crafting stunning character arcs the characteristic moment

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 5: The Characteristic Moment

First impressions do count. And your protagonist’s Characteristic Moment is his first chance to impress your readers. Now that we’ve got the basic theory of character arc out of the way and figured out how to set up your protagonist’s inner conflict, via the Lie He Believes, the Thing He Wants and the Thing He Needs, and the Ghost, we’re ready to officially begin writing our character’s story.

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryThe structure of character arc begins with the Characteristic Moment. Throughout the rest of this series we’ll be aligning the major moments in the character arc with the major structural plot points. (If you’re unfamiliar with the basics of story structure, you may find my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story a helpful foundation for what we’ll be discussing in the rest of this series.) The Characteristic Moment (and the Normal World, which we’ll discuss next week) align with the Hook. It shows up the moment your protagonist does—presumably in the first chapter.

Creating Character ArcsIn real life, people may be cautioned against make snap decisions about others, based on first impressions. But, face it: we do. And we’re even less likely to feel conscientious about our judgments when reading fiction. We’ve just opened a book. We’ve never read this author before. We have no idea whether it’s going to live up to its awesome back-cover blurb and prove worthy of our time. Then here comes the protagonist, prancing onstage. What’s he doing? What’s his personality? Does he seem like someone we’re going to end up liking? Does he seem interesting? If not, we’re already halfway to closing the book.

In short, a failed Characteristic Moment can very likely mean a failed story.

Your Protagonist’s Characteristic Moment

The Characteristic Moment has to accomplish several tasks. It has to:

  • Introduce your protagonist.
  • (Probably) reveal your protagonist’s name.
  • Indicate your protagonist’s gender, age, nationality, and possibly his occupation.
  • Indicate important physical characteristics.
  • Indicate his role in the story (i.e., that he is the protagonist).
  • Demonstrate the prevailing aspect of his personality.
  • Hook readers’ sympathy and/or their interest.
  • Show the protagonist’s scene goal.
  • Indicate the protagonist’s story goal.
  • Demonstrate, or at least hint at, the protagonist’s Lie.
  • Influence the plot, preferably directly, but at the very least in a way that foreshadows later events.

This is quite a hefty checklist for the first scene of your story (especially when you add in related structural requirements). No wonder beginnings are so tough! The Characteristic Moment is a work of art. We can’t be content to open with our character doing any ol’ thing. We have to select an event that will:

  • Make the protagonist appealing to readers.
  • Introduce both his strengths and his weaknesses
  • Build the plot

Convince Readers to Invest in Your Character

Even distilled down to these three aspects, the Characteristic Moment is still tricky. We need to indicate the character’s “lack”—the problems in his life caused by the Lie—as soon as possible. But we don’t want to focus too heavily on the character’s negative aspects right away. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hauge reinforces:

 You must establish identification with your hero before revealing major flaws that could reduce sympathy.

If your character’s arc is all about him growing into courage, honesty, and selflessness, then he’s going to have to start out as less than brave, truthful, or generous. But if we tried to open most stories with a selfish, cowardly liar, most readers probably wouldn’t be hooked. And yet, what other kind of Characteristic Moment suggests itself for such a character? We have to indicate his problems, so we can prove how he’s changed by the end of the story, right?

Absolutely. But our foremost job is hooking readers. If you intend your character to be generally likeable, despite his faults, start with that. What do you like about him? What scene can you craft to highlight that? He doesn’t even have to be nice in this scene; he just has to be interesting. Ron Clement and Jon Musker’s Treasure Planet opens with its rebellious teenage protagonist demonstrating his skills and courage aboard his “solar surfer.” Jon Turteltaub’s The Kid opens with its protagonist acting like a complete jerk, but his snide comments are so nasty (and accurate) that viewers can’t look away.

Create a Memorable Scene

Think big. If your character’s chief virtue is his compassion, don’t just settle for having him pat a stray dog. Have him run into NYC traffic just to cross the street and see why a little girl is crying. If he’s known for his bravado, don’t just have him strut down the street. Have him pick a fight with five toughs—and win (or nearly).

Optimally, you’ll be able to work your character’s Lie right into the Characteristic Moment. But sometimes doing so just won’t be possible. We can only keep so many balls in the air while still maintaining logic within the plot. In these instances, you may have to postpone the introduction of the Lie until you’ve crossed off your list a few of your beginning’s other requirements. But you’re always going to want to introduce the Lie as quickly as possible. The Lie frames your character arc—and thus your entire story. Readers need to see proof of your character’s weakness, so they’ll understand what he has to overcome.

What Is a Characteristic Moment?

Your protagonist’s Characteristic Moment could manifest as:

  • A vow, as a child, to be like his father and grow up to “fight them all,” and then, as an adult, a cocky display on his way to being announced heir to the throne—which illustrates key personality traits, the effects of the Lie, and the Thing He Wants Most (story goal). (Thor)
  • A lonely moment, banned from the family circle, spent reading, and then a refusal to submit to her cousin’s unjust cruelty—which illustrates both the Ghost and key personality traits. (Jane Eyre)
  • An on-the-job demonstration of his cranky inability to live in the modern world and his dislike of kids—which illustrates key personality traits, the Lie, and the Thing He Wants Most. (Jurassic Park)
  • A distrust of his mother’s promises and a fearful attitude toward everything (especially pigs)—which illustrates the Lie, the Thing He Wants Most, and the personal weakness he will have to overcome. (Secondhand Lions)
  • A montage showing him being lovingly played with by Andy, and then, once he’s “awake,” a calm and organized leadership of the other toys—which illustrates the Thing He Wants Most and key personality traits. (Toy Story)
  • A cynical, but obviously intelligent, response to babysitting a reporter—which illustrates the Ghost and key personality traits. (Three Kings)
  • A grudging retreat from false accusations—which illustrates the Lie and the Thing He Wants Most. (Green Street Hooligans)
  • A hilariously neurotic morning routine—which illustrates the Thing He Wants Most and key personality traits. (What About Bob?)

Note that some Characteristic Moments are double-sided. Thor’s Characteristic Moment takes place in a two-part series of scenes, the first of which is part of a prologue and shows him as a child. Just as with Treasure Planet, which also starts with a childhood prologue, the character has to be reestablished in his “true normal” as an adult with a second Characteristic Moment.

In Jane Eyre and Toy Story, we see how we can use not just a single Characteristic Moment, but several to prove different aspects of our characters. Jane shows us two sides of her personality—first her lonely, but contented introversion, then her defiant and spirited refusal to be trampled upon. Because of the constraints of Toy Story’s logic, in which the toys must be passive and still when humans are present, Woody’s love for Andy is primarily shown through Andy’s love for him. This is the most important aspect of the story, but we’re also then given a prime example of Woody’s able leadership of the other toys, once he “wakes up” in Andy’s absence.

Further Examples of the Characteristic Moment

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Scrooge is introduced in a lengthy “telling” segment (not recommended for modern books), in which the author flat-out tells readers certain important facts about Scrooge’s miserliness and general lack of the milk of human kindness. By the time we reach Scrooge’s first dramatized scene, we already have a pretty clear picture of his personality. That picture is further emphasized when we enter his frigid counting house (heated by a “very small fire” and his employee Bob Cratchit’s single coal) and proceeds to reject his nephew’s kindhearted Christmas invitation by telling him precisely what he thinks of the holiday and its goodwill toward men. Readers immediately get a sense of Scrooge’s crabby personality, his incisive wit, his Lie (which he basically spells out), and his story goal of making as much money as possible.

Cars directed by John Lasseter: Lightning McQueen’s intro comes by way of his verbalized pre-race routine, in which he claims, “I am speed” and “I eat losers for breakfast.” He then demonstrates his sizable skills, as well as his disdain for his pit crew, in the lengthy race segment that opens the movies. Viewers are given further info, via the commentators, who reinforce Lightning’s Lie by revealing he’s already fired three pit crew chiefs because “he says he likes working alone.” In this extended opening, viewers learn all they need to know about Lightning: his good points (his racing skills), his Lie, and the Thing He Wants Most (the Piston Cup).

Questions to Ask About Your Characteristic Moment

1. What important personality trait, virtue, or skill best sums up your protagonist?

2. How can you dramatize this trait to its fullest extent?

3. How can you dramatize this trait in a way that also introduces the plot?

4. How can you demonstrate your protagonist’s belief in his Lie?

5. Can you reveal or hint at his Ghost?

6. How can you use this scene to reveal your character’s overall story goal—the Thing He Wants Most?

7. Does your protagonist’s pursuit of both the story goal and the scene goal meet with an obvious obstacle (i.e., conflict)?

8. How can you share important details about your protagonist (name, age, physical appearance) quickly and unobtrusively?

Don’t settle for anything less than spectacular for your Characteristic Moment. This is your opportunity to create a fun and effective scene that will introduce readers to your character in a way they’ll never forget—and won’t be able to look away from.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about introducing your character’s Normal World.

Read Previous Posts in This Series:

Part 1: Can You Structure Character?

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

Tell me your opinion: What characteristic moment opens your story?

Creating Stunning Character Arcs: The Characteristic Moment

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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.


  1. Hi Katie! I’m new to this whole planning thing (have always been a mostly-pantser, which is fine for short stories but hell for long form!). After trying and trying and trying to properly outline a story, I’d almost given up… then I found your website and wow! With your help, *finally* I’m getting somewhere.

    I’m stuck on my MC’s characteristic moment though. Though he secretly wants nothing more than to be loved (want), he’s convinced he is unloveable (lie). This has led to a big dose of imposter syndrome and avoidant tendencies. The novel will show him transform into an active participant in his own life.

    How can I show his “characteristic moment” if he begins the story as, well, kind of unexciting? Do I need to give him some kind of engaging, passionate trait? He loves music so I thought showing him at a concert could be interesting but I’m not sure how to emphasise his passivity without boring the reader to tears.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Characteristic moments have to be balanced with the needs of the Hook in the beginning of the story. Start by taking a look at where your plot wants to start. What is your character doing and how can you make it the best representation of him and his Lie?

  2. Robert Plowman says

    Thank you, KM, for your quick response to my last question. On this topic, is there a reason NOT to use the characteristic moment as the hook?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I always find it ideal to open with the best characteristic moment as part of the initial plot hook. However, there will be times when this isn’t possible due to plot constraints. In those instances, the characteristic moment can be introduced in a subsequent scene.

  3. Hello on this article now!

    I am struggling with my opening (really who isn’t amirite?) and Normal World vs Characteristic Moment and the goal of driving the plot forward.

    I have two main characters to introduce at the beginning. Their Normal Worlds are entirely separate, but the REAL plot doesn’t begin until they meet (the Inciting Incident). Originally I planned to start out my story with this meeting – it’s got good opportunities for Characteristic Moments, an interesting hook, and it would immediately kick off the plot. Trouble is, I would have to turn around and backtrack to introduce their Normal Worlds before they disrupted each other’s lives, either with an awkwardly placed scene or sprinkled throughout among other, more important backstory reveals, both of which seem forced to me.

    My other choice is to begin with two, short Normal World introductory scenes, with immediate character hooks/Characteristic Moments that reveal the major conflicts and contradictions of the characters. I like this option the best – it gives a quick glimpse of the setting (alien world) and snippets of the daily life of these two very different people, before organically and chronologically bringing them together. It would also allow the Really Important Backstory moments a chance to stand on their own without unnecessary setup involved. Problem is, the two scenes would not be strictly plot-related beyond introducing the inner character conflicts, since the involvement in the main story doesn’t begin until the characters meet.

    TL;DR is setting up the internal arc of my characters (Lie vs Truth) considered “moving the plot forward”? Or does a lack of relevance to the external conflict stagnate my story from the beginning?

    Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s great when you can open with the kind of characteristic scenes you’ve mentioned, but they do need to move the plot in some way by dominoing into the events of later scenes.

      • Hmm maybe end both opening scenes with my characters headed to the location of the meeting? I’ve also been thinking of ways I can hint at the external conflict they will both be pulled into once they meet…The story I’m writing is going to be a comic, so I have the opportunity to drop in some purely visual hints as well!

  4. How is this for a characteristic moment? (Hope you don’t mind profanity):

    So, you want to hear my story, huh? Well, normally I don’t like telling people about my personal bullshit, but fuck it, my reputation has already been turned to shit in the eyes of everyone except my friends and family. Fuck, even the The Wall Street Journal hates me, and any true leftist will tell you how much they like licking the rich’s toenails. I want to be pissed off about how shitty this treatment is, but I know it’s my fault for being such an asshole.

    Let me start from the beginning. I’m Brooke Allis, daughter of Morgan Stanley investment bank director Edward Allis. Some people might assume that this means that I’m a gorgeous glamor queen who gives too much of a shit about my appearance and parties more than I breathe oxygen. In reality, I have acne same as any other high schooler, dress like an emo kid, and spend most of my time hanging out with a few friends or reading books.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good voice! I’d be careful about monologuing too much in the beginning rather than “showing” via action, but other than that it looks good.

  5. Hey, KM, here’s my draft: her Lie is “there is no happiness in her life”, and she wanted to “get the happiness that everyone wants (for example, when she was at middle school, she wanted to become rank 1 that every students wanted)”, her ghost is “her family is strict in raising her”. And finally come to this part. My characteristic moment is “her unparalleled intelligence in school and her fear of demands and prohibitions from her family”. Is this characteristic moment suitable with the three parts before?

    • updated characteristic moment (cause I found the first one weird enough): her unparalleled intelligence in school and her fear of violating the demands and prohibitions of her family

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        That’s good as long as you’re dramatizing it in a scene that illustrates all these things, rather than simply telling readers about them.

  6. I’m not working on it 100% right now, just outlining it here and there when I get an idea, but one of my historical WIPs involves the protagonist, Catherine, wanting to either die or kill her father, so she could finally be spared the pain of being unloved and unwanted.

    Does that count as a CM? It kinda sounds like one.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It certainly provides the subtext for a Characteristic Moment. But in itself, it’s just information about the character. A Characteristic Moment should be a scene in which this information is dramatized (e.g., she’s actually trying to kill her father).

  7. (I’m not a native English speaker, so apologies for bad grammar!)
    Hi, thanks for the amazing articles!

    I have a question about the characteristic moment.
    If there are other characters besides the protagonist in this part of the story(which I think there always or almost always are, right?), should all of those characters be relevant to the plot, or can some characters just only appear in one scene. For example:
    The protagonist gets bullied to show the reader core personality traits of the protagonist. Should the bullies in this scene be relevant to the plot, even if the story isn’t about bullying at all? A second question: Should these personality traits even be shown this way if the story isn’t about bullying at all. Like, let’s say it’s a space adventure or something completely unrelated to bullying.
    I hope my question makes sense and thank you so much for taking your time to read my comment!


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s always preferable that any story elements introduced in the first chapter either play a role in the later plot–or at least symbolize or foreshadow later developments in a pertinent way.

  8. Hi, Kathy, Here are the opening lines of my “reluctant serial killer” novel:

    The beginning is always the same: the perilous traffic flying through the intersection while the young woman with the red-tipped cane waits and waits. He approaches her and offers to help her cross the street. She thanks him.
    Charlie Novak is daydreaming again. What Charlie likes about daydreams is they allow him to pretend he’s a better person than he is in real life. In his daydreams, he can pretend he’s never killed anyone, let alone the number of his victims.

    The daydream goes on a couple more short paragraphs, with an imagined conversation and the hopeful beginning of a possible relationship.

    We soon learn that Charlie’s ugly, fire-scarred face has prevented him from ever having a loving relationship. And of course that’s why his daydreams involve a blind girl. I even mention, a bit later, that his favorite charity is Lighthouse for the Blind–to which he donates annually from his ill-gotten gains. So the Lie he believes is that he’s unworthy of love. (It might not be a lie. Besides his ugly face, he’s done many ugly deeds.)

    Besides the anomaly of a love-starved serial killer, the hook (which appears within the first 2 pages) involves a murder he did not commit, the investigation of which might reveal the many murders he did.

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