At the same time, some writers start with the plot and then work out the characters inhabiting that world, and some start with the characters and then brainstorm their situation. Some are inspired by an idea for a scene, and some find inspiration in a big-picture premise. Some write linearly (writing scenes in order), and some piece out-of-order scenes together later.
I could probably go on with several more examples, but I hope the point is clear. Especially as we mix and match these various approaches (a pantser who starts with character vs. a pantser who starts with plot), variety is the name of the game.
These story development processes are all valid. As long as we end up with a finished book, our process worked for us. *smile*
What Is a Character Arc?
No matter what process we use, we’ll probably have to come up with an arc for our protagonist at some point. A character arc (sometimes called their emotional or internal arc) refers to how a character changes and/or how the story or plot affects them.
We’re not talking about a character’s appearance, job, or family situation here. Instead, a character arc is about their internal journey:
- What do they learn about themselves or the world?
- What are they able to do at the end of the story that they couldn’t do before?
- How do their beliefs about themselves or the world change?
Author K.M. Weiland has a great series on her blog about the three types of character arcs: positive, flat, and negative.
- Positive arcs are the most common, as they’re found in many genres, providing a happy ending when the character learns and improves their life.
- Flat arcs are common in some genres (such as mystery or thriller series), where the protagonist doesn’t change much but confronts the world around them.
- Negative arcs are found in some styles of literary fiction (and occasionally some genre fiction, such as horror), as the story is about a character’s failure.
Just like the variety found in the overall writing processes we might use, we have many options for how to come up with our protagonist’s arc as well.
Elements of a Character Arc
A complete character arc (especially a positive arc) will usually include most of the following elements:
- a way the character is unfulfilled (a longing, an internal need, etc.)
- a backstory wound affecting them in the present
- a fear making them unwilling to take certain risks
- a false belief (or rationalization) holding them back
- a weakness or flaw that needs to be overcome for them to improve
- a “mask” they show the world to hide their wound/fear/weakness
- a potential of how they can improve and reach their desire
- a demonstration of how their current path isn’t working
- choices forcing them to question their beliefs/morals/current path
- an acknowledgement of what they need to change
- a motivation for their desire to change (stakes/consequences/goals)
- a lesson about what they need to do to implement the change
- a self-realization of a truth about their wound, false belief, and/or fear
- a demonstration of how they’ve changed
Methods for Developing Our Protagonist’s Arc
As mentioned above in regard to story development processes, there’s no “one right answer” for developing our character’s arc. Different processes can all lead us to a complete understanding of their arc, but the starting point or the creation journey can vary.
There’s no one element of a character that has to be a foundation upon which we build everything else (no matter the bazillion blog posts that tell us otherwise). Just like with the validity of starting with plot vs. character, we can build in many different directions and still end up with a finished arc.
Every story might challenge us in a different way. We might find ourselves using one method with one book and experimenting with another method for a later book. So it’s good to understand our character-development options in case our default method isn’t working for us.
We could start with…
- an understanding of the ending (how they change, what they learn, what goal they reach, etc.) and work backward to develop a contrast from beginning to end
- a theme we want to develop and figure out what we want them to learn to illustrate that theme
- a scene that demonstrates a turning point choice they make and figure out what motivation would lead to that choice
- an understanding of the backstory wound and develop the false belief and fear that would result from it
- a fear or false belief and ideas for how they might overcome it
- a character flaw/weakness and brainstorm how they might move forward
- Etc., etc.
I came up with this list of approaches off the top of my head, but I hope it’s enough to demonstrate how it doesn’t matter what element we start with.
I’ve seen countless blog posts asserting the “proper” way to develop a character arc. They’ll act like one element is the foundation for all the other elements, but the truth is that they all interrelate.
Yes, in a story’s chronological order, the backstory wound causes the fear and false belief holding them back. However, a false belief such as “people aren’t to be trusted” could be caused by many different wounds, so the specific wound of our character could be decided later, even though it happens first in our fictional chronology.
Similarly, if we start with the plot, we might know what the character needs to learn to win the final showdown with the antagonist. From that, we could figure out the fear and false belief they need to overcome to reach that point.
The same applies to the other elements. In fact, we could start with any of those elements listed above and develop the other elements around that point.
Whatever the seed idea for our character, our story can feel complete, demonstrate a theme, and inspire readers no matter how we construct our protagonist’s arc. So don’t believe the blog posts acting like there’s one right way. If we get stuck on one point of development, we can always try another angle. *smile*
Do you struggle with building character arcs? What makes it tricky for you? Have you seen blog posts acting like one element is the foundation for all the others (implying that we have to start there)? Do you usually start with a certain element or do you vary your approach as needed? What elements come most easily to you? Which are hardest?Pin It