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 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 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 the 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 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 believed in, regarding her destiny as a Searcher, was not what she always believed.

 

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!

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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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. Can a story have 2 big lies?

  12. 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)

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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