How to Use a “Truth Chart” to Figure Out Your Character’s Arc

truth chart“How do I figure out my character’s arc?”

This is a question I receive commonly—and with good reason. Not only is your character’s arc central to all your other story choices—plot and theme foremost among them—character arc can also seem like one of the most daunting parts of story. Mostly this is because of its very integrality. In so many ways, your character’s arc is your story.

As we’ve discussed lately, character arc is particularly essential to your development of theme. If you don’t develop your theme and your protagonist’s character arc as two halves of the same whole, the story is likely to feel inorganic. Central to this relationship is your main thematic Truth, along with the character-specific Lie obstructing your character(s) from benefiting from a more realistic and holistic perspective.

Over the years, I’ve created quite a few resources for helping authors (me too!) understand how to organically evolve a character’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of a story’s central thematic Truth. My blog series and book Creating Character Arcs offer an act-by-act, plot-point-by-plot-point examination of the relationship between character arc and plot structure. If you’re new to the idea of consciously constructing your character’s arc, I definitely recommend starting there for a big-picture view of the subject.

Today, I want to share a new tool, one I’ve refined for my own use while writing the sequels to my portal fantasy Dreamlander. I’m calling this tool a “Truth Chart.” It’s a fast, one-page beat sheet designed to help you get your head around the big picture of theme and character, so you can see at a glance if everything is holding together and progressing realistically.

Thematic Truths (and, to a lesser extent, Lies) often seem unwieldy in their abstract vastness (for example, the thematic Truth underlying your story may be something as titanic as Love). Because these universal subjects can be accurately expressed in so many ways, they’re often difficult to pin down. Over the course of your story, you may find yourself expressing the same core Truth in a dozen different ways. When trying to create a thematically cohesive story, the abstract nature of the subjects with which you’re dealing can often be bewildering. After all, we all want complex thematic premises, right?

Several years after writing my book Creating Character Arcs, I decided I needed a standalone post that addressed the Truth, so I wrote this one, using Marvel’s Black Panther as an example of how the thematic Truth can be developed act by act. While in the middle of outlining the (still-untitled) third book in my Dreamlander trilogy, I found myself referring to this post over and over again to help me ensure my plot and character arc were thematically sound at every beat. Somewhere along the road, this practice turned into a exercise all its own—the Truth Chart.

What Does a Truth Chart Look Like?

In a minute, we’ll define each of the specific parts of the Truth Chart, but first off, here’s what it looks like:

Story’s Big Truth (Main Theme):

Story’s Big Lie:

 

Character’s Specific Truth:

Character’s Specific Lie:

 

The Thing the Character Wants:

The Thing the Character Needs:

Ghost:

 

1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”:

1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth:

 

2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth):

 

3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie:

3rd Act—Climactic Truth:

Building Your Thematic Truth Chart—Line by Line

For the entire picture of what each of these elements are and how they should interact with your story, you’ll want to check out both Creating Character Arcs and the previously-mentioned post “How the Truth Your Character Believes Defines Your Theme.” For now, here’s a quick overview of each piece.

Story’s Big Truth (Main Theme): This will be your story’s thematic premise. It should be a universal principle (e.g., “hope gives people a reason to go on living”) rather than your character’s specific Truth (e.g., “hope will help you survive and escape an unjust prison sentence”). It’s also best if you can create an intentional statement, rather than just a single-word principle (e.g., “Hope”).

Story’s Big Lie: This is the Big Lie standing in opposition to the Big Truth. Like the Big Truth, it is a generalized version of the specific Lie the Character Believes. This is the Lie that will affect every part of your story, including supporting characters, the world around the protagonist, and the antagonistic force.

Character’s Specific Truth: This is your character’s specific version of the Truth, as found in the circumstances of this specific story. Many stories offer a “Big Truth” about “Redemptive Love,” but the manifestation of your story’s specific Truth can be as vastly different as Jane Eyre is from Logan. 

Character’s Specific Lie: I positioned the Big Truth (and Big Lie) at the top of the chart because that Truth is your story’s defining principle. However, your creative process will more likely discover your story’s thematic premise via a specific Lie the Character Believes. This Lie is at the root of the plot problems. The character believes something about himself or the world that is untrue—and his lack of understanding will create consistent obstacles (aka, conflict) between him and his ultimate plot goal.

The Thing the Character Wants: Although often representative of a larger, more abstract desire (e.g., “to be loved”), the Thing the Character Wants will manifest specifically in her plot goal. Often, the Thing the Character Wants is at least partially misguided, based on the character’s mistaken (Lie-based) reasons for wanting it or methods for gaining it.

The Thing the Character Needs: The Thing the Character Needs is ultimately an understanding of the Truth. Usually, the Need will also be represented by a more concrete and specific outer-world objective. Sometimes the character will run away from the Need in the beginning, but in many stories, he may consciously “want” the Need, which exacerbates the inner conflict between his Lie-based Want and the Truth-based Need.

Ghost: The Ghost (sometimes referred to as the Wound) is a motivating event in your character’s past, which represents the moment and the reason the Lie first took root in her life. Often the Ghost is a traumatic event (e.g., the death of one’s parents), but it can also be a “good” occurrence (e.g., receiving too much praise for a specific accomplishment) that led to a misunderstanding about life.

 

1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”: In the First Act, the story’s Big Lie will initially manifest in a specific message that is either urging the protagonist toward the Want and/or presenting a direct obstacle to the protagonist’s ability to move forward toward the Need and/or the Want. It is usually a mindset or belief presented by the Normal World around the protagonist (even in most Negative-Change Arcs). The character will likely take this manifestation of the Lie for granted without questioning it much, if at all.

1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth: Although the protagonist will spend most of the First Act in a comparative state of tranquility in which the Truth does not proactively contradict the Lie, the Truth will still be present via a “small” introductory version of the story’s larger thematic premise. This will often be the thinnest edge of the spear, the first tiny prick of Truth that begins to slowly wedge open a Change-Arc character’s awareness of the Lie (which, in a Negative-Change Arc, will prompt still greater resistance to the Truth).

 

2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth): After the setup of the First Act, the Second Act will represent the protagonist’s full-on immersion into the conflict—and, as an extension, her full-on immersion in her inner conflict between Lie and Truth. Throughout the First Half of the Second Act, events will conspire to grant her a growing (if often unconscious) awareness of the Truth.

This finally manifests in the external conflict at the Midpoint, when the character experiences a Moment of Truth. How the character reacts to this revelation will depend on what type of arc she is following. Regardless, the Truth she finds here will not be the complete Big Truth. Rather, it will be a “halfway” Truth of sorts. In order for this thematic revelation to flow properly with the external plot development, the Moment of Truth should be framed as an “antidote” to the specific Lie the character believed in the First Act.

Throughout the subsequent Second Half of the Second Act, the character will not fully reject the entire Lie (or embrace the entire Truth), but the Lie and Truth in which she believes are now modified versions of those with which she started out in the First Act.

 

3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie: The Third Act can be a tricky time for character arcs. The character needs to have completed most of his growth by this point, but the biggest revelations should remain in order for the Third Act to feel properly climactic. This is why it’s important to retain the “biggest” chunk of the Lie for the character to confront in the Third Act. By this point, the character will have embraced most of the Truth. But there’s a big mote still in his eye. There’s still a crucial bit of Lie that he (or the world around him) hasn’t seen past. This will be the Lie’s final “argument” within the story.

3rd Act—Climactic Truth: Combating the Third Act’s “big chunk of Lie” will be the climactic version of your story’s Truth. In essence, this will be the Big Truth of your thematic premise (see above). But it’s helpful to refine that Big Truth into the very specific Truth needed to resolve your story’s main conflict. You can see various ways in which your character will interact with this final Truth, depending on what type of arc she is demonstrating.

How to Find the Right Answers for a Character Arc

You almost certainly will not (should not) fill in the blanks on this Truth Chart right at the beginning of your story-creation process. Discovering the proper Truth, Lie, theme, and character arc(s) for your story will be an organic process. You won’t know the right answers until you first (and simultaneously) have accumulated enough knowledge about your story’s plot and your characters’ journeys within that plot.

To work well, your story’s thematic Truths must emerge organically from every other mechanical piece within the overall structure. Once you’re far enough along to know the general shape of your story, you can start looking for its emergent Truths.

Consider what questions your story is asking. Some thematic questions I recognized in my WIP included:

  • Why am I here?
  • Who am I supposed to be?
  • What is my destiny in this life?
  • What is my responsibility in this life?
  • What is Life’s narrative?

Just talk to yourself on the page. What themes do you see emerging? What themes do you want to explore in this story? Start trying to sum up the theme in a single Truth. You may find several. Keep going, keep refining. Always check yourself against the Truth that emerges in the Climax. How does that Truth tie in within the characters’ struggles and misconceptions earlier in the story?

Eventually, you should come up with the single best option for summing up your story’s Truth. Hang on to all the other Truths you may have written down, because some of them may turn out to be the “smaller” Truths your character has to work through in the First and Second Acts, on his way to overcoming the Big Lie and accepting the Big Truth in the Climax.

Truth Chart Examples From My Dreamlander Series

To help you see what the Truth Chart looks like in action, here are examples from my outline for Book 3 in the Dreamlander trilogy. (For those of you interested in the series, I suppose this might be a little spoiler-y, but only on an abstract level. Plus, the book won’t be out for several years, so you’ll probably forget all about this in the meantime. :p )

I’m including two different versions of the chart. The first is for the protagonist and therefore represents the story’s main theme. The second is for the most prominent supporting character. You’ll see how her chart riffs off the main Lie/Truth but explores some ancillary angles.

***

Story’s Big Truth (Main Theme): What you do matters (and you know what to do).

Story’s Big Lie: Destiny is a lie; your life has no narrative, no meaning.

Protagonist/Main Theme Truth Chart

Character’s Specific Truth: Responsibility to my truth is my greatest destiny.

Character’s Specific Lie: I am not destined to save the worlds; my actions are all random and some are mistakes.

 

The Thing the Character Wants: To save the worlds—and live happily ever after with Allara.

The Thing the Character Needs: To live a meaningful life.

Ghost: The apocalyptic consequences of his mistakes.

 

1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”: There’s no guarantee my actions will turn out for the good.

1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth: I can’t give up; I have to act.

 

2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth): What I do matters because only I have the abilities, as Gifted, to do what must be done.

 

3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie: Either Destiny is a set narrative, or life is meaningless.

3rd Act—Climactic Truth: Destiny is inscrutable but still accessible if I am willing, no matter the cost, to listen to my inner truth.

Supporting Character/Subplot Truth Chart

Character’s Specific Truth: My destiny is bigger than my understanding of a narrative.

Character’s Specific Lie: The narrative is true, so it must be just me messing it up.

 

The Thing the Character Wants: To fulfill her narrated destiny.

The Thing the Character Needs: To surrender into the faith and freedom of a larger, more complex acceptance of reality and her place in it.

Ghost: Realizing the narrative she had always believed in, regarding her destiny as a Searcher, was not accurate.

 

1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”: My destiny is found in my identity: Queen of Lael and Searcher.

1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth: I must stop denying the truth about reality and my place in it.

 

2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth): If I want to fulfill my destiny, I must give up my stubborn grip on my own identity and my own limited narrative.

 

3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie: To fulfill my destiny, I must understand it.

3rd Act—Climactic Truth: The only thing I can do that matters is act in faith.

***

I hope you’ll find this Truth Chart as useful a tool as I already am. Go forth and write powerful themes!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What thematic Truth are you exploring in your story? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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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. Karen Keil says

    I am beginning to toy with the theme of beauty. I am just starting. I don’t know what’s going to be beautiful yet. But this post gives me an idea for at least part of my exploration. I’m a long way away from having a story to write (but I’m working on other stories anyway, so that’s OK.) Time to reread a couple of your books and posts!

  2. Eric Troyer says

    Great post, Katie! Trying to coordinate overall theme with specific character actions has been a challenge in my two WIPs. I’ll try to apply the Truth Chart to them and see how it works.

    Question(s): In your example you have applied the chart to your main character and main supporting character. What about other characters? Do you think this should this be used for any character who changes over the course of the story? Including the main antagonist? Or do you think a writer can get too carried away with plotting out too many character arcs in a story?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Theoretically, you could apply the Truth chart to every single character. Personally, just the thought of that makes me a little crazy. :p Applying it to just the POV characters and/or the antagonist is a good balance. I only included the two examples, but I’ll be completing more charts before I’m done with my outline for this book.

    • Faith Reece says

      Honestly, the character web (as “The Anatomy of Story” calls it), is my favorite aspect of storytelling, so I’m probably going to use this for my main cast of 6- or at least until I drop. But if you’re not as crazy as me, maybe a good idea would be to use this tool if you find yourself stumped on a specific character’s progression.

  3. soooo, what happened to dreamlander book 2??

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      First draft is done. It’s waiting until I finish outlining Book 3, so I can make necessary changes.

      • Abigail Welborn says

        I can’t wait for all your posts about how to write a trilogy! (No really! I have enjoyed hearing about sequels and series, but I expect you’ll also learn a lot and share it.)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Still learning lots about that. :p

          • I’d love to hear more about how to write a trilogy once you’re ready to share it–I have several ideas for trilogies floating in my head.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            After I finish writing this one, I’m sure I’ll have some things to say about it. 🙂

  4. Love this, Thankyou so much!!

  5. Jared Michalski says

    Very useful post. Thank you. Would you/how would you make adjustments to the chart when your protagonist is undergoing a flat arc, or instead focus on completing the charts for the characters he/she impacts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The answers will be different, but the questions remain the same from arc to arc, since the Truth remains a fixed point in all arcs. It’s just the characters’ relationships to it that are different.

      • Molly Stegmeier says

        Could you elaborate on this a bit? I guess the Lie in a flat arc would be trying to tempt the character away from the Truth. But would the ‘percentages’ of Truth/Lie in each Act be the same, or would they be flipped?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          If your protagonist is undergoing a Flat Arc–and therefore representing the Truth to the larger story world–this means that at least one supporting character will be undergoing a Change Arc. It’s important to look at the Truth Chart in a Flat Arc not so much in relation to the protagonist’s arc (since, technically, he doesn’t have one), but rather at how he impacts the arc of other characters around him. For instance, at the Midpoint/Moment of Truth in a Flat Arc, the protagonist is going to be the one “offering” the Truth to the other characters, rather than experiencing the opportunity to receive it as he would in a Change Arc.

  6. Adam James says

    So while you are writing do you actually stop your pen and suddenly think about “thematic evolution in a character’s arc” or is this something you have “internalized” and is unconscious? Even after outlining and re-outlining, writing in longhand, then typing and re-typing, and then editing on my Kindle reader . . . I am seriously exhausted and have yet to put on a different editing hat and go back through the entire thing yet again, while thinking about and attempting to apply “thematic evolution in a character’s arc.”

    So at what points during writing, re-writing and editing do you employ these additional writing perspectives and ask all these pertinent questions of your characters and their story?

    Cheers and Happy Editing!
    JIM in MT (aka Adam James)
    http://adamjames.blackdogebooks.com/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think critically about theme in the early outlining phases. For me, that phase is a lengthy process of thinking-out-loud on the page, in which I work through my understanding of the plot, the characters, and the theme, answering all salient questions until I have a clear overview of the story. It’s important to develop plot, character, and theme together, since they must all work harmoniously. I find it much easier to do this critical thinking, with tools such as the Truth Chart, early in the outlining process, rather than later on in the “mud of the trenches” when writing the first draft.

      • I have a few themes in this WIP. The central one would be “you can’t change the past you can only change the present”. But another would be “subjective evaluation of your work is not as important as the effort one puts forward for a result” and also, to paraphrase Crosby, Stills and Nash, “Love is an anchor tied to you with a silver chain”.

        Themes 1 and 3 are present in the MC’s arc and 2 is present in the way characters react to him; a supporting character arc if you will.

        Um….is this legit? Do I need a waiver or a note from the principal?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The first two seem obviously related. The latter, as phrased anyway, seems more ancillary. However, it could just be the phrasing. That’s kind of the point of this post–themes are hard because they can legitimately be phrased in so many ways. My thought would be to try to hammer down that Big Truth, which provides the tent canopy under which all the smaller truths reside as ten poles

  7. Larry Keeton says

    Terrific post and podcast. Am in the middle of a revision of my WIP and have been struggling with the character arc of the protag. As I listened, I had the ah ha moment and can see how this chart will help clarify some issues I’ve been struggling to fix. Thanks.

  8. Joan Kessler says

    Thank you for the examples you shared. I love seeing these things in action!

  9. This looks really useful! Sometimes I get a bit lost with my characters’ arcs if my story deviates from my original plan, so this should help me keep them clear. Would it be much different for a negative arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The answers will, of course, be different in a Corruption or Fall Arc, since the character will be moving nearer the Lie, rather than the Truth. But the questions remain the same.

  10. Liisa Eyerly says

    My writing group structured our retreat weekend using your character arc book. The outline we drafted for our discussions and work sessions followed your truth chart exactly. Good to know we were on track.

  11. philipguin says

    These articles are tremendously helpful, thank you!

    Do you have any pointers/recommendations for someone attempting to write a story for a video game? The more I experience, the more I think the closer a game is to a visual novel, the better. (And yet the closer to a film, the worse.) It seems to be a hard problem few have wrapped their heads around.

    • Faith Reece says

      I know I’m not Weiland, but I have done some thinking and fan-essay-writing on video game storytelling. My favorite example of video game storytelling is the first Ace Attorney game (DS/3DS/Switch/iOS), which is a flat arc with a positive arc as your main antagonist, along with some smaller arcs from a couple of other characters. Honestly, doing what’s right as the protagonist despite so much difficulty coming in at almost all sides, and seeing your actions make more changes than your immediate goal is so satisfying! Granted, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a very linear game, so an example that’s more story-world and exploration focused that still has great writing, but smaller bits of character work and theme would be Fallen London (free browser game).

      If you’re thinking about theme, I think it’s important to first assess how much you want the audience to be the protagonist’s shoes, since they will be taking actions for said protagonist. If he’s not going to be flat arc, it’s probably pertinent that the lie is not only understandable as to why he would believe it, but very believable in of itself, lest you alienate your players too much.

      • philipguin says

        I actually started the final chapter of the AA trilogy on Switch last night, haha. It’s an amazing series, and like a lot of anime-adjacent media, I’m willing to overlook any faults because it does so much right. I like a good emotional rollercoaster 🙂

        I agree on making sure the story is actually something a player would want to experience, aligning motivation between avatar and player, etc.

        My concept is basically ”shounen pre-teens with superpowers in space,” definitely an emphasis on exploration and meeting quirky aliens. (Star Control II meets DBZ.) The theme will likely be forgiveness and redemption of humanity, which would involve showing the protagonists just how corrupt and evil people can be. Faith despite overwhelming “evidence”, I suppose. Protagonist is a flat arc “hope against all hope”-er, secondary protagonist has a positive change arc. The question is, in act 3, how much overwhelming despair the player is willing to endure before defeating the big bad? If I have dread as a theme throughout, will the player want to persevere to prove the villain wrong? Etc, etc.

        I think darkness fatigue works differently in games than other media, but I’m not sure how. Maybe I need to ask myself why my story is so dark 😛

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m not a gamer myself, so don’t have much experience with how stories are presented in games. However, story is story. The same basics of story theory, including theme and character arc, would apply just the same in a video game as in a novel or movie.

      • philipguin says

        Probably the two biggest distinctions I can think of are player-avatar relationship and having more non-story content to offer than any other media. A game can be fun without a story at all (though I certainly think it’s often a missed opportunity.) Games seem to have mechanisms that can carry a player’s interest without necessarily raising a bunch of unanswered narrative questions.

        I’m certainly no expert on story telling though. To the extent it’s different, it probably has more to do with details than the big picture.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, my perception is that the actual gaming part of games is the “filler” that is often brushed over in the actual story–either action or building or just figuring things out. The bones of story remain the same as in any medium. It’s just that games have more room to expansively develop other aspects out of proportion to the actual plot-moving elements.

        • Faith Reece says

          I think the games’ sense of humor prevents it from having “dread fatigue”. There is a trend in some games and TV to have an overwhelming amount of dread, confusing that with stakes, trying to be the next Avatar: the Last Airbender. But not only do I think your premise will lend yourself to more light-hearted moments, understanding story and character structure will naturally help you avoid that problem. Hope it goes well with you and that you are enjoying the games!
          If you haven’t already heard of them, I would highly recommend Extra Credits for videos on video game design and theory, in general. They have a few videos on storytelling through video games; they’re a lot more general than the stuff you’ll find here, but still helpful.

  12. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    I understand some of the points you made and can agree, but a lot of this is making my head spin. I feel that all this intellectualizing is disturbing the flow and feeling of the story.

    I rather start out with a general idea of who and what my character is all about then when a situation arises then figure out what he/she will do. I know this method can also slow down the flow, but I rather be stumped here than at the beginning wondering where do I start. I think looking at a chart is intimidating.

    For me your chart is too preordained and boxes your characters in to what they will do and won’t do.

    How are you going to surprise your reader if you can’t surprise yourself first?

    • Faith Reece says

      You don’t have to use this if you don’t want to. In fact, I think she encourages not starting your writing process with this chart. This is more like a organization toll than a “you have to fill out all of these blanks right now” tool. And, as someone who has used outline methods from both Truby and Weiland, I was surprised how much creativity and exploration (and, yes, surprise) there was when I was using their tools, not as a paint-by-numbers game, but as a safety net so I wasn’t completely lost (and often times limitations are the key to creative breakthroughs). But, on the other hand, I’m someone who really likes outlining and preparing, instead of diving head-in, and I know many writers simply aren’t like that, so this is just how I see outlining methods as helpful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s important for writers to understand what process best inspires their creativity. Ultimately, we all execute pretty much the same techniques and answer the same questions regardless whether we plan upfront or revise after. It’s just that the order of things is rearranged. For instance, I surprise myself constantly in the outline phase when I’m brainstorming the story. But I also like (as you see) a logical approach that helps me make sure I’m connecting everything and filling all my plot holes. It makes the drafting much easier.

      But not everyone works best with that approach.

  13. Ian Fletcher (UK) says

    Hi K.
    I’ve spent two years doing research for my book, the plot is mapped in my head really well, where I failed was in the creation of my characters, I see now that was a big mistake. I’m now three strong chapters in, and my characters are being built as I go. This may sound crazy, but at the moment it’s working, my wife is proof reading for me, and just earlier today she said that it was really coming together and is urging me to keep going. She would be the first to say don’t bother if she felt it wasn’t right. She is a very very keen reader, and I’ve seen her drop many a book that didn’t reel her in. The story is a very true one, with a twist of fiction and possibility thrown it. It’s the twist of joining several disasters together where the truth and lies begin in the very first paragraph. At the moment a group of strangers are in the process of rescuing an old man, he is unaware that two of his friends have already died. You could say his truth is that they are alive, the rescuers truth is that they are not. In three chapters my story has travelled 300miles, and two people have died on a golf course. The important truth I must keep to throughout is that it is all very possible in the real world. Really enjoying your tips and tricks, and it’s made me read over and make some adjustments. Thanks for caring & Sharing Ian F (United Kingdom)

  14. Faith Reece says

    This is fantastic! I’ve been working on a novel and it’s been about a year since its conception, so I’ve been just trying to flesh out my character web (defining characters by fleshing out other characters) and trying to beat “second-act-sag” as the outline is forming in my head and as I’m writing notes down. I think my problem comes from wanting to pull out the big thematic guns too early, and this will certainly help with that. The theme I’m exploring is suffering and hardship- how it exists but seems to have no purpose, yet, it can’t be avoided, so it just makes everything else vanity.

    The “designing principle”, to take yet another page from Truby, is to have a tangible version of the psychological journey Solomon goes through in Ecclesiastes where starts with the lie that “suffering is meaningless and so must be avoided” to the realization that the question is not “how do I avoid suffering?” but “will I suffer for sin’s sake or righteousness’s?” Basically try to make Ecclesiastes my thematic road map, but with more specific consequences for what he is thinking, and thus doing, and have that be the plot.

  15. lynn farnham says

    Katie, I’m having trouble visualizing how to apply this. Could you do a Truth Chart for something familiar in the literature, maybe Jane Eyre or Casablanca? Thanks.

  16. I’ve started working on a trilogy. Would it be appropriate to use this for the entire series as well as each novel?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. If the story is overarching throughout the books, then it should demonstrate a central thematic throughline, as well as developments within each individual book.

  17. Have you been reading my mind? This is what I have been struggling to wrap my head around for a while. It seems that whenever I have a hard time with a certain area, your posts seem to coincide with them. I’m so grateful for your website and your posts, they have been the lifelines to my sanity. This post solidified it in my head that I am definitely not alone in having to rererererererererererererererereread all the details about structure and despite having written and published (self-published) a novel. It goes to show that we never stop learning. Anyway, thank you so much for this post. Once again, you’ve helped put me back on the right track.

  18. Casandra Merritt says

    Wow, this sounds like a great idea! Themes are the most exciting part of storytelling.

  19. Katie-This is an excellent post. Thank you so much. I’m working with an Author Accelerator book coach on the first draft of my WIP and I find myself reading your posts when I’m trying to do much of the deep-level thinking required by my coach. (She asks “why” a lot and doesn’t take “I don’t know” for an answer!)

    I wrote through to about the end of Act I and, now that I know much more about the characters, plot and story, I’m doubling back to the beginning to flesh out fuzzy wants/needs.

    I’m writing a YA contemporary romance with a single POV. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how this Truth Chart would work specifically for the POV character’s love interest. Would his lie and truth be an iteration of the story’s Big Lie and Truth or would his lie and truth somehow be a reflection or challenge to the POV character’s specific lie/truths (as a way of getting her to ultimately understand the Big Truth)? Any advice you could give on this would be greatly appreciated. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Archetypally, the Love Interest is usually more in alignment with the Truth the protagonist needs to learn than is the protagonist. This allows the protagonist to draw nearer the Love Interest simultaneously with drawing nearer to the Truth–and vice versa.

      However, things are rarely quite that clear-cut. Usually, Love Interests (especially in a romance where the Love Interest is a co-protagonist/antagonist) have their own complicated developments. It’s possible the two characters understand unique aspects of the Truth (and therefore have things to teach each other), just as it’s likely both are exploring different angles of the main thematic Big Truth.

  20. Kate, you are amazing 😀 I’m a HUGE chart (and list) freak so this is like candy to me 🙂 It’s brilliant. Thanks for sharing!

  21. Sandi de Klerk says

    Could your characters want be something unrealistic such as wanting his dead brother back?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That may be an impossible desire, but I wouldn’t consider it unrealistic. Denial is a major component of the grief journey. Check out Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (in which the “magical thinking” is her delusion–consciously recognized–that her recently-deceased husband is somehow coming back).

  22. Well, I was going to ask if I had Kissla’s lie, but the tears that welled up when I thought of it and the opposing truth pretty much answered that.

    Also, the book is about the Protagonist’s arc, not the arcs of the more powerful people she works closely with, is that correct? Because I think that these arcs might be doomed. That’s why I stalled in writing this book, because I could not solve the dilemma posed by Carolie and her father.

    For anybody who is curious, Kissla believes that her heritage and violent history mean that society is better off without her unless she can find some way to serve society (e.g., as a vicious Dark Knight sort of character) that ONLY SHE CAN DO. As a result, she needs to prove that good people can’t do her work, or even properly help her, so she terrorizes all the people hired to work for the garrison. You know, until the entire society has to go underground…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The main thematic Truth will always align with the protagonist’s journey. However, other supporting characters and their arcs will contribute heavily as well.

  23. Rudy Fisher says

    This is amazing! I use a variation of this based on all the beats you outline in your Character Arcs book. I like the summaries of each point in this!

  24. Ms. Albina says

    Good article. I am writing a new story and also working on a memoir for one of my characters. In my new story. My new character named c wants love or to be loved by her life mate whoever that may be. I am working on the character arc for her of a lie to become a positive. How long will I be before dreamer two book comes out?

  25. Thank you! I also picked up your bool on creating character arcs. I know I do some of this from instinct while writing, but now I can purposely apply the methods and turn out a much better book. I always enjoy your blog and how to books! Besides enjoying your novels! 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great! I’m a big proponent of bring up to conscious awareness the thing we already understand on an instinctive level.

  26. Night Writer says

    I don’t understand what this means:

    “[…] the Moment of Truth should be framed as an “antidote” to the specific Lie the character believed in the First Act.”

    Could you elaborate?

    I also don’t understand:

    “the Lie and Truth in which she believes are now modified versions of those with which she started out in the First Act.”

    What is an example of a modified lie?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      First of all, if you haven’t already done so, I recommend clicking through to the articles linked in the post, especially the ones on the Truth and the Lie. They explain the foundational elements of character arc more thoroughly.

      In regards to how the Moment of Truth should present an “antidote” to the character’s specific Lie, this iteration of the thematic Truth should be a direct counter to the Lie. For example, you can see in the Truth Chart I shared for my protagonist that his initial Lie is basically that his actions either don’t matter or are even unintentionally harmful–so he’s struggling with the urge *not* to act. The Moment of Truth gives him a strong counter to this, in which he realizes (through plot events which I won’t discuss here) that whether or not he knows how to act rightly, he is in fact the only one who *can* act in this particular situation. So this Truth provides a direct argument/antidote to his initial Lie.

      As for modified Lies, you can compare the examples for the First and Third Acts to see how the Lie evolves over the course of the story. The more Truth the character comes to understand, the more his understanding of the Lie changes–until finally (in a Positive-Change Arc), there’s nothing left of the Lie for him to believe at all.

  27. Casandra Merritt says

    When I write a story premise, do I need to mention anything about my story’s historical period? And also, can I just say “during a war” or do I need to mention a specific war?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you’re using the premise for agent pitches or any kind of marketing, it’s always great when you can be as specific as possible. If the premise is just for your own use in refining your story, then you don’t need to worry about fitting in the specifics of the war.

  28. Thanks for the truth chart! I’m going to incorporate it into my planning process with Scrivener, copy it as an add in. I like the depth it provides to the overall story.

  29. Dear K.M.,

    (I’m not sure if this is the right place to ask this question, my apologies).

    I have been working on a story for a few months now and I didn’t tell anyone what it was about before. But today I was with a friend and told her a bit of what the story is going to be about. From her reaction I could tell she didn’t really think it was that good of an idea. Now, when I’m working on my story, I keep thinking of her reaction and it’s really demotivating, even though I didn’t tell her alot about it and I know the story is far from finished. I wish I didn’t tell her and just kept it to myself. Is there anything I could do about this?

    Thank you for taking your time to read this and apologies for my English,

    M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve had similar experiences, and they have led me to the firm rule of sharing very little, if anything, about a story before the first draft is to my satisfaction. I’ve written about that in this post: Should You Keep Your Writing a Secret?

      Now that the damage is done, there are really only two things you can do about it. You can analyze whether your friend’s reaction was true and if you agree with her opinions (in which case, you can work to fix any problems). And/or you can just keep going. Remember all the reasons you love this story and started writing it in the first place. Reaffirm your commitment to it.

  30. Timothy McGlinchey says

    Another brilliant article! As I’ve said before, it’s great to have advice that can be so actively applied (rather than just abstractly reflected upon). Rushing to use this now! Thanks!

  31. An useful post as usual! I am a great fan of lists. 🙂

  32. Are these always related to the main character? There is a “supergenre” of narrative where the main character does not change, but secondary characters do. One genre in this supergenre is “spiritual guide” stories, and another whodunnits. Chesterton’s Father Brown is both.
    Hercule Poirot doesn’t have an arc, but his opponents most certainly do: they started believing they could get away with crime, but find out they can’t.
    Even more clearly this shows in the Colombo stories, as the culprit is known from the start.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What you’re describing is a protagonist with < a href="https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/flat-character-arc-1/" target="_blank">a Flat Arc. In these stories, the protagonist begins the story already in possession of the thematic Truth and, as such, represents the change catalyst for the supporting characters. I’ve talked about how to use the Truth Chart for Flat Arcs in previous comments, but you’re correct in understanding that the evolution from Lie to Truth occurs in the secondary characters.

  33. David Butler-Groome says

    What is interesting is that although much of the last few posts to do with character arc, the lie the character believes and the thematic principle have been covered before, striking this new pose within the developing the art of writing and looking at these topics again, you are bringing new light into an already illuminated studio. As an example, I have for 18 months been working on what I happily assumed to be a thematic principle, but realised I had never stated it as the Story’s Big Truth in a positive and explicit way, I had only had the story’s big truth in mind as something that would be opposite to the protagonist’s lie. Now with this four-way structured analysis of the story’s big truth, the story’s big lie, the character’s specific truth, and the character’s specific lie, I have to actually put those four separate things explicitly into words, not carry them around as some vague dynamic alternative to the lie. As a result, interestingly, although I still haven’t nailed the big truth I have to accept that the protagonist I had settled on in a positive change arc story, cannot now be the protagonist because they will not be the main actor at the climax, but they will undergo significant change throughout. I had felt resistance to choosing the flat arc story, but I have to accept that it has to be that way, and that my protagonist now is a character who was originally someone who was going to be a helper to the original protagonist – they still are, but they are now the repository of the truth. It is entirely fascinating and compelling seeing this process evolve.

  34. Timothy McGlinchey says

    Commenting again on here because I’ve been using it so much! So thanks again!

    I’m just wondering if there is a version of the Truth Chart for a flat arc character? Someone who knows the truth at the start, clings to it, still holds to it at the end, and is primarily there to change the minds of other characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Same questions apply for all the types of arc. You’ll just want to adjust focus of the answers depending on which character is doing the most changing. So in a Flat Arc, the protagonist will be the Impact Character influencing change in supporting characters via a Truth s/he already possesses.

  35. Can a story have 2 big lies?

  36. Can a story have 2 big lies, for example in my short story The Big Truth is “Backgrounds can define you,” the Big Lies are “Backgrounds do not in anyway define you” and “Backgrounds will always define you” (depending on each character)

  37. elzupoet says

    Hi there,

    I’ve been reading your articles for some time and I think they are some of the best resources on writing available.

    I’ve just finished my first draft of my current WIP. I feel like, for the most part, it follows the guidelines you set out, but I do keep dwelling on certain aspects.

    My character’s lie is that she thinks people are better off without her, and as a result I guess, the truth of my story is that we all need other people to get by. But looking back at my novel, I’m worried about the thing my character wants – she wants to be as far away as possible from people because she thinks she hurts them but obviously following her lie can only take her closer to that want.

    I have found other ways to punish and reward my character, but I’m wondering whether it is vital that it ties in directly to the want?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as the rewards/punishments are encouraging the character’s evolution in regard to the Truth, that’s what’s important.

Trackbacks

  1. […] character, Victoria Mixon offers a different approach to character arc, K.M. Weiland shares her “truth chart” method to figure out character arc, Heather Webb lists tips for a great love story, Kristen Lamb dives into deep POV, and Janice Hardy […]

  2. […] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/figure-out-your-characters-arc/ “This is a question I receive commonly—and with good reason. Not only is your character’s arc […]

  3. […] and I clicked on an interesting writing article (naturally.) It was by a semi-famous blogster K.M. Weiland, someone I happily turn to for good writing advice. (Click her name for the specific article). I […]

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