crafting stunning character arcs can you structure character

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 1: Can You Structure Characters?

What if there were a sure-fire secret to creating stunning character arcs? Would you be interested in discovering it? If you care about connecting with readers, grabbing hold of their emotions, and creating stories that will resonate with them on a level deeper than mere entertainment, then the answer has to be a resounding yes!

Creating Character ArcsBut here’s the thing about character arcs: they’re way too easy to take for granted. On the surface, character arcs seem to boil down to nothing more than a simple three-step process:

1. The protagonist starts one way.

2. The protagonist learns some lessons throughout the story.

3. The protagonist ends in a (probably) better place.

That’s character arc in a nutshell. Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy. What’s to learn?

Turns out: a lot.

Before and After: How Stories Change Characters infographic

 

(Featured in the Structuring Your Novel Workbook.)

The Link Between Character Arcs and Story Structure

Too often, character and plot are viewed as separate entities—to the point that we often pit them against each other, trying to determine which is more important. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Plot and character are integral to one another. Remove either one from the equation, or even just try to approach them as if they were independent of one another, and you risk creating a story that may have awesome parts, but which will not be an awesome whole.

We often think of plot as being about structure, but our notions of character and character arc tend toward the more airy-fairy. Surely, character arc is something that must evolve organically from the characters themselves. Surely, we can’t structure our character arcs without making them formulaic or robbing them of life and spontaneity.

Surely, right?

Wrong, actually. When we say plot and character are integral to one another, what we’re really saying is that plot structure and character arc are integral to one another. In his classic Story, Robert McKee says:

We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure. They’re the same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other.

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryIf you’re familiar with the basics of story structure (such as I talk about in my book Structuring Your Novel), then you can probably already see some of this structuring of character arc in action (click to a see a visual chart summarizing a story’s structure). The Major Plot Points all revolve around the character’s actions and reactions. As Michael Hauge says in Writing Screenplays That Sell:

The three acts of the [story] correspond to the three stages of the hero’s outer motivation. Each change in the hero’s motivation signals the arrival of the next act.

The character drives the plot, and the plot molds the character’s arc. They cannot work independently.

The Link Between Character Arcs and Theme

But it gets better! Not only does character arc directly influence story structure, it is also a direct influence on theme. In some respects, we might even go so far as to say that character arc=theme.

On even just a surface level, the discovery of the integrality of these three most important of all story elements is thrilling. None of them lives in a vacuum. They are all symbiotic.

This makes the creation of all three both a little more complicated and, at the same time, a whole lot easier. It’s more complicated for the obvious reason that we have three times as many story elements to keep track of at once. But it simplifies the overall process by rolling all three into a cohesive whole. Once we understand how plot, character, and theme all work together, chances are good that, if we get one of them right, we’ll get all three right.

The Three Basic Character Arcs

Although the variations of character arcs are as endless as the vagaries of human nature, we can narrow character arcs down to three basic types, with a few primary variations upon each:

The Change Arc

This is the most popular and often the most resonant character arc. The protagonist will start out with varying levels of personal unfulfillment and denial. Over the course of the story, he will be forced to challenge his beliefs about himself and the world, until finally he conquers his inner demons (and, as a result, probably his outer antagonists as well) and ends his arc having changed in a positive way.

The Flat Arc

Many popular stories feature characters who are already essentially complete unto themselves. They’re already heroes and don’t require any noticeable personal growth to gain the inner strength to defeat the external antagonists. These characters experience little to no change over the course of the story, making their arcs static or “flat.” Sometimes these characters are the catalysts for change in the story world around them, so that we find more prominent growth arcs in the minor characters.

The Negative Arc

Negative character arcs offer, arguably, more variations that either of the other arcs. However, at their most basic level, the Negative Arc is just a Change Arc flipped on its head. Instead of a character who grows out of his faults into a better person, the Negative Arc presents a character who ends up in a worse state than that in which he began the story.

Over the next month or so, we’re going to be exploring the structure of character arcs. Since the basic Change Arc is both the most complicated of the three arcs and the most integral to understanding the other two arcs, we’ll be spending most of the series discussing the intricacies of how to evolve your character in a positive way.

How should we create our characters’ arcs? Where do we find their foundation? How do the important moments in story structure affect (and are affected by) the important moments in character arc? In short, how does character arc work? And how can you crack the code and create a stunning character arc in every single story? Stop in next Sunday to find out!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about the Lie Your Character Believes.

Complete List of Subsequent Posts in This Series:

Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes

Part 3: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

Part 4: Your Character’s Ghost

Part 5: The Characteristic Moment

Part 6: The Normal World

Part 7: The First Act

Part 8: The First Plot Point

Part 9: The First Half of the Second Act

Part 10: The Midpoint

Part 11: The Second Half of the Second Act

Part 12: The Third Plot Point

Part 13: The Third Act

Part 14: The Climax

Part 15: The Resolution

 

Tell me your opinion: Which of the three primary character arcs applies to your current protagonist?

creating stunning character arcs, pt. 1: can you structure character

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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. I think character arcs are one of the most integral parts of any story, but they are difficult to pull off. To me, they present more of a challenge. Especially when the book is largely character-driven (such as mine), you have to make sure that everything ties back to your characters, and show how your characters react/are affected by their world.

    My most recent YA novel had a positive character. Arman pulled out of his mental isolation and reached a more fulfilling lifestyle. In the sequel, however, I’m focusing on the negative character arc of the FMC. I think that will be an even greater challenge than the first book, and as a result, have more impact on the readers.

    I prefer character arc stories. I’m not a fan of stories where the MCs are just in the world and things are happening. In my eyes, to truly resonate with the readers, the characters have to be directly affected. (Strictly speaking from the YA vantage point.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Every type of arc has its purpose, and I appreciate stories that feature all of them. But I’m inclined toward the positive change arcs myself. I like to see characters being transformed by their trials in ultimately positive (if perhaps bittersweet) ways.

  2. I am currently doing a multi-level arc. The primary arc is that of a downfall arc, yet the arc in question produces a positive change within my character.

    The bittersweet arc if you will.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The negative arc has arguably more variations than any of the other arcs and one of them is what you’re calling the bittersweet arc, in which the character doesn’t get the Truth until the very end of the book, when it’s too late to positively affect his fate in the plot. Scarlet O’Hara is a good example.

  3. Finally started this series. (late as usual)
    These days, I am suffering between two of my characters and their arcs. Hopefully this series will shed some light on them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Don’t forget that both characters can have arcs within the same book.

      • Aye aye sir! I am worried about who will be the protag though, both are super cool 🙁

        • Hi Kinza,

          Don’t worry! If you want to choose between them, choose the protagonist who makes the biggest change across the story (ie: has the largest arc).

          Or if you don’t want to choose between them, you can have a dual protagonist story.

          That’s a little trickier, because you have to ensure that the story balances equally between the two of them. You don’t want one to become more interesting than the other. But it sounds like you already find them equally strong.

          And of course each only has half the space to occupy so you must make sure each has twice the impact. But many books do it very well.

          Have fun with it!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          No such thing as too much coolness! It’s possible they might need to share the limelight equally.

          • @Charles Thanks for the advice. I gave it some thought and find out, that both are already having equal limelight in my outlining and project development stages. So maybe, by a little thorough working on my side, I will make them both my protagonist.

            @ KM, after all they are saving the world. It is better than one person alone, fighting the whole universe 😉

  4. “Too often, character and plot are viewed as separate entities—to the point that we often pit them against each other, trying to determine which is more important. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Plot and character are integral to one other.”

    Yes, yes, and more yes! Plot and character go hand in hand. I’m reminded of this wonderful book on crafting characters I read called “The Art of Character” by David Corbett, in which character development is dependent on what question the story raises, i.e. “Can I [the protagonist] get what I want?”, “Who am I?” or “What do I have to change about myself to get what I want?”

    It’s an awesome book, and it’s helped me grasp character so well, and I can’t wait to read more of your posts to help me grasp characters even better 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. WUW: | says:

    […] I highly recommend it. In the last section, when I talked about outlining my characters, I got the idea from this site, as well all that about the Hook, Inciting Event, etc. (That’s awesome because […]

  2. […] struggle that the MC is going through.  If there isn’t one of these in the book, then that’s something that might need changing.  But too often, you just see the character struggling with one particular thing throughout the […]

  3. […] Story Minds – Writing Articles on Character KM Weiland – Character KM Weiland – Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 1: Can You Structure Characters? Writer’s Digest – How To Craft Compelling Characters  Listology – Character […]

  4. […] written previously about character arcs. Well, I felt the need to review my familiarity with my characters’ arcs as I began to think […]

  5. […] Structuring Characters, K.M Weiland […]

  6. […] different ways to accomplish this character arc in your story.  K.M. Weiland, in particular, has a fantastic fifteen-part series on her blog that provides one great way of doing it.  If you’re looking for a shorter look at it, […]

  7. […] Creating a Stunning Character Arc, Part 1: Can You Structure Characters? — This is a long, pretty in depth article with links to an entire series of pretty long, in […]

  8. […] Create Stunning Character Arcs  I started here, and I’m glad I did. A detailed series that does exactly as it promises: teaches you how to use character arc as the structural foundation of your novel. The questions at the end are invaluable. […]

  9. […] K.M. Weiland’s series is a good resource for this and I’ve found it extremely helpful as I write this (hopefully last!) draft.  Don’t just have a hero doing hero-y things and ending as a hero.  Let him grow from weak to strong.  Show her development.  Challenge him.  Bring him or her to the depths of despair, and pour more despair on top, before letting them rise from the ashes. […]

  10. […] thematic question, deep three dimensional characters, with a change arc. Authorial responsibilities are just as much in comedy as in any genre, in fact more. You even have […]

  11. […] Character Arcs 1 | Helping Writers Become Authors […]

  12. […] Struktur sind: Nicht vergessen, dass es nicht nur die dramatische Handlung gibt, sondern auch die innere Handlung der Figuren. Die Wendepunkte der dramatischen Handlung sollten zumindest gut auf die persönlichen Wendepunkte […]

  13. […] A story can still be good without this element, but it’s my opinion, and the opinion of many tenured authors, that it is vital to a great story. And isn’t that the point of this creative field, to […]

  14. […] Die innere Handlung der Figuren gut auf die Wendepunkte der dramatischen Handlung anpassen. Dadurch erscheint der Einsatz in dem […]

  15. […] positive change arc (in which the character evolves into a better or more whole person over the course of the […]

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