7 Growth Milestones to Build a Character Arc

From KMW: On the one hand, deciding how to build a character arc is pretty simple: the character changes, the end. On the other hand, building a character arc can often seem monumentally overwhelming. How can we possibly take so nuanced and complex an experience as personal change and convey it realistically through the events of a story?

As you all know, I love tools that help writers zoom out to look at the big picture, allowing us to break down the complexity of creating a story into simpler categories. Today, I’m pleased to share with you a guest post from Becca Puglisi, of Writers Helping Writers and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus, that offers an accessible tool for creating, enhancing, and guiding your characters’ Positive Change Arcs.

She starts out with a handy list of opportunities to help you show how your character has or not changed, then shares the technique of using “emotional amplifiers” to catalyze character growth through dramatic story situations. Read on to find out all about it!

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While there are many kinds of stories, most of them today are about a protagonist navigating a change or growth arc. In this model, the character undergoes a personal journey of evolution; they realize their hurts, habits, or hang-ups are keeping them from success and, over time, adopt healthier responses and behaviors that enable them to achieve their story goal and become fulfilled.

Now, this isn’t a straightforward process. It’s a two-steps-forward-one-step-back journey that requires a lot of difficulties and poor choices before the character realizes the need for change. As authors, we put a ton of thought into planning and incorporating those conflict scenarios.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

What we don’t spend so much time on is the second half of the arc, when growth is underway.

Once characters decide to change course, they’ll start moving in the right direction. But they won’t always stay on the straight and narrow. Their old responses may be ineffective, but they’re comfortable and familiar. And change is hard. So the path to success (or failure, if your story showcases a Negative Arc) will be messy, alternating between forward progress and regression.

Growth should happen gradually, and readers need to see this because it provides hope the character could actually succeed. Luckily, there are many growth milestones—changes in the character’s responses—you can include in your story to show they’re evolving.

7 Possible Growth Indicators to Build a Character Arc

1. Trying a New Response

As the characters realize their old ways are inadequate or even harmful, they’ll become desperate enough to try something new. The outcome may be positive, ineffective, or mixed, but it doesn’t matter. Just the act of stepping out of their comfort zones and taking a risk is a sign growth is happening.

2. Recognizing Landmines

In the past, the characters failed to spot danger until it was too late, and they suffered terribly. The upside of this experience is they’ve learned to be attentive and prepare more thoroughly. If something happens now, they can react from a place of strength, better positioned to save themselves from preventable fallout.

3. Setting Boundaries

The characters see how their inability to say no in the past generated unwanted results. Setting reasonable boundaries now to protect themselves is an indicator they’re becoming more self-aware and are willing to make hard choices.

4. Asking for Help

Some trials are too difficult to navigate solo—a lesson that a stubborn, independent, or untrusting character may have to learn the hard way. Once they do, however, the desire to avoid needless suffering teaches them to recognize when they need help, and by asking for it, they demonstrate maturity.

5. Choosing Positivity

If characters tend to be negative, show growth by shifting their mindset. This could mean they focus on strengths instead of weaknesses, engage in positive self-talk, or practice gratitude. Transformation typically begins in the mind, so even a small change, like finding the silver lining in a bad situation, shows readers that change is underway.

6. Regulating Emotions

Self-control is a major aspect of emotional maturity. Things are simple when life is peachy but become harder when conflict rears its head. Recalling the problems that were caused by a past loss of emotional control in the face of difficulty may encourage characters to restrain themselves this time around.

7. Not Giving Up

The journey to change is hard, with the characters getting knocked down repeatedly. At first, they may not get up right away; they’ll retreat to their old ways because they don’t want to be hurt again. But struggling back to their feet and pushing forward is a sign they realize the value of internal change and are willing to take risks to achieve it.

Use an Emotion Amplifier to Show Progress and Build the Character Arc

The above are just a few ways you can show your characters’ development, and you’ll need to use many of them throughout the story because evolution is an active process. The characters will need to choose, over and over, if they want to take risks and pursue change or cling to their status quo. It’s up to us to provide those opportunities and position the characters for growth. How do we do that, exactly?

Emotion amplifiers are perfect for this because the characters’ responses to these challenging situations will highlight their growth (or lack thereof).

Amplifiers are states or conditions—such as bereavement, attraction, and isolation—that activate characters’ emotions and increase the chances of them reacting impulsively rather than carefully. As a result, they often lead to mishaps and mistakes that create more problems. But they can also be used to show that change is happening.

For Example: Let’s look at one character’s growth journey fueled by an unsettling amplifier that everyone has faced: indecision.

Amir is a recent university graduate with great job prospects. Three companies have offered him positions that would kick-start his career in biometrics—exciting but nerve-racking, because it’s such a big decision. It doesn’t help that one of his classmates is a few weeks into her first job and already regrets her choice.

With each passing day, Amir grows more conflicted, unable to choose. He has trouble sleeping, and his temper flares at the smallest thing. His girlfriend, tired of getting her head bitten off, has had enough and calls it quits. Then, after weeks of waffling, the most promising offer is rescinded, leaving Amir with the two least favorable options.

Here, we see Amir’s default responses to indecision, and they’re not doing him any favors. As readers witness his reactions, they’ll know exactly how Amir will have to change if he’s going to thrive. We can create opportunities for him to do better and show his evolution by hitting him with the same amplifier later in the story.

For Example:

Fast forward six months, and Amir is facing indecision again—this time, regarding his living situation. A big rent increase is coming, so he must choose to remain in a cramped, expensive apartment near his friends or relocate to a more affordable place closer to work. The hold on the new apartment expires in a few days; as the deadline looms, his old insecurities and panic rise.

Once more, everything seems to set Amir off. He becomes aware of how often he’s apologizing for being a jerk, and he remembers what that cost him last time. His decision paralysis is familiar, too; it cheated him out of a great job opportunity before, and he doesn’t want that to happen again. He realizes he must change the way he responds to indecision, so he sits down and creates a list of pros and cons for moving. An obvious choice emerges, and he informs his current landlord that he’ll be gone at the end of the month.

The first time around, Amir flounders and flails. But the second time he faces indecision, armed with hindsight and a new sense of self-awareness, he rises to the occasion.

There are other ways to highlight growth, but I find amplifiers to be effective because of their universal nature. Readers are familiar with indecision. They’ve all struggled with it to varying degrees at multiple times in their lives. They know the intensely uncomfortable feelings associated with facing a difficult decision, and they know the fallout that occurs when an important choice is put off—or when the wrong choice is made. Readers will feel for Amir because they’ve been in his shoes.

Amplifiers also work even when they’re unfamiliar. Readers don’t have to experience addiction or compulsion to empathize with characters who are enduring them. Readers will see the pattern of dysfunctional reactions, how they create conflict and push the characters’ goals out of reach, and they’ll notice the shift in mindset and responses that signal change for the better.

When you need to show a character’s growth, consider employing an amplifier. (At Writers Helping Writers, we’ve got a list to kickstart the brainstorming process.) As your characters evolve, use the growth markers above to highlight their forward progress.

For more information on amplifiers and how they can encourage character growth (and steer story structure, generate conflict and tension…the list goes on!), keep an eye out for the 2nd edition of The Emotion Amplifier Thesaurus, releasing on May 13th.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What other markers can we use to build a character arc? Tell me in the comments!

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About Becca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 1 million copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by U.S. universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that's home to the Character Builder and Storyteller's Roadmap tools.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Becca!

  2. beccapuglisi says

    I know how busy you are, so I appreciate you squeezing me in!

  3. A great concept you have here, thanks for the article.

    I’ve always found one emotion amplifier particularly effective: illness. Most chronic diseases have emissions and exacerbations, and that does not only cause significant stress for a character at the wrong time, but it may also paralyze them with fear of its impact even when it’s controllable.

    It’s a foe that will strike when you least expect it so the threat is always there above your head.

    • beccapuglisi says

      I love the universal nature of this amplifer, because it can strike literally anyone, anywhere. It can work in so many scenarios and for all different characters.

    • Great thinking, but make sure you do your research. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, which strikes very predictably – every autumn, then goes away by the end of spring. If someone has Williams Syndrome, on the other hand, it’s on every moment, but might abate as they age.

  4. Thank you Katy for having Becca join you today. I’ve got almost all of Becca’s books. There was one she only availed to us as an ebook. I’m wondering if she’ll ever make it a paperback like the rest of them. I glean from them quite often. Thanks again. Melody

  5. One emotion amplifier I like is exhaustion, especially at the end of a story. The character’s been dragged backward through trial after tribulation. He’s beat up, tired, sweaty, and just wants to take a bath and go to bed. Does he now have the strength to make a difficult choice? This is when we find out what people are made of.

    On another note, can you stack positive and negative growth milestones meaningfully? One of my protagonists is a habitual liar – he’ll tell anybody anything to make them listen to him, then if that doesn’t work, resort to threats. In the second half of my story, I had him tell someone the truth to get her to join his team, then when she laughed in his face, start threatening her. My critique partner commented that the turnaround seemed too sudden, so I’ve been thinking about how to improve it. Any suggestions on layering/pacing the “two steps forward, one step back” thing? Thanks!

    • Rayanne Robison says

      If the character switching from truth-telling to violence feels too sudden, I can see two possible reasons: A) We haven’t actually seen this character resort to threatening enough in previous places. or B) The pattern of “first lie, then threaten” has been so firmly established that his first fallback should be lying, not threatening, because you’ve established in the mind of the reader that threatening is always his “last” resort.
      Hope this helps.

  6. Kyrie Wang says

    Loved this article, it was very helpful to me!

  7. Really like this, Becca!

  8. I’ve be using (religiously?) the Thesaurus’ from Writers Helping Writers for the past two years. My critique groups have noticed the elevation in my writing and descriptive skills. I recommend them to all writers. They are the best investment I can think of to improve your craft.

  9. Thank you for sharing! Great information.

  10. Our character is going through a growth arc across the book and is attempting to change. Can The attempt to change be talked about by some of the characters or should it happen in an unspoken fashion?

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