Building a Character Arc: Start at the End
One technique I teach in my Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story workshop is to figure out the end of the story first. This might seem counter-intuitive when we first hear the idea, but keep reading and it will all make sense. Trust me. *smile*
As I mentioned with the John Truby worksheet I shared last week, it’s often easier to work backward when we’re framing our story. At the very least, knowing the ending often makes it easier to see our character’s arc.
I write by the seat of my pants, so my idea of the ending is usually pretty vague. And by “pretty vague,” I mean really vague:
Um, it’s a romance, so these characters will have a happy ending. *whew* Mark that to-do off the list.
But even that duh statement of the ending is enough to figure out one aspect of the beginning. Let’s take a look at how that works.
Stage 1 Arc Development: Establish a Basic Contrast
If we’re writing a story with a character arc (not all stories contain character arcs, but most do), we want our characters to change from point A (the beginning) to point B (the ending). That means we need to show contrast between point A and point B.
For my example, if point B is happy, point A must be… (all together now) …sad or unfulfilled in some way. In other words, simply by knowing the “status” of the characters at the end, we know to make their beginning status different somehow.
If we’re writing a positive ending, we know we need a scene in the beginning of the story that shows how things aren’t good for the characters. Maybe they know what they want and they’re stymied in how to make it happen. Maybe they know of plot events heading toward them that will make things worse. Or maybe they don’t know what they want, but something’s missing from their lives or they’re going through the motions and feeling unfulfilled.
Stage 2 Arc Development: Establish a Change in Beliefs
The Climax scene at the end of the story typically shows the characters facing the main conflict. In non-tragedies, we’d see the characters overcome the obstacles and “win.”
But overcoming the obstacles shouldn’t be easy. After all, if it was easy, they would have done it back in chapter one (or before the story even started).
In stories with strong character arcs, the Climax often includes a choice the characters must make. This choice is the theme.
Think of choices like: loyalty vs. justice, love vs. survival, advancement vs. compassion, etc. (Here’s a big list of values for ideas of those two ideals to choose between.) In other words, these are two good options. If one was good and the other bad, the choice would be too easy. *smile*
Step 1: Identify the Theme
There’s no wrong answer for our characters (remember, both options are “good”), but their choice does illustrate the theme of the story. For example, if we look at the “loyalty vs. justice” choice:
- A buddy heist movie along the lines of Ocean’s Eleven might choose loyalty by ending with the characters helping each other escape, even if that means losing the “prize” to the bad guy who screwed them over.
- A buddy detective movie along the lines of Training Day might choose justice by ending with one character turning in their partner for corruption, even though that means being disloyal to their friend.
In one case, we-the-author are imparting the message that to live a good life, we need to value people over objects. In the second case, we’re sharing the message that to live a good life, we might need to sacrifice friendship for the greater good. That choice is our theme.
Step 2: Identify the Choice
If we know what kind of story we want to tell theme-wise (at least on a basic level), we can think about how we’ll force the characters to make a choice between two good options during the Climax. Often, one option is the point of the story (the way they’re going to choose) and the other option is something else they’d be likely to choose (especially at the beginning of the story).
Being a pantser, I won’t know the specifics of the choice, but I’ll usually have some ideas for the “versus” statement. Maybe it’ll be a “love vs. survival” story, and at the end, the hero or heroine must choose between saving themselves and saving the one they’ve realized they love. That idea is sufficiently vague enough to not stress out my muse. *smile*
Step 3: Identify the Change
To create an emotional impact with our characters’ arc and the story theme, that second good option at the Climax choice should be what the characters would choose if they faced the main conflict at the beginning of the story.
Remember that we want to show contrast between Point A and Point B. So our characters’ beliefs, attitudes, values, etc. at the beginning of the story should point them to pick the second option.
Both options are “good,” so this difference in their choice doesn’t make them “bad.” This is simply how we show the biggest change in their character. The difference shows how their values and beliefs have changed.
Maybe their beliefs changed because they’re no longer operating under a false belief. Maybe they’ve gone through so many life experiences during the story that they’re now more capable. Maybe the plot events have showed them what really matters.
The important thing is that the characters are now willing to do something they weren’t willing to do before. Our story’s “plot” is simply the events that challenge their beliefs/values and the action that forces them to face the choice at the Climax.
Stage 3 Arc Development: Establish the Self-Revelation
Everything that happens in our story should have a trigger. Every effect should have a cause. So something needs to happen that forces our characters to change.
In many stories, the characters change a little bit at a time, but they won’t really change—deep down where it counts (and where it will stick)—until they realize how their beliefs are false. This revelation often happens all at once, right as they’re facing the biggest obstacle during the Climax. This self-revelation gives them the information they need to overcome their fatal flaw and/or solve the conflict.
In stories with strong, emotional Climaxes, this revelation can feel like a magical Hallelujah moment or an epiphany where the puzzle of the character’s life finally clicks into place. In other words, this is often the most dramatic moment of the story.
To make this intense moment work, we have to set it up earlier in the story. Readers should:
- form the impression our characters would make a different choice at the beginning,
- see evidence of our characters’ false beliefs, and
- believe our characters are capable of figuring out their revelation.
As a pantser, I might have a vague idea of what that second option for the Climax choice would be (like “survival”), or I might not. For this stage, my muse often gives me elements to work into the story (that I don’t understand until I draft the ending and see how it all fits together), or I might need to layer it in during revisions. It’s okay to not know this ahead of time, but we can definitely think about it during revision.
…But What Triggers the Self-Revelation?
I sometimes call the self-revelation a “leap of faith” because it’s one time in our story where the cause doesn’t have to match the effect. Usually we want our characters’ emotional reactions to be proportional to the triggers. If they fly off the handle at the smallest thing, readers are going to think they’re hyper-emotional.
But for the revelation, it’s okay if the trigger is small. In a romance, maybe all it takes is the hero giving the heroine a smile at the right moment as they’re facing the big conflict. That small gesture could be enough to trigger a huge epiphany about how much she loves him—really loves him. And that realization can be enough to motivate her to make different choices.
Normally, a mere smile wouldn’t trigger a major epiphany and story-changing action. But the “leap of faith” moment of self-revelation is an exception—if we’ve established the earlier setup.
In fact, this disconnect can give the impression of the character rising to a moment of heroism and exceptional courage. If the epiphany seems like a given or too logically follows the trigger, our characters might not seem special for taking the leap.
Summing Up: Working from the Ending to the Beginning
Even if we’re the pants-iest pantser, we can still use this technique. After all, once we’ve completed the first draft, we know what the ending is, and if we’re happy with our story, that ending isn’t likely to change at the high level.
That means any changes to make a stronger arc need to come from the beginning. During revisions, we can go through these same stages to make sure the beginning is different enough to create a strong arc.
- Ending: Know the “status” of the character(s) at the end (e.g. happy).
- Beginning: Develop an opposing status for the beginning.
Change in Choice:
- Ending: Identify what two good values they need to choose between at the end.
- Beginning: Give clues for how they’d make the opposite choice at the beginning.
- Ending: Think about the epiphany they experience at the end.
- Beginning: Hint at the false beliefs they have that they later realize are wrong.
Taken together, these elements of contrast, change in their choice, and self-revelation create the structure for character arcs. Along that structure, we can hang backstory wounds, fears, desires, goals, etc., but that basic Point A and Point B gives the arc its strength. Everything else is just details. *smile*
Have you planned stories from end-to-beginning before? Does that method work for you? If not, why not? How many of these elements can you plan in advance? Or do you need to layer them in later? Do you disagree with my theories on any of these story aspects?Pin It
Interesting stuff! Especially the parts about end status and beginning status, and the two contrasting good values. Hmm, unfortunately I think I’m even more extreme on the pantser intensity scale than you are—-even knowing what the two big contrasting themes/ values are (e.g. love vs survival) is too much for my muse to take. XD. I seriously know THAT little, lol. Well I know some basic things about my ending, but they’re just plot events, not about character changes. To be honest, I’m not even sure that there WILL be any character changes at all! I do see clearly a lot of my characters’ different beliefs, and it’s possible that some of my characters’ beliefs will change afterwards, but I really don’t know. My character arcs/ changes, if any, will only appear to me when they choose to appear—I can’t decide on any changes in advance, lol. That’s how little control I have over my story, haha. But I guess this is fun because I get the pleasure of FINDING OUT what the character changes will be as the story progresses, if any changes occur at all. Also, I clearly see some flaws my characters have, especially in my hero. But I actually DON’T want him to change, because this flaw of his makes him entertaining. XDD. Do you have times when you don’t want your character to overcome their flaw, because their flaw is just so entertaining and it’d be such a shame if they lose that flaw? In… — Read More »
Hi Serena, I added a bit more information at the end of the post about how pantsers can use this technique during revisions to make sure the character arc is as strong as possible. So never fear–I think this might still be helpful to you. 🙂 And I understand. I often don’t know the versus statement consciously, but I think my muse does know it, and he’s just not telling me. LOL! So I often get a subconscious hint of the story’s direction, but I might not consciously interrogate my muse to know the details. Really, on some level, I consciously think about these elements or techniques to try to help my muse do a better job at the subconscious level. If I’m aware of these storytelling aspects, I hope that information sinks into my subconscious so he can put them to work. 😉 All that said, as I mentioned in the post, not all stories have character changes. (I want to do a post about handling that possibility at some point.) But I would bet that you do have some character change, even if it’s small. Maybe ask yourself if your characters take any risks at the end of the story. Do they risk rejection by telling someone else how they feel? Do they risk vulnerability or imperfection by allowing themselves to recognize a flaw in themselves? Etc., etc. With a flaw, maybe they simply go from an unhealthy way of dealing with the flaw to a healthier way… — Read More »
Thanks for that add on, Jami. 😀 Using this technique during revisions makes a LOT more sense to my pantsiest pantser muse. XDD. I could definitely make the messages/ arcs clearer, in the event that I DO have arcs. ^^ ” I often don’t know the versus statement consciously, but I think my muse does know it, and he’s just not telling me. LOL! So I often get a subconscious hint of the story’s direction, but I might not consciously interrogate my muse to know the details.” I see. Well I’m not sure whether my muse has anything in store for me or not, probably because I admittedly have a very casual attitude towards whether I get character arcs or not, lol. They would be very nice to have, but I wouldn’t be too unhappy if there aren’t any. I care more about whether my characters are developed and 3D (complex enough and motivations-actions make sense) than whether they change or not. ” I hope that information sinks into my subconscious so he can put them to work. ” Lol! I make factfiles of my characters’ revealed personalities so far, with the hope that this will sink in and help my muse give me more accurate information about what my characters are doing. 😀 Ok this reply isn’t exactly related to what you just said, but… Hmm, I have no idea whether they will take those types of risks or not, haha, but maybe my muse does… ” With a… — Read More »
Oh yes, I’ve written stories without a clue where it was going, so I can understand that pantsiest pantser point of view. LOL! Many times these are elements that I might not notice or realize until the drafting is done, so it’s okay if you have to wait and see. At least now you know what to look for and how to make whatever you end up with stronger. 🙂
One thing to keep in mind as far as your character’s flaw is watching out for subtext that leads the reader to believe this flaw will be “fixed” in some way. I remember we talked about reader expectations last year (probably as part of our Pacific Rim conversations) and how we have to be careful about what “goals” we establish in the subtext. If you don’t want the character to change that flaw, maybe watch for any subtext accidentally making that change seem like a goal. 😉 Thanks for the comment!
Argh, subtext! Good point. Well okay there does seem to be some reader expectation that he will change, and he DOES seem to be changing if only just the slightest bit. And I’m going, Noooo please stay the same! Feels like I’m trying to prevent a ship from slowly dipping under. XD Speaking of reader expectations, I find that as I write this very long novel (600+ pages and STILL not done, sigh OTL), I’m made very aware of many reader expectations. I know that if I don’t do X, many readers will be disappointed or even angry, lol. Which gives me a dilemma: if things happen the way readers expect it, they’ll be happy; but on the other hand, if I meet all their expectations, some readers might find it too predictable and boring. OTL Grrr this problem of different readers wanting different things. And if I violate just SOME expectations, I don’t know which to pick to arouse the least possible reader wrath, lol. On the other hand, it also has to be true to the characters and stories, so SOME expectations MAY be violated whether I or my readers like it or not… Have you ever encountered this problem of whether to satisfy the readers who want all their expectations met, or the readers who want surprises (whether they be pleasant or unpleasant)? (The latter group are also those who WELCOME sadly ever afters in books that were expected to give happily ever afters…) Any tips on… — Read More »
Hi Serena, We can manage reader expectations by which genre we use to label it (labeled as comedy? we expect laughs, as romance? we expect a happy ending for the love story, etc.), story and character goals (what do we expect the “point” is), mood/tone (tragedy or not), etc.–and then subtext of all that stuff. For example, with the character you don’t want to change, if the other characters do want him to change, can you have the subtext imply that they only want him to change because of selfish reasons? (I.e., He’s happy with himself, but dealing with him as-is isn’t “convenient” for the characters.) Can you have the subtext in his POV make it clear that he’s happy with the way he is? (I.e., Imply that he wouldn’t be happy if he changed the way they wanted him to.) Because you’re right that you can’t meet everyone’s expectations and you don’t want to. Our work is never going to be for everyone, so we have to write the story WE want. But we can make sure we’re doing all those things above to prepare readers for OUR story. As for your scene question, if we include out-of-timeline events in our story (whether that’s a story in a story, flashback, etc.), it should be relevant to the here-and-now story in some way or else it’s interrupting this story in a bad-for-pacing way. In other words, it’s more important to make sure it affects the characters of this story. If… — Read More »
Ok, thanks for the tips! 😀
I usually get a goal for the climax or end by the time I’m about 10% into a story. If I don’t have one, I have to sit down and figure it out, at about that point.
I might have no clue how I get to my goal—and the goals are often snippets, not fully fleshed-out scenes—but I’ve found that one surefire way to get the “Something’s wrong” vibe about my writing is to figure out that end goal…and then forget it while writing.
In my current WiP, the narrator is going to have a lot more changes at the end than I usually have, but it seems to be building organically. She’s a self-reliant loner who has a bunch of other problems, including PTSD that she’s ignored for >20 years and a deep-seated belief that she is not to be trusted with a child.
The story starts off with her pregnant, from a drunken/depressed “Oops.”
…and it gets worse from there.
I already know the scene where she’ll have her major revelations for some of it, and *grimace*. It’s gonna be pretty horrific…especially for someone who’s been tortured in the ways she was as a kid.
But I’m planting the seeds in the first draft over on Wattpad, and from reader comments, it’s working how I want. 🙂
Yes, as I mentioned to Serena, I certainly don’t do all of these steps before drafting. But being aware of them can help me focus while I’m drafting, and I can go through the stages during revisions to make the arc stronger.
Ha! I love the dilemma you have for your character (in a “it’s fun to torture characters” way 😉 ). Good luck with your story and thanks for the comment!
*grin* It’s actually been a lot of fun to realize how my subconscious is so much smarter than I am. Pretty much every single pants’d…problem…in the book actually is grabbing T by the hair and smashing her into, “SEE?! You aren’t worthless and unlovable and unfit to be a mother or friend. Now stop thinking that!”
She is very stubborn.
LOL! I know what you mean about our subconscious. A huge part of my ability to pants is trusting my muse to know what he’s doing. 🙂
And I can relate to that stubborn character too. 😉 Thanks for the comment!
I can usually get step 1! The other two, I’ll have to work on. But that’s some excellent guidance that I’m going to put to use.
Yep, no worries. If nothing else, being aware of how to create a strong arc can help us in revisions. 🙂 Thanks for the comment and good luck!
This is excellent advice, thanks so much!
Hopefully just what I need to get my novella unstuck in the middle.
LOL, too many people who’d read the first few chapters told me they were good, so of course today I’m sitting at the laptop paralysed with self-doubt and fear of screwing it up!
Ugh. I get that. I think it’s normal to have a great idea and not feel up to the task to bring it to life. As with all “perfectionist” issues, all we can do is try our best. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!
Jami, this is excellent advice. I have another release coming out next month, and I thought of the ending before I knew anything else. Actually the ending came about while watching the news. It was fun to create a whole novel around that one image from a news story.
Fun! I’ve had one story build itself around a scene, but that was the Inciting Incident. So I usually don’t know much about the ending at all (much less the details) until I get there. At most, I might know what I want to accomplish with the end (“I want her to have to choose between X and Y”), and many times I don’t even have that.
Enjoy your release and thanks for the comment! 🙂
I’m going to give this a try with my next story … usually I have no idea what the ending will be until I get there, or at least within hailing distance. This is gonna be fun! 🙂
Like I said, I usually think more about making a strong arc during revisions, but we never know what might work for us until we try. 🙂 Thanks for the comment and good luck!
I really like how you set this up!
I usually do have a pretty good idea of how my protagonist is broken at the beginning of the story, and a rough idea of how I intend to fix things as I write towards my ending.
What I might be missing though is how my protagonist plays an active role in determining his own fate. My aha moment came when I understood that to be a true hero, he must overcome his self-imposed obstacles–and thus complete his character arc.
For me, this is much easier said than done! 😉
Ooo, good point! That’s why I like this approach of thinking through the big choice they have to make. Anytime a character makes a choice, they’re being active (at least a little bit) and taking charge of their path. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
The ending was one of the first things I thought of. My idea was initially inspired by something I read in a short Victorian ghost story which I found fascinating. I have no idea what made me think of the ending but once I did I built the specifics of the plot around the beginning and the end. I’ve found it difficult to apply the structure above and for a while I thought it was just me but then I stumbled upon the structure for a tragedy (my main character does not come out of this well) and my plot fits almost perfectly which was a great relief. There was something that my dad’s ex-girlfriend said that I’d like capture for my main character at the beginning, that there was a kind of sadness to my sister and I but how to show this in written form I’m not sure. As for the character arc, it’s downhill all the way after the catalyst which initially seems a harmless mystery but becomes an obsession for her. As the story progresses it drags her down further and further. I think a lot of people will be dissatisfied with the ending. The question which has been running through the whole story is answered, but is immediately followed by a “Hang on a minute” moment, which poses another question where the answer is entirely open to interpretation. The lack of resolution is going to bug some people but I would definitely love to read… — Read More »
Editor Victoria Mixon talks about how the ending is often the reason we’re driven to write the story. I often have the general premise in mind, which might imply a certain showdown in the Climax, but I’ve never (even on the story I tried plotting) had a specific scene in mind–but that’s me. LOL!
I don’t write tragedies, so I have no idea how to apply this technique to that structure (I’m not even sure how different the structure is). I’m glad you found a way to make it work. 🙂
No story is going to be for everyone, so don’t worry about those who won’t like it. If it’s the kind of story you’d like to read, hopefully you’ll be able to find others who would enjoy it too. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!
I’m a pantster too. I always know the ending but I think your ideas help with the middle and help with getting to that ending. Great blog Jami.
Hi Sharla Rae,
Ooo, a pantser who does know their ending. 🙂 I trust that my muse knows it, even if he’s not telling me. LOL! Thanks for the comment!
I have the hardest time with theme and character arcs. Thanks for this article! And thanks for reminding us that we can go BACK and revise and add this later.
Could you give a few more “versus” statements that might apply to romance stories?
I like the “loyalty vs. justice” example, but I was wondering if you could give a few more that are commonly used in romance. Thanks.
Yes, I have several posts about theme and arcs because each “angle” helps me see it more clearly too. And if I can’t get a handle on it from one angle, I know I can try another. LOL!
Hmm, let’s see. Here’s a list off the top of my head (and an example of how each could apply–this example is by no means the only way of the choice could play out):
I hope that helps. Those probably aren’t the “most commonly used”–as I just started going through that list of values and picking random ones–but they should give you an idea of how it works. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Ooo! I can see I’ve got some more thinking to do before writing the ending of my WIP – and rewriting the whole thing 🙂
Very lucidly explained, thank you!
Yay! I’m happy to help. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Jami, great post! I’m a plantser these days…a born pantser who’s learning to plot (at least roughly) with an eye on overall project schedule. I pound the keyboard in between the demands of two kids under four, so it’s all about efficiency these days….
I usually have the characters’ end goals in mind when I start Draft 1, and it’s pretty ironed out in detail by the time I get through Act 2. If that doesn’t happen organically, I take a break from writing to rework character arcs. That wasn’t always the case (she says with a bit of fondness …I love just writing, writing, writing!), but now that I’ve reformed a bit, I find that having the end in mind propels me through my sagging middle. Most of the time. 😉 I’m midway through my current WIP and working on character arcs. Your post gave me good food for thought on the protagonists’ choice shifts. Thank you!
I appreciate your articles on craft, Jami! I hope to meet you in San Antonio next week. 🙂
LOL! I understand the need for efficiency. I discovered with fast-drafting that I write faster if I have at least a vague plan for the scene.
Good luck getting through your sagging middle! I hope this helps. Thanks for the comment and definitely say hi if you see me around next week! 🙂
[…] Jami Gold – Building a Character ARC Starts From the End. Great […]
[…] Reverse engineering your character arc with Jami Gold. […]
I think I can totally use this. I’m a pantser, too, but I usually know how the story needs to end, I just don’t always know how I’m going to get there.
Thanks for writing this, I might be able to know a little more about how to get there. Also themes seem to show up in my stories without my realizing it. Is that normal?
LOL! I can relate about the not knowing how to get from point A to point B. 🙂 And yes, having unintended themes is very normal–and sometimes problematic.
Good luck and thanks for the comment!
Wow. I’ve written about character arcs before, but never *this* detailed. (Which is ironic, because the focus of my latest novel is all about character change, from negative to positive, and vice versa in the sequel). After reading through this though, I can definitely say my MC experiences each of the core steps. Base, check. Change in beliefs, check. Self-revelation, check. It’s weird to see it all explained just like I wrote the character to be XD
Thanks for a great blog post!
“How to Create a Magnificent Main Character”
Hi S. Alex,
Interesting! And I’d say it’s just that we each appreciate seeing character arcs approached from a different angle. I loved your post at the link–#7 in particular is brilliant. 🙂 (In fact, you might have inspired another post. 😉 ) Thank you for the comment!
[…] can check for a character arc by comparing the beginning of the story to the end of the […]
I have copied your blogs on character arc, avoiding episodic writing and writing a forbidden story. They are all excellent and may help me write more novels that sell. Carolyn Rae Williamson, writing as Carolyn Rae, Romancing the Gold (MuseItUp, Sept. 2014)
I hope they help. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!
[…] https://jamigold.com/2014/07/building-a-character-arc-start-at-the-end/ Don’t worry, there will be tons more articles to come on a wide range of topics. […]
[…] Jami Gold, Building a Character Arc: Start at the End […]
[…] Gold explains why, if you want a strong character arc, you should start writing from the end, Alex Limberg show us how to fix common dialogue problems, and Frank Richardson explores the art of […]
[…] Arcs & Don’t Get Stuck: What should we do if we get stuck in our plot? Or with our character? How do we develop a character arc? How can we avoid a “sagging […]
[…] for where the story is going to end up. I have posts here on my blog about creating a story by figuring out the end of the character arc or by figuring out the end of the […]
[…] I mentioned last month, just as it’s sometimes easier to brainstorm a character arc or plot by figuring out the ending first, we might also find it easier to make decisions about our […]
[…] I mentioned in a previous post in the series, just as it’s sometimes easier to brainstorm a character arc or plot by figuring out the ending first, we might also find it easier to make decisions about our […]