Often I will hear a young author talk about character arcs and realize that they have a misconception: just because character changes, that doesn’t mean she has a character arc.
For example, let’s say you have a character who works as a pizza delivery person and suddenly
she gets a new job working as a chocolatier. Maybe being a chocolatier is her dream job, but it
still isn’t a character arc. She’s just changing careers, not changing who she is.
A character arc only occurs when a character changes the premises that he or she operates
under and takes a new course of action, becomes a new person. They have to change a
fundamental belief about how the world operates.
We all base our actions at some levels on models of the world that are false. Sometimes, we just
really don’t understand the world. Sometimes the rules of the universe seem to shift under us.
Once you discover that you’re operating under a misconception, you have to change the way
you act toward the world and find a new balance. That’s a real character arc.
Every character arc has four main parts, traditionally, but I think that there is a fifth. Let’s go
1) The Lie.
The first part of a character arc is called the lie. It’s something that the character
believes, and he or she builds their life around it. The lie can be anything. “My spouse loves
me and will always be faithful.” “Let the professionals handle politics, that is what they are
good at.” “So long as you work hard, you can make enough money to take care of yourself.”
“My priest is a trustworthy person.”
Of course, such generalizations all have exceptions. Under the right circumstances, your
spouse might betray you. Many professional politicians are no better than crooks. You can
make plenty of money and still have your wealth wiped out by a tragic illness, and many
priests are predators of one sort or another.
So once your character recognizes that he or she has fallen for a lie, you as an author have
got a great opportunity to begin creating a character arc. The recognition that there is a
problem is called the “Inciting Incident” to your story, and it begs to be written perhaps
even as a first scene.
Let’s take the cheating spouse as an example. Years ago I knew a man who had killed his
wife. He was a genuinely nice guy, according to many reports—a pillar of his community. I
was a prison guard at the time, and I have to admit, I even liked him. He’d come home from
work early and found his wife in bed with another man, so he got mad and shot them both.
That moment of discovering your wife cheating is pivotal.
2) The Wound.
A second thing that we have to show in a story is the reason the character
believed a lie. Why do we believe lies? Usually it is because our past experience suggests the
lie is true.
Why did this man believe his wife was faithful? He’d never seen evidence to the contrary. As
I recall, he’d been married to her for ten years. They were both in their sixties. He had met
his wife at church. She’d supported him emotionally. She’d cooked meals for him, taken care
of him when he was sick, cleaned his house, bought him presents for Christmas. She’d never
talked longingly about wanting another man. So of course he believed that she was faithful.
In short, she didn’t just say “I do” at the altar.
As a writer, when you’re creating a character arc, you need to show the foundation for the
lie, the reasons that your character believed that something was true. In short, the evidence
points to one conclusion, that she loves him completely.
But as a writer, we also need to show the exception. Maybe there was something about this
specific man that made her want to cheat. Was she drawn to his wealth? His prowess as a
lover? His charisma? Was he a master at sweet-talking the ladies, or did she genuinely find
someone that she felt was a soulmate?
In short, showing why the protagonist believed a lie is fertile ground for a story, but a lot of
time can be spent revealing the depths and breadth of a problem.
3) Taking New Action.
Every arch has its keystone, a rock that holds the two sides of the arch
In a story, the keystone is reached when the protagonist takes a new course of action. Now,
in the story we’ve been looking at, I’m not a fan of the idea of killing your spouse, but
perhaps leaving her would be justified, or perhaps trying to win her back.
Whatever course of action your character takes, however, it requires him to suddenly move
from being reactive to become proactive, to consciously change things.
I think that the moment where your character begins to take a new course of action is
pivotal. Luke Skywalker dreamed of going to the Academy and becoming a fighter pilot like
his father, but when he suddenly begins to study the ways of the Force, he enters a much
larger world of possibilities, and the audience is mesmerized by it. Luke is taking a pivotal
4) The Character’s Wants.
Every character has things that they want, and those wants provide
the motivation for them to change. Typically, though, we don’t have the energy to chase
after every possible dream. Still, the character’s “wants” can provide a strong motivation for
There is a rule in screenwriting that says that the protagonist must voice his wants by the
midpoint of a film. The audience must learn what is driving him or her.
It’s a good rule for a novel, too. In once scene or another, you need to let the character
show the reader what she really wants.
5) The Character’s Needs.
More important than the character’s wants may be the character’s
needs. Sure, your protagonist might want a Mercedes Benz, but all he can afford is a
scooter. Ultimately, he might have to settle for a unicycle as transportation.
As your protagonist struggles to build a new future, balancing her wants against her needs
will be a vital for plotting the upcoming sequences.
I think that the important thing to remember is that when your story starts, your character is
acting on the basis of a belief system founded on a lie. As the story progresses, the protagonists
uncovers the lie and adopts a new belief system, one that requires greater accountability, then
moves toward re-establishing their lives based upon a new system of beliefs.
Please note that the new belief system doesn’t necessarily need to be “true”. In Star Wars: A
New Hope, Luke Skywalker tells Obi wan Kenobi that he wants to learn the ways of the force
and become a Jedi like his father. He imagines that his father was a hero who fought against the
tyranny of the Empire. But in the next film, he discovers that his father is Darth Vader, and that
all of his hopes are merely founded on a new lie.
Dave has two new Workshop “David Farland’s Ultimate writing workshop” and an “Epic Novel Writing Workshop”. Check them out here ” http://mystorydoctor.com/
This week in Apex has been a blast. We interviewed Jonathan Maberry (
#1 NYT best selling author), and Lisa Magnum of Show mountain publishing. Tomorrow we will be interviewing thriller writer Marta Sprout! If you are interested in joining Apex, email the word Apex to firstname.lastname@example.org!
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