Change Is Key to Powerful Character Arcs

Create Powerful Character Arcs in 6 Steps

Create Powerful Character Arcs in 6 StepsThe secret to a memorable character isn’t so much creating a strong personality as it is creating a strong character arc. You can come up with the most entertaining, marvelous characters imaginable, but unless you also give them powerful character arcs, their stories will lack depth and power.

Anatomy of Story John TrubyCharacter arcs are fundamentally about change. You can chart a character’s arc through the progression of the story by comparing his personality, his behavior, his personal values, and his beliefs at the beginning and end of the book. How have they changed? In his fabulous book The Anatomy of Story, script consultant John Truby explains:

True character change involves a challenging and changing of basic beliefs, leading to new moral action by the hero.

Creating Character Arcs

6 Ingredients of Powerful Character Arcs

As I discuss in detail in my book Creating Character Arcs, crafting powerful character arcs requires several important ingredients:

1. Who Is Your Character in the Beginning?

Start out with a clear idea of who the character is at the beginning of the novel. What does he care about? What does he believe? How does he behave in certain situations?

2. What Flaws Must Your Character Overcome?

Usually (but not always) a main character’s arc will show him growing into a better person. That means he has to begin from a place of imperfection or incompleteness.

3. How Can You Show Your Character’s Mistakes?

Give the reader concrete examples throughout the book, but particularly early on, of the behavior and beliefs that the character needs to change.

4. What Tools Will Your Character Need in Order to Change?

Growth needs to be slow and steady throughout the middle of the book. Give the character the tools he needs to improve himself. This can come in the form of a mentor’s advice or even just the character’s actions creating a situation he recognizes as untenable.

5. How Can You Harmonize the Outer and Inner Climax?

Save the moment of revelation so it coincides with the emotional and physical climax. This isn’t always possible, but when you can bring the climaxes of the outer and inner journeys together, the result is explosive.

6. How Is Your Character a Different Person in the End?

Prove the character’s inner changes through his actions. It’s not enough to have him vow to be a better person; he has to prove it to the reader. Sometimes you can find a nice parallelism by reversing his earlier actions. If he was cruel to a bum on the street in an early scene, perhaps he could go out of his way to buy a meal for a bum at the end of the story.

The character’s outer journey—his progression through the story, one domino at a time—comprises the plot. It’s possible to write a story that consists entirely of the outer journey. But unless the character also makes an inner journey, the story will lack weight and resonance. We read because we want to vicariously experience exciting adventures, but the stories we most remember are those that also resonate with the deep, ever-changing human core we all share.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are some of the most powerful character arcs you’ve read? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. This is very helpful. I’m on the plot revision and next up is character – hard to separate at this point but this helps…
    thanks.

  2. Ultimately, plot and character *can’t* be separated. Take one from the other, and you have no story. But it is often helpful to look at them separately when revising.

  3. Thanks for all the great tips! I’ll definitely have to hammer this out during my revision.

  4. Character arc is one of most exciting parts to work on , IMO. Have fun!

  5. My WIP is taking a drastic turn from the original map. I can only hope my characters know what’s best, because I’m following their lead.

    Anyway, a character I’d originally created for a minor part will grow and change. I have different plans for this character now, and I think the story will be better because of it.

  6. I love it when minor characters morph into more than I expected. Always a thrill ride!

  7. My character arc in WIP was there before the plot arc. So I fit the incidents to what needed to happen to the MC, not the other way around.

  8. Character and plot arc is often (but not always) a symbiotic dance for me. I find it much easier to fit the plot to the character, rather than vice versa.

  9. K.M., this is a critical post for a writer to consider. I think an outline really helps in ensuring your character is meeting obstacles and changing as a result of them throughout your story. I am reading a book now where the MC is very unlikable at the beginning. What keeps me reading is the small changes I see in her character, making her more likable as the story progresses. May we link this post for our blog’s Friday round-up? You’ve provided such excellent advice here!

    Thanks so much!
    Marissa

  10. Link away – and thank you!

    I’m firmly in the outline camp myself, but I know SOTP writers who do a marvelous job of strengthening character arc in the revision stages.

  11. This was a really great, concise post that illuminates a lot about a difficult writing challenge. Thank you for posting it! I’ve linked to it on my Facebook writing coach page.

  12. Glad you found it helpful. Thanks so much for the link!

  13. I have a question related to “Behold the Dawn”:

    How did you publish it?

  14. What a fantastic post! I think Truby’s quote about story arc for the MC is one of the most succint I’ve read.

    This entire post is really hepful and I have a feeling I’m going to be referring back to it soon!

  15. I can’t recommend Truby’s work enough. His book The Anatomy of Story is way at the top of my list of must-read writing books.

  16. Great post!

  17. Thanks for commenting!

  18. Great capture of some excellent points! I read the first 100 pages of this book over the weekend, and it is revolutionizing the way I approach writing. Wish I woulda read it before I began this MS, but it’s just in time for Major Revision #1.

  19. Great post and very timely for me! I’ve been really struggling with making my MC more interesting but I think what I really need is to simply make it clearer what she believes and SHOW it to the reader.

  20. @KC: I read it just in time for the major revision of my fantasy WIP. Helped me immensely through a rough revision.

    @Cindy: Show vs. tell is such an inherent tenet of good fiction, but it’s so easy to not even realize where we’ve let it lapse. Character is one of those areas, I think, where we tend to expect readers to love our characters without always giving them a good reason to maintain interest.

  21. Oh that makes me excited. This is next in line in my pile of craft books, but I haven’t gotten to it just yet. I also love Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

  22. First I’ve heard of Dixon’s book. Sounds excellent though. I’ll have to look it up!

  23. Great post! Thank you for getting me to think about the arc again, sometimes I get into the story so much I lose track of where the character is going. Great info ;o)

  24. It’s definitely easy to lose sight of the arc’s big picture because we’re absorbed in the minutiae of scenes and dialogue and setting and half a dozen other things. One of the tricks that always helps me pull back and see the big picture is stopping every fifty pages, printing off the manuscript, and reading it over.

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