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. Nice series. Trying to slowly digest the character arc subject matter.
    Enjoyed the symbiotic relationship between character, plot and theme. The Major plot points consisting of the MC’s reactions and actions was also a plus.

    Thanks!

  2. Thank you for the information. It’s very useful. I like the idea of character arcs when boiled down in this way, because, when used correctly, they are seeds planted in a plot and ready to grow.

    You graphic is flip-flopped, though. The picture accompanying The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations? Switched.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Wow. You’re right! You’re the first person to catch that. Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll have to correct that in the workbook as well.

      • No problem. Thank you for a wonderful website to study and browse through!

        • David, I don’t know where, but somewhere, a college maybe, an instructor is repeating your line. “They are seeds planted in a plot and ready to grow.” The instructor smile slightly out of the corner of their mouth, not claiming it to be his, but not denying it either. And the students, ooh and ahh.

  3. After reading your excellent series, I’m still not sure what character arc my protagonist has. She isn’t in denial about a Lie at the beginning, so by your definition it’s not a growth arc; but she gets abducted and tortured (in a way – it’s fantasy, so the “torture” is done by magic) and when she is able to escape, she’s definitely not in the same happy place as in the beginning. For the rest of the story, she is seeking a way to undo what has been done to her, finds out that it’s impossible and then needs to find a way to integrate these changes to become a functional person again. If you strip away the fantasy trappings, this could be the character arc of a crime victim or someone with an incurable illness, and I wonder what kind of arc these stories have. My character isn’t very different in the end, personality-wise, she’s simply too stubborn to give up. But all the ups and downs in between make me doubt that she has a flat arc.

  4. I’d love to see a book on character arcs! Nice job!

    I have a question about several arcs in one story.

    If the protagonist is following a flat arc, it seems obvious someone else have to follow another arc. I assume a positive one.

    Or can a flat arc protagonist have an antagonist following a negative arc? (E.g. president Snow in The Hunger Games, following what I’d guess would be a Fall arc? He does after all fall…)

    However when it comes to positive and negative arcs I feel in most cases you have a positive/negative protagonist, and not so much other development.

    Or could you view people close to the positive/negative protagonist as following a flat arc? (Although that would have to be without the testing? Unless you view the negative protagonist’s downfall a test?)

    Or can you have several different arcs in the same story?

    And if so, do you have examples of books/movies where this happens?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Your instincts are spot on. I’ll direct you to this post, since it answers most of your questions: “Should All Your Minor Characters Have Arcs?

      And, as a matter of fact, I have the first printed version of the rough draft of a character arcs book sitting in front of me right now!

      • Thank you!

        Ummm I clearly remember reading that article a while ago… Ahem! *reading again* I’m back, it answers my question very clearly (when you really read it) Hah!

        I’m thrilled to hear about the book! Good luck.

      • K.M. , When you gather your notes on different character arcs and present them to other authors and there is an overall agreement on them and their function would they then be considered ‘arcs of the covenant?’ These questions haunt me at night.

  5. Hugo T. Williams says

    Great information! Thank you for making the character arc lessons and outlines available!

    Just an FYI, I think two of the photos on your character arc page are transposed (The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations.)

    All the best,

    HTW

  6. The images for The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations should be switched so they’re correctly placed by the right titles. It drives me crazy each time I return to this article and notice it all over again, haha.

  7. You have some nice info graphics for how to structure a story, but I’m having trouble applying these to that checklist. Do you have any graphics for structure that include the character arcs?

  8. K.M. great series as always! Could this “Creating Stunning Character Arcs” series fall in line with developing the antagonist also? I read a post that you suggest starting with the antagonist.

  9. Is there much or any difference between the contents of these articles and the Creating Character Arcs book?

  10. Mustafa Awad says

    Hey – just discovered this website and wanted to say how grateful I am to the author/creator for the exceptionally useful tips on this page. I’m working on my first novel and cannot tell you how helpful this has all been. Thanks. Mustafa

  11. Greetings KM,
    At first I wasn’t sure if my protag needed THE LIE. But it didn’t make sense to have a well structured plot propelled by a nebulous character. THE LIE gave my character direction as well as depth. I like handling writing as a craft, deciding which tools and parts to use and pulling them all together.

  12. Hi, I was wondering whether the lie needs to theme specific?
    For example, in the script that I am rewriting my protagonist believes that his friend was killed for a random reason by a random group of people.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the Lie will define your story’s theme and should be what every aspect of the story (plot, character, theme) revolves around.

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

    My drafts are proof of this statement. The plot is dictated by what my characters do. (This is the reason why planning doesn’t work well for me.)

  14. I want to thank you for this amazing resource.

    I did a bit of a video comparing two characters from two different video games using this, showing how one was a definite change arc (Arthur Morgan from RDR2, going from a common criminal to confronting his own mortality and turning a new leaf after contracting TB), and Commander Shepard, from Mass Effect, static arc, where people were growing more than they were.

    My story will definitely be a change arc as well, I always planned it out like that, but your page will be a great resource to get me to focus on some major points and think about how things are going to go.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 2. Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 1: Can You Structure Characters? by K.M. Weiland […]

  2. […] Can you Structure Characters? (First of all, this blog is one of my favorite writing blogs to read. Here she talks about the relationship between Character Arcs, plot, and themes and then talks about three types of arcs.) […]

  3. […] As K.M. Weiland advises, when you have a flat character arc, you can create variation and interest by giving your secondary characters their own developments. This creates contrast and stops your fictional world from feeling populated by cardboard cutout stock characters. […]

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

  5. […] suggest you check out K.M. Welland’s Creating Stunning Character Arcs series starting here. It really helped me figure out my character and how she needed to grow, as well as figuring out […]

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