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.
When 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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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
Character 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!
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