. Natasha says:

    In my current story, I have planted some signs in the beginning that my protagonist *can* gain the truth, but they do not occur right at the opening scene. I guess I will have to edit that later. There is a question I’d like to ask though: if the time that passes from the beginning to the end of the story, is kinda long, can’t the arc contain a change too?

    The post in general, helped me to clear out a question that was playing over and over in my head, so I am glad I read it! Especially, point #5 sums it up pretty well. Well done 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t think I quite understand what you’re asking: “Can’t the arc contain a change too?” The arc *is* a change.

      • Natasha says:

        I am so sorry, let me rephrase that: I meant, couldn’t the arc contain a radical change, instead of just an awakening? Could the character obtain, for example, a very different worldview if a lot of time has passed in between? I hope this is clearer!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Oh, definitely. But the change would still be, at its heart, an awakening, since the seeds of the Truth would still need to be planted from the start. Dramatic change arcs are awesome.

  10. YoungAuthor says:

    Wow. O_o
    You wrote this post at EXACTLY the right timing! And you basically saved the change arc of a character I was just about ready to toss out.

    Thank you so much!!! You have NO IDEA how much your articles help me through every stage of my writing process! I really would not be a writer without you.

  11. Mark Kamibaya says:

    The best article on writing that I’ve read in a long time!

  12. My protagonist’s truth is also her lie in a sense. As an adult who was poor growing up, she knows what it takes to be a good social worker. At the same time though, despite all the schooling she’s had, being on the other end of dreadful situations is a lot different from what she thinks is it. She has the potential to be an outstanding social work, but she needs to learn how to draw from the more recent experiences she’s gone through and learn from her clients as well.

  13. I enjoyed this post because as a writer it can seem way too obvious that without change in the MC, the story can be less successful. I think I foreshadow the possibility of change pretty well in my latest YA novel through internal monologue, dialogue, and her reactions to others’ reactions, if that makes sense. For example, her name’s Faith, but she’s clueless why her parents named her that way. They’re not regular church attenders, only on holidays. So when she witnesses one of the other teens saying Hail Mary’s and crossing his chest, she holds an interior monologue about it, reacting in an anti-faith like manner. Not exactly putting him down for his beliefs, just not convinced faith in anything will get them through their situation. Needless to say, Faith becomes increasingly more aware that Divine Intervention could be a possibility, but she still has doubts. Huh….don’t we all? My goal wasn’t to tie this change up into a neat little bow because I realize this kind of a transformation is a much longer process. Hence…a second book. 🙂 Incidentally, the novel is secular not Christian, and this only represents one of her changes. I’m going to recommend this post to others because it takes a simple writing concept and clarifies it well! Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Characters who start out questioning facets of their Lie right from the start are almost always going to be well-foreshadowed. As long as the character is allowing *room* for the Truth to grow, you’ve got everything under control.

  14. This reminds me of an old Cherokee legend about two wolves that are at war inside every person: one representing the good in them, and the other the bad.
    I guess the change arc is a bit like that. Two different parts of a person fighting each other inside of them. The reader can’t help but wonder which one will win.

    I’ll have to keep this in mind as I outline. Thanks for posting this! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! That’s a great proverb, and definitely a great illustration of change arcs.

  15. It’s interesting that you referenced Frank Capra’s movies for this post. I recently saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the first time. You’re right. It’s a great movie.

    But the principles for creating a convincing and fluid character arc work for other characters, as well.

    In Mr. Smith, Claude Raines’ character also goes through a character arc and in the same way that Jeff Smith does. In a way, their arcs mirror each other. The more doggedly Jeff Smith clings to his beliefs in lost causes, the more clearly the Raines character is aware that he has lost sight of that fundamental belief. His character arc is the more poignant, I think, because he has a lot more to lose than Jeff Smith.

    Excellent points! Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Indeed–and so does Jean Arthur’s character. Really, Jeff is more of an impact character. He grows into some new truths of his own, but he’s really the one on a flat arc, transforming the characters around him.

  16. Thanks for this post it should help a lot 🙂 Btw I love how you use classic movies for examples. I love classic movies 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, the old classics–especially from the ’30s and ’40s–are just a special brand of storytelling. 🙂

  17. Thank you for another great post on crafting characters. I always enjoy them.

    I’m locked in the “plotting out my path” stage of revisions for my “present” timeline, and I feel a big part of my issue is something I’m forcing that’s contrary to my protagonist’s nature. The Hook of her story is an offer she receives that puts her on the path of adventure and is the first big step in her dream future career in marine archeology. The “conflict” that emerges after is related to the romantic subplot and all the subtext I’m building causes her to question how wise it would be for her to jump into this thing given the romantic interest’s involvement. And I absolutely feel that it WOULD so I’d been gravitating toward that and her considering backing down. But she would absolutely not back down and the “lie” she’s living under is that everything that’s happened between she and her romantic interest in the past is past, it has no bearing on her now, she’s over it.

    Logic dictates that if she’s living under that lie all her actions should reflect that. Meaning she’d throw herself headlong into all of this and making it happen regardless of whatever pain and trouble might be lurking in the future, yada yada, and the change would be when everything does start becoming too much by the end she has to face the truth about everything that happened between them and how she still feels about it.

    Hoping this is the right plan.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In the beginning of the story, the character’s Lie will be primary in her life. The Truth will still be there–somewhere under the surface (maybe right under the surface; maybe very deeply buried), but the Lie takes preeminence throughout the first half of the story (until the Moment of Truth at the Midpoint). So actions in the first half need to be driven by that Lie. Slowly, she grows out of the Lie and into the Truth–until her actions become more Truth-driven in the second half.

      • Thank you for that confirmation. That’s definitely what I’ve wanted to do especially after your past few articles on the subject.

        My issue specifically is…because my original draft has been organized one way for well, 10 years before these past several months, I feel like my protag acting in a way that’s congruent with the lie she believes as well as the truth deep down, takes away from a motivation I developed in my other main player here. It’s sort of a his truth vs her lie sorta situation. Not sure how to play them off each other in the beginning yet.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s one of the tricky parts of having two main characters: their Lies/Truths have to intertwine with and act off the other in some way.

          • Indeed.

            But after thinking on it today, I do believe I have resolved my problem. My misstep was establishing distance in their situation (months of time since they’d seen each other before the Hook, establishing she has a problem with what happened) rather than a shorter period of time, during which the protag is “busy” but maintaining the friendship and forcing herself to accept her reality and live with it. This simple fact changes where I would go with the Inciting Event and the Key Event involving them.

            Thank you for the illumination 🙂 Very timely.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Awesomesauce! Glad you were able to figure it out!

  18. Oh, very useful. Actually in my WIP my protagonist starts resenting something her moher did because she didn´t like the consecuences until she understands her mother did the right thing and that living those consecuences is better tyhan living the previous lie :p Quite literal, lol.

    Thanks and hugs!

    M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s a great example of how character perspectives can necessarily and realistically shift over the course of the story.

  19. I am working on a story where the main character, because of painful loss in the past, starts off believing that there is no meaning to life. However, in the first scene his twin sister is trying to get him to ask out the girl he loves. After her pestering, he tells her that there is only one girl out there for him, and he is afraid to ask her out because he doesn’t want to mistaken her for who he is truly meant to be with. This is a logical contradiction right?

    By the end of the story the main character does accept that life is not meaningless, and that he has some sort of destiny. And during the entire time of fighting the truth he is haunted by how he feels about the girl he is in love with. Is this a believable change?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, very nice. The contrast between meaninglessness and the idea that he’s destined in some way definitely bears some interesting seeds for evolution over the course of the story.

  20. I love reading an article that can make men and women think.

    Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!

  21. Character arcs are something near and dear to my heart. I’ve been working on planning a fanfic series for 3-4 years at this point and there are so many embedded into the fabric that it’s basically a tapestry at this point.
    The biggest arc is Summer’s as it covers a good 8+ years but it makes sense since she’s the thread that holds the entire thing together. She goes from shy and incredibly withdrawn to a haughty know-it-all to humble but impulsive and hotheaded to questioning her entire existence and, finally, to a strong, mature individual that learns to balance emotion and thought. She goes through so many changes you wouldn’t believe she’s the same person, but her core (a very giving, loving, insanely loyal and intense individual) remains the same throughout. She just has to learn how to balance and express everything in a healthy way and it takes a lot of time to do so, but she becomes a truly amazing person for it.

  22. Dear K.M weiland you are the Queen of Novel writing Rules
    AWESOME articles!!!!!!

  23. This was really good and helpful. I’ve been looking for good articles on Character Arcs and I have definitely found “The One”. I’m writing a dystopian coming-of-age story, and I understand that the Character Arc is definitely an important part of coming-of-age. Thank you! God bless you, and have a Merry Christmas!

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