types of character arc heroic arcs

Learn 5 Types of Character Arc at a Glance: The 2 Heroic Arcs (Part 1 of 2)

character arc types heroic arcs pinterestThere are only two or three human stories, but they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.–Willa Cather

The many different approaches to story theory break down the number of “human stories” into different categories. Perhaps there are just two—comedy and tragedy. Perhaps there are Vonnegut’s eight “shapes.” Today, I’m going to argue for five—the five basic types of character arc.

These include the two Truth-driven or heroic arcs—the Positive-Change Arc and the Flat Arc. And the three Lie-driven or Negative-Change Arcs—the Disillusionment Arc, the Fall Arc, and the Corruption Arc.

I’ve talked about all these arcs extensively, beat by beat, both in my series of posts and my book Creating Character Arcs and its companion workbook. But as someone recently pointed out in an email, I’ve never compiled a basic structural beat sheet of what all the arcs look like at a glance.

As of now, I’m remedying that with a two-part series that puts the basic principles and types of character arc all in one place. Today, we’re going to start by talking about, first, the basic ingredients necessary in any type of character arc, followed by a detailed but at-a-glance look at the two “truth-based” heroic arcs.

>>Click Here to Read About the 3 Negative Arcs

The 6 Foundational Ingredients of All Character Arcs

Let’s get started. All five arcs share several commonalities, beginning with their foundational structure (which I prefer to break into three acts and ten beats, as you’ll see below). Beyond that, they also share the following six foundational ingredients, which can then be mixed to the author’s needs according to whichever arc has been chosen for the story.

1. The Thematic Truth

The theme is your story’s Truth. It is a universal statement about how the world works. In almost all instances (with the arguable exception of the Disillusionment Arc), the Truth will represent an ultimately positive (if sometimes painful) value, which will help the characters interact more fruitfully and less futilely with the world.

>>Click Here to Read More the Truth Your Character Believes

2. The Lie the Character Believes

The Lie is a misconception about the world that stands in contrast to the Truth. At the beginning of the story, the Lie will be preventing someone (either the protagonist or, in the case of the Flat Arc, supporting characters) from seeing, understanding, and/or accepting a necessary Truth. The entire character arc—and, indeed, the entire story—is about if and how the character(s) will be able to evolve past the Lie into the Truth.

>>Click Here to Read More About the Lie Your Character Believes

3. & 4. The Thing the Character Wants vs. the Thing the Character Needs

The inner thematic conflict of Truth vs. Lie will manifest in the external plot conflict as the Thing the Character Wants vs. the Thing the Character Needs. Usually, the Need is nothing more or less than the Truth, although it can take a physical form as well. The Want may be something large and abstract (such as “respect”), but it should boil down to a very specific plot goal (“a promotion” or “a college degree”). Your character’s evolving proximity to the Want and the Need will change in direct relation to the specific character arc.

>>Click Here to Read More About the Thing Your Character Wants and the Thing Your Character Needs

5. The Ghost

The Ghost (sometimes also referred to as the “wound”) is the motivating catalyst in your protagonist’s backstory. This is the reason the character believes in the Lie and can’t see past it to the Truth. As its name (coined by script doctor extraordinaire John Truby) suggests, the Ghost is something that haunts the character, something that can’t just be moved past. Often, it is a traumatic event, but even something seemingly positive (such as a parent’s pride in a child) can cause a character to believe the damaging Lie.

>>Click Here to Read More About the Ghost

6. The Normal World

The Normal World is the initial setting in the story’s First Act, meant to illustrate the character’s life before the story’s main conflict. Depending on the type of arc, the Normal World will symbolically represent either the story’s Truth or the story’s Lie. The Normal World may be a definitive setting, which will change at the beginning of the Second Act, when the character enters the Adventure World of the main conflict. However, it may also be more metaphorical, in which case the setting itself will not switch, but rather the conflict will change the setting around the protagonist (for example changing the atmosphere from friendly to hostile).

>>Click Here to Read More About the Normal World

The 2 Heroic Arcs

The Positive-Change Arc and the Flat Arc are the “happy” or “heroic” arcs. In these stories, the protagonist either learns or already knows the Truth—and uses it to positively impact the story world.

1. The Positive-Change Arc

Character Believes Lie > Overcomes Lie > New Truth Is Liberating

>>Click Here to Read More About the Positive-Change Arc

Character Arc 1 - Positive

Graphic by Joanna Marie, from the Creating Character Arcs Workbook. Click the image for a larger view.

The First Act (1%-25%)

1%: The Hook: Believes Lie

The protagonist believes a Lie that has so far proven necessary or functional in the existing Normal World.

12%: The Inciting Event: First Hint Lie Will No Longer Work

The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, also brings the first subtle hint that the Lie will no longer serve the protagonist as effectively as it has in the past.

25%: The First Plot Point: Lie No Longer Effective

The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice, in which the “old ways” of the Lie-ridden First Act show themselves ineffective in the face of the main conflict’s new stakes. Although the protagonist does not yet recognize the inefficacy of the Lie, he will still pass through a Door of No Return, in which he is forced to leave the Normal World of the First Act and enter the Adventure World of the main conflict in the Second Act.

The Second Act (25%-75%)

37%: The First Pinch Point: Punished for Using Lie

The protagonist is “punished” for using the Lie. In the Normal World, he was able to use the Lie to get the Thing He Wants. But in the Second Act, this is no longer a functional mindset. Throughout the First Half of the Second Act, he will try to use his old Lie-based mindsets to reach his goals and will be “punished” by failures until he begins to learn how things really work.

50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Sees Truth, But Doesn’t Yet Reject Lie

The protagonist encounters a Moment of Truth in which he comes face to face with the thematic Truth (often via a simultaneous plot-based revelation about the external conflict). This is the first time the protagonist consciously recognizes the Truth and its power. He does not yet, however, recognize the Truth and the Lie as incompatible. He will attempt to use both in the Second Half of the Second Act.

62%: The Second Pinch Point: Rewarded for Effectively Using Truth

The protagonist is “rewarded” for using the Truth. Building upon what he learned at the Midpoint, the protagonist will start implementing Truth-based actions in combating the antagonistic force and reaching toward the Thing He Wants. He will be “rewarded” by successes as he moves nearer and nearer his ultimate plot goal.

The Third Act (75%-100%)

75%: The Third Plot Point: Rejects Lie

The protagonist is confronted by a “low moment” brought about by his continuing refusal to fully reject the Lie. Finally, the protagonist must confront the true stakes of what he stands to lose if he continues to embrace the Lie. Feeling all but defeated, he rejects the Lie. Implicitly, he also fully embraces the Truth.

88%: The Climax: Embraces Truth

The protagonist enters the final confrontation with the antagonistic force to decide whether or not he will gain the Thing He Wants. Directly before or during this section, he consciously and explicitly embraces and wields the Truth.

98%: The Climactic Moment: Uses Truth to Gain Need

The protagonist uses the Truth and all it has taught him about himself and the conflict to gain the Thing He Needs. Depending upon the nature of his Truth, he may also gain the Thing He Wants, or he may realize he needs to sacrifice it for his own greater good. As a result, he definitively ends the conflict between himself and the antagonistic force.

100%: The Resolution: Enters New Truth-Empowered Normal World

The protagonist either enters a new Normal World or returns to the original Normal World, where he can now live as a Truth-empowered individual.

2. The Flat Arc

Character Believes Truth > Maintains Truth > Uses Truth to Overcome World’s Lie

>>Click Here to Read More About the Flat Arc.

Character Arc 2 - Flat

Graphic by Joanna Marie, from the Creating Character Arcs Workbook. Click the image for a larger view.

The First Act (1%-25%)

1%: The Hook: Believes Truth in a Lie-Ridden World

The protagonist believes a Truth that the rest of the Normal World around her rejects. The Normal World and most of its characters are mired in a central Lie which enslaves them in some way.

12%: The Inciting Event: Challenged to Use Truth to Oppose Lie

The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, presents a direct challenge to her Truth. The question at this point is whether or not she can be convinced to take action in wielding her Truth against the Lie of the world around her.

25%: The First Plot Point: World Tries to Forcibly Impose Lie

The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice, in which the antagonistic force attempts to forcibly impose the Lie upon her or others. In refusing to relinquish her Truth for the Lie, the protagonist passes through a Door of No Return, in which she is forced to leave the Normal World of the First Act and enter the Adventure World of the main conflict in the Second Act.

The Second Act (25%-75%)

37%: The First Pinch Point: Uncertain if Truth Is Capable of Defeating Lie

The protagonist struggles to use her Truth against the strength of the antagonistic force’s Lie. She experiences doubt about whether her Truth is capable of defeating the Lie and, as a result, if it is indeed the Truth.

50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Proves Power of Truth to World

The protagonist perseveres in following her Truth. She offers a Moment of Truth to the world around her. This is the first time the protagonist will demonstrably exhibit the full power and purity of the Truth. At least one significant supporting character will be impacted (positively or negatively) by this revelation.

62%: The Second Pinch Point: Lie-Driven Characters Fight Back

In response to the protagonist’s powerful demonstration of Truth at the Midpoint, other Lie-driven characters will double down on the Lie and use it to mount a formidable counter-attack upon the protagonist and her Truth.

The Third Act (75%-100%)

75%: The Third Plot Point: Lie Seems to Triumph Externally

The Lie-driven tactics of the antagonistic force hit the protagonist hard, even to the point of the protagonist’s seeming defeat in the external conflict. The protagonist is confronted by a “low moment” brought about by the supporting characters’ continuing refusal to fully reject the Lie. The protagonist must confront the true stakes of what she stands to sacrifice if she continues to embrace the Truth. Even in the face of overwhelming odds, she reaffirms her conviction of the Truth.

88%: The Climax: Final Confrontation Between Truth and Lie

The protagonist enters the final confrontation with the antagonistic force to decide whether or not she will gain the Thing She Wants. She consciously and explicitly embraces and wields the Truth.

98%: The Climactic Moment: Truth Defeats Lie

The protagonist uses the Truth (often with the help of positively-changed supporting characters) to defeat the antagonistic force and gain the Thing She Wants and Needs (which are often the same thing in a Flat Arc, since the protagonist always possesses an understanding of the Truth).

100%: The Resolution: New Truth-Empowered Normal World

The protagonist enters a new Normal World, which is empowered by the Truth thanks to her actions.

***

Once you’ve mastered these two heroic arcs, you’re well on your way to writing powerful stories of redemption, conviction, and relatable righteousness.

Stay tuned, because next week, we’re going to do a side-by-side comparison of the three Negative-Change Arcs, which offer an equal amount of power in dramatizing all the ways human journeys don’t always turn out the way we might hope.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you written either of these types of character arc in your stories? 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. Eric Troyer says

    Nice summary of your previous work on these arcs!

  2. I’m currently using your Creating Character Arcs Workbook to help me with my protagonist’s Positive Change Arc—thank you for your valuable resources! I loved this summary. The Flat Arc sounds intriguing.

  3. Kelsey Brownlee says

    I’ve been having trouble shaping my characters positive story arc. I think I finally just realized that my character may need a flat arc! Back to outlining now! 😛

  4. philipguin says

    Hey, minor complaint – the arc outline images have completely transparent backgrounds, so they’re hard/impossible to read after downloading to certain platforms, particularly mobile. Love your work!

  5. Christine Moore says

    Thank you for these wonderful diagrams! I recently attempted to create a chart that matched your character arcs to your plot points, and you just boiled it down to the essentials for a perfect reference. Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge online. I’ve also learned much from your books. Your organized, clear teaching is effective, and your style is engaging and encouraging. God bless you!

  6. I’ve been following this blog for years, but in this last year, I’ve come to adore you and the way you clarify and inform my freelance editing as well as my own craft.

    Thank you so much for your work, K.M.!

  7. JP "Rob" Robnett says

    Have you read “The Writer’s Journey 3rd Edition by Christopher Vogler? If not I highly recommend it. Google it for a free pdf version if you are interested. Very Respectfully, Rob

    PS: I enjoy your emails and your web sight. Keep up the excellent work! Thank you.

  8. JA Schmidt says

    Great blog. My WIP has a flat arc and this plot point summary just helped me finish Act IIIs outline!! Great timing!

  9. Very interesting break-down. Could you suggest on how one might extend the “positive arc” over a series?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Series are tricky–and often pretty fluid in terms of timing. However, the simplest approach is to think of the series as one large story and break down the overarching character in the same way you would for a standalone book. However, it’s also important to note that each book’s structure should be complete unto itself. It’s best if each book can feature a complete “mini-arc” of its own, which will build into the larger thematic pattern of the overall series.

  10. Love this breakdown! Thank you for a valuable resource!

  11. Really clear and enlightening post. Thanks–and I’ll be looking forward to the next!

  12. Thank you for this very instructional blog. Do these arcs work for murder mysteries as well? In all the advice I’ve found on line, it seems like murder mysteries are a different animal, with a different set of writing rules. I even found something called the “Classic 12 chapter murder mystery formula.” (http://robynpaterson.com/classic-12-chapter-murder-mystery-formula/). Most of the other advice I’ve found about murder mysteries follow this “formula,” more or less. Would I be trying to fit a round peg in a square hole by combining this formula with, say, the positive change arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It depends. There are many, many variations on the murder mystery. However, Flat Arcs seem to be the most common, even if it’s just via the detective protagonist holding the Truth that “justice should be served.”

  13. Jack Haywood says

    Thank you so much for this, K! I’m in the middle of creating a Zelda fanfiction novella where the protagonist King Harkinian is in a Fall arc where he thinks only decisions that provide immediate pleasure/indulgence/personal gain should be made, which ends up weakening his kingdom and himself. He eventually gets completely defeated by the antagonist Ganon who takes over his throne (it turns out at the end that Ganon was the rightful king anyway).

    I’m looking forward to your next post which I believe will give the right amount of detail about the Fall arc – I thought the Infographic had too little info and failed to explain how the bare essentials it explained should be put into practice while the section in the Creating Character Arcs focused too much on Negative Arcs generally without giving the three variations enough of their own individual explanation.

    In short this mini-series has managed to explain the arcs to me without getting too long-winded or too vague and I really loved this and look forward to the next post about this!

    • Jack Haywood says

      Also, I am rather confused about whether the character arc events only happen on the plot points or on AND after them or on AND around them. Can you clear this up for me please?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        The beats I’ve talked about in these breakdowns should ideally happen as part of the structural timing. However, “character arc events” will happen in every scene, whether they’re context or subtext.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like you’re writing a fun story. I hope you enjoy the next post!

  14. Can you please help me understand how to make this work with a series? I’ve been using your cheat sheet to help me and I loved this podcast, thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s harder to provide a beat sheet for a series, in part because series come in all different sizes. However, the easiest approach is to look at the overall length of your series (whether it’s two books or twenty) and divide up the timing of the structure in the same way you would a single book. The timing won’t be that exact since it will also have to account for the mini-arcs within the individual books, but it will help you get a sense of the overall arc over the course of multiple books.

  15. David Snyder says

    Katie,

    This is great. I use your books and tools on Character all the time, and find the sections you have imbedded in your Scrivener Template to be especially helpful. I use them every day.

    In addition to the valuable materials you have supplied, I find the two following books to be very helpful in digging deeper for the emotions and emotional descriptions you need to conjure up in order to pull off the meaningful character arcs you have described.

    Ackerman and Puglisi:

    (both available at Amazon)

    The Emotion Thesaurus (Second Edition)
    The Emotional Wound Thesaurus

    I just read an article that showed how emotional resonance is a key factor in the emergence of bestsellers—that emotional words, images, cadences, writing, situations etc. are what cause books to become unforgettable and impossible to put down. That it is, in fact, all brain science: psychology, psychophysiology and linguistics.

    We bond with the characters who feel the emotions we feel and fight until they make their lives better.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, their Negative Trait Thesaurus ties in beautifully with explorations of character arcs.

  16. Great information as usual! I’m using this article to make a brainstorming document related to my new WIP. I’ve titled the document “What is Sally’s Ghost?” I’ll add the elements I choose to her voice journal. (If y’all haven’t free-formed a voice journal for your characters, it’s an amazing blast!)

  17. John Woolley says

    Katie, you really are the guardian angel of my writing life. I’ve been wandering round the first act of my flat character arc for weeks. This is exactly the right post at exactly the right time: concise, clear, and gives me back my focus.

    I adore your site by the way. It’s my Bible!

  18. Excellent, article! You were very thorough with the details and the insight you have is riveting. Thanks for sharing.

  19. I just listened to this episode in the shower (where all good ideas happen) and it’s given me a lot to think about. I think I know the truth and the lie that each of my major characters believe, and I have a seven-point outline of the plot. The next step is trying to merge the two.

  20. Joan Kessler says

    I so love it when you do these breakdowns. This is the first time I really understood and got excited about a flat-arc character. Thank you!

  21. Thanks heaps for your blog. They have been very handy and helpful though I must confess to not reading everyone. So I am unsure if you have answered this question or not previously.
    Q. Can you mix the two positive character arcs in one story, but for two different but principal characters? For example, one younger character learning a Truth an older character already has (the older is not a mentor/teacher) but has his own plotline that merges at the end of the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. A lot of good complexity can happen in a story when multiple characters are experiencing different types of arc that all revolve around the same thematic Truth/Lie.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Characters bring our stories to life, so how we draw them is essential to a compelling story. Kassandra Lamb explores the right way to include multiple points of view, Angela Ackerman tells how to avoid the boring stuff in character description and character building for pantsers, and K.M. Weiland describes the 2 heroic character arcs. […]

  2. […] The Positive Character Arcs | Helping Writers Become Authors […]

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