Five steps to building a believable character arc
A commenter in my last article on crafting breakout stories asked for tips on how to demonstrate believable progress during the process of a character’s emotional growth.
It’s a fabulous question, because all too often I see writers take the all-at-once approach: a character has a problem, realizes it, decides to act differently, and is thenceforth cured. Like magic!
It’s exactly like magic, in as much as that’s not how life actually works.
In the real world, personal growth takes time and practice. We don’t usually just decide to be better in some way, and then presto, we’re better. For real people, it takes time. Fortunately, there’s a framework for personal growth you can use as a blueprint for how to show it in your novels.
The character’s internal shortcomings cause external problems. This makes sense. If some facet of his personality isn’t causing problems in his life, it’s probably not something he needs to change. The only things about which he needs to experience growth are the things that cause problems for him. So first of all, just to set the stage for your main character arc, you need to show the character failing at something because of his shortcomings.
The character experiences failure but doesn’t understand why. This is all about how the character reacts to his failures in step 1. It’s important to show the reaction, because not understanding why the failures are occurring sets the emotional conditions for growth. Not understanding why is bound to cause some negative emotions: anger, frustration, resentment, et cetera. These are what fuel a character’s growth; when he gets fed up with failing, he’ll do something to prevent it. Note, the character may not understand why he’s failing for a couple of different reasons. One, he may not be aware that the problem he has even exists. He may exist in a state of complete ignorance about the problem, and when confronted with it, his emotional reactions will include “gosh, I didn’t even know that was a thing, let alone a problem!” Two, he may recognize the existence of the problem, but is in denial that he has the problem. This latter is usually easier to defend in a novel.
The character still fails, but understands why. This is the natural next step after getting past denial. Like they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing it. Ok, we’re calling it step three, but you get the idea. The character is still blindsided by failures, but after they happen, can understand why. The character can reflect on the situation, and understand how his personal shortcoming led to the failure. Hindsight is 20/20.
The character sees failures coming, but still can’t avoid them. Next, the character gains enough experience that the failures don’t blindside him anymore. Now, he can see them coming but is still powerless to stop them. This is your alcoholic who knows he drinks too much, but can’t stop himself. Or your abusive spouse who knows his rage issues stem from how his father treated him, but can’t stop himself from using his fists to express his own displeasure. The character understands the dynamics of the situation, but hasn’t yet figured out how to act differently to produce a different result. Pro tip: Don’t shortchange stage four! There is enormous dramatic potential in this stage, because at heart it is a profoundly sad and distressing time for the character. This maps very closely to the depression stage of the five stages of grief, because just like in that situation, the character feels powerless against larger forces which seem to be controlling him. This stage can get ugly, and you shouldn’t be afraid to let it.
The character succeeds. Finally, after seeing enough failures coming, the character realizes how to act differently and thus can intervene with himself to make different choices. That’s emotional growth. That’s the culmination of the character arc. Pro tip: If you’re clever, you’ll time this moment to coincide with your plot’s climax, when the stakes are at their highest point. A chain of failures leading up to success at a critical moment can be a win-win-win: Believable, incredibly dramatic, and satisfying to read all at once. But only if you’ve supported it with a fully developed arc.
Emotional growth is nothing more than learning a new emotional skill.
It’s just like any other skill, such as surfing. Look at that kid in the picture. He’s gonna get dunked. You can tell just by looking at him. He’s got some failures ahead of him yet. But he’s up on the board and his hair is dry, so he must know something. He’s getting there. His first time out, he probably got dunked by even the tiniest waves. And he’s going to get dunked, time and time again, as he learns to read the water, feel the board—see failure coming—and adjust his actions. It’s going to take a lot of failures to teach him what he needs to know.
He’s lucky, though. He’s got his dad there in the background giving him helpful advice, helping him see the issues he didn’t even know he had. “Scoot back. You’re standing too far forward!” “Thanks, Dad, I didn’t know that was a problem!” But no matter what, it takes time. Neither this kid nor anybody else can immediately become an expert surfer just by listening to an expert explain how they do it, and yet novelists often try to turn a single moment of failure into an immediate and successful change of behavior. Doesn’t work that way.
Make it your own
You don’t have to follow this blueprint from end to end, just be aware that it exists. Plenty of great arc-driven novels have started at stage two or even stage three. Depending on the nature of the personal shortcoming facing your character, you may be able to skip some of the earlier steps. A character may make some progress but then slip back to an earlier stage.
However you do it, just remember that a single failure does not teach us everything we need to know to become an expert. At best, a single failure can teach us one little component of what we need to know. There’s a journey of many failures in going from being unaware that you have a shortcoming to having fully conquered the shortcoming so it doesn’t cause you problems anymore. Break that journey down into whatever smaller steps—and whatever sequence of failures—makes sense for your story, and use this framework to help you show a little bit of growth at each one.
Addendum: To give credit where credit is due, this post would not be what it is, nor would I be the person I am, if not for this poem. If anyone can point me towards the original source for this poem, I would be grateful. Thank you.
May 20, 2010 21:28 UTC
This is your reptilian brain on depression
Deep within every one of us is a brain structure called the Reptilian Complex. It is an ancient and powerful piece of biological machinery, having been part of every vertebrate creature ever to walk the earth or swim the seas. It’s in us, too, and handles the jobs we can’t be bothered to think about all the time, like keeping our hearts beating and breathing.
But for writers, the Reptilian Complex has a much more important job. It is also responsible for the Fight-or-Flight response, the basic survival instinct of all animals—people included—when threatened or cornered: fight, or run away.
Fight-or-Flight and Depression
Readers of this blog will well remember that depression is one of the five stages of grief that give such a useful roadmap for how characters respond when confronted with misfortunes. Had I been cleverer when writing that article on depression, I would have realized the connection between depression and the fight-or-flight response. Alas, I wasn’t, but better late than never.
What keeps people stuck in the depression stage, you’ll recall, is that anxious feeling of not seeing a way out of a bad situation. “Doomxiety,” I called it. In hindsight, this now seems obvious to me, but I didn’t see it at the time. Feeling trapped triggers the Reptilian Complex to initiate that fight-or-flight response.
I want to talk about flight first, because there’s a stronger connection to that sense of feeling trapped. The core of five-stage depression is not seeing any way out of a bad situation, so flight makes sense: running away, in one form or another, is a means to create a way out.
When do characters flee?
But notice, people don’t just immediately run away from bad situations all the time. In fact, flight is usually a last resort, and that’s because flight always involves sacrifice. The choice to run away always means leaving behind something that is of value to the character; if this weren’t so, the character wouldn’t have felt trapped in the first place, because the flight option—which was always there—would have had no down side.
The only thing keeping the character from always fleeing is an unwillingness to leave behind the parts of that bad situation that matter to them. Take bad marriages, for example. People stay in bad marriages all the time, because even if they’re totally unhappy with their spouse, there’s still something about the situation that the person values. Something that makes the flight option unacceptable. Maybe they can’t stand to leave the children, maybe the person came from a poor background but married into money and can’t stand the thought of being poor again, whatever. Something’s keeping them there.
Only when the situation becomes so bad that it outweighs the good parts will a person—or a character—finally choose to run away.
How do characters flee?
When a character finally opts to leave the bad situation behind, no matter the cost, he or she has some options. These fall into three broad buckets:
Panicked flight. This is literal fleeing, a rushed, haphazard, often terrified physical exit from a situation. Lots of yelling and screaming, flailing of arms, you get the picture. This kind of flight is perfect for situations where the character is threatened, but doesn’t have any strong emotional investments in the situation itself. Let’s say your character is walking down the street on his way to a cafe for lunch, when a mugger jumps out of an alley brandishing a knife. Sure, losing out on lunch is, technically, a sacrifice but it’s not a big one. Why wouldn’t he run? Especially if the mugger looks a bit on the fat-and-slow side, why wouldn’t the character run? What earth would make him stay and fight? I mean, is he so committed to getting a ham-on-rye that he’s willing to risk getting knifed? Of course not. In situations like this, a sudden threat that is not coupled to a significant sacrifice, flight makes perfect sense.
Methodical flight. This is a planned escape from a bad situation. Maybe it’s a jailbreak, but this fits any situation where the situation has become so bad that uprooting one’s whole life (or some significant chunk of it) isn’t too much of a sacrifice. These are the dads who go out for cigarettes and just never come back, the employees who just walk out even with no new job to go to. The amount of planning may vary; your typical jailbreak novel will involve an enormous amount of planning, while the deadbeat dad may simply have left with nothing but a wallet and a gym bag hastily stuffed with clothes and a razor. The difference is a lack of panic. This kind of flight is appropriate when the sacrifice is great, but there is no particular rush to escape. Use this when the character has plenty of time to consider the situation before deciding to flee.
Existential flight. This, in a word, is suicide. Suicide, when the result of five-stage depression, is a form of flight. People and characters do this when they’re so convinced there’s no way out of their bad situation except to stop living. This is when a character believes that even picking up stakes and starting over somewhere else won’t actually get them out of the bad situation. Obviously, this is the ultimate last resort, and you should think very, very carefully before putting a character on that path. For one thing, we shouldn’t make light in our novels of what in real life is one of the worst kinds of personal tragedies. For another thing, suicide isn’t going to work in your novel unless you’ve created a situation where the sacrifice—literally everything in the character’s life including all possible future experiences—isn’t enough to outweigh the pain of the bad situation the character is in. To make that believable in a novel is a pretty tall order. There’s no question suicide has its place in literature, but—and I apologize for the wording here—it’s not easy to do it right.
When do characters fight?
The fight half of Fight-or-Flight also relates to the depression stage, but in a different way. Fighting can be the key to reaching acceptance. You can create some powerful moments when the trapped feelings behind depression trigger a fight response. These are moments when the character says “there must be some way out of this, and I’m going to find it!” Tons of great drama there. If you’re looking for a way to get your character into the acceptance stage, this can be a wonderful option because—assuming your readers are actually rooting for your character—they want to see the character reach acceptance. They want to see him push through, survive, win.
You can bring on moments like this in a million different ways. You could have a character fall back on pride or stubbornness as a reason not to flee. You could have the choice to fight come from the culmination of an inner character arc: “Daddy always said I was a no-good loser, but I’m not, damn him, I’m not! And I won’t be now!”
However you bring it on, the common theme behind all of these fight responses is the character realizing that the sacrifice attached to fleeing is just too great. The stubborn, prideful character isn’t willing to sacrifice self-image. The child of the abusive father isn’t willing to sacrifice the personal growth he has already made. Whatever it is, fighting is what characters do when you’ve coupled their bad situation to something of extreme personal value to them.
When our characters realize that nothing is so bad as to be worth that level of sacrifice, that’s when they fight back.
April 30, 2010 18:54 UTC
What am I going to do now?
This is part four in a five part series of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response.
"What am I going to do now?"
That’s probably what this guy is thinking. He just got laid off. That’s a big unpleasant surprise. His now-former boss probably endured his transitions through denial, anger, and bargaining (you can just imagine the scene, right?) before escorting him out the front door. And here he sits in the grip of depression. We can relate, right?
Of course we can, because depression is to be expected. It’s a normal part of the human response to bad news. That fellow is stressing out about how he’s going to make his next mortgage payment, how he’s going to put food on the table, how he’s going to manage if someone in his family should have an accident or get sick. His mind is busy exploring all the horrible consequences that seem inevitable now that he’s unemployed.
I’d be depressed too.
The heart of grief
The whole sequence of emotional response to bad news is called “the five stages of grief,” but if there’s any true grief to be had, it’s here in this stage. The prior stages are all about avoidance in one form or another. But now those have passed, and if the bad news was about some genuine form of loss—death of a loved one, loss of a job, of one’s social position, or of anything else a person has an emotional involvement with—then grief is appropriate. That is, grief in the classical sense of “sadness arising from loss.”
If that’s your character’s situation, go ahead and let him wallow in grief for a while. Show him moping around or crying. Show him letting go of activities he once enjoyed, because he has lost the person he enjoyed sharing those activities with. This is all to the good of your novel, because it shows readers the depth of the hurt. It shows, through observable effects on a character’s behavior, the level of emotional involvement the character had with whatever he lost.
But bad news comes in many forms, not just the loss of emotionally significant people and things. When the bad news is something different, classical grief isn’t always appropriate. But people still show signs of depression in these circumstances, it just stems from a different source than grief. It isn’t sadness arising from loss.
Think about the guy on the steps. Maybe he hated his job. Maybe he had zero emotional attachment to it, but what he’s depressed about is that movie of future horrible consequences playing in his head. He isn’t experiencing classical grief. He’s not actually sad that he lost the job he hated. He’s experiencing something else, something English doesn’t quite have a word for. I’m calling it “doomxiety.”
What he’s feeling is a foreboding sense of anxiety over bad consequences he feels are inevitable. His depression stems from the looming descent of those consequences into his life and his family’s life, combined with his inability to see how he’s going to cope.
He’s stuck in an emotional place where, after the previous three avoidance stages have passed, he can now see all the bad that’s coming his way but he cannot yet see how he’s going to cope with it. He may, in fact, believe that there is no possible way to cope effectively. The core of doomxiety is this stuck-ness, this lack of a plan for coping, coupled with an emotional sense that there is no such plan to be found.
He feels trapped and powerless. He feels anxious and doomed, hence “doomxiety.” If you know of a real word that captures all that, please share it down in the comments. I don’t even care if it’s an English word. I’ve been racking my brains to find one (and thanks to @leira_carola for helping), to no avail.
Doomxiety—until somebody comes up with a better word for it—is what you should strive to show the reader in these situations.
Finally, don’t forget to indulge the reader’s voyeuristic glee. Whatever its source—true grief or doomxiety—the depression stage is miserable. The guy on the steps is definitely not having a good time.
Nobody likes feeling depressed, but there’s no denying that readers certainly enjoy reading about other people’s suffering. So, while I don’t think you should go overboard on the suffering (unless you’re writing one of those novels), neither should you short-change it.
Find a nice balance between too much and too little. Too little, and you’ll sabotage the reader’s belief in the character’s suffering. Too much, and the reader might get bored or turned off to the book. But in between lies a sweet-spot where the suffering is both believable to the reader and satisfying to the reader’s inner voyeur. Don’t deny the reader that vicarious pleasure; instead, aim for it.
April 02, 2010 16:53 UTC
The five stages of grief
There’s nothing worse than a book where the characters simply don’t act like real people. I’m not talking about action books where ninja-like characters with finely honed skills fly from building-top to building-top as casually as if they were stepping out to pick up the morning paper. What I’m talking about are books where the characters do not act in emotionally credible ways.
We’ve all seen this. The classic example (which is one reason why I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief") is when a one character dies and a surviving character fails to grieve appropriately. Obviously, the level of grief that is appropriate will vary depending on the relationship the writer has created between those two characters. But all too often writers simply omit entirely any kind of natural and expected emotional response.
Emotional credibility is key to creating believable characters.
It’s not just about grief, although grief is an obvious and dramatic case. You have to do this everywhere. In every situation in your whole novel, your characters must display credible emotional responses, or the whole book is going to fall flat.
Most of us are familiar with the psychological concept of “The Five Stages of Grief.” It is a pattern, a predictable sequence, of emotional responses that normal human beings go through when confronted with tragedy. The other reason I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief” (and yes, I’m going to repeat that phrase a lot, because you need to learn it) is because those stages are a road map for producing emotional credibility in your scenes, and thus, creating believable characters.
So what are the Five Stages of Grief? Whole books have been written to answer that question, but briefly:
Denial: Simple, literal disbelief that the tragedy, whatever it is, is real. Denial is disbelief even in the face of hard evidence. Nobody wants to have a tragedy happen to them or to a loved one, so the immediate emotional response is simply to deny it. This isn’t rational, but it’s what normal human beings do.
Anger: After getting past denial, once a person confronts the ugly fact that the tragedy is real, comes anger. Simple ire and rage that this tragedy should have happened at all, or often, that it has happened to them personally.
Bargaining: Once the anger passes, bargaining is the natural inclination to try to strike a deal with whatever authority figure is relevant to the tragedy, be it God, a physician, a policeman, an insurance adjuster, whoever. After anger, people will try to negotiate their way out of the tragedy in one way or another. This, I must add, should almost always prove to be a futile exercise.
Depression: Denial didn’t work; the tragedy didn’t go away by ignoring it. Anger didn’t work; the tragedy can’t be scared off. Bargaining was a flop; what’s done is done. With all strategies for un-doing the tragedy exhausted, the natural response is to be sad about it. This can range from being mildly bummed out to full-blown clinical depression, but this is what comes next.
Acceptance: Finally, when all is said and done, a person moves to acceptance. The person comes to a place where they may not be happy about the tragedy, but they’ve accepted the immutable reality of it and have decided to move on with their lives. This is when the person starts to act again, to really live again, by making the best of their situation.
That’s your road map. Whenever your characters are faced with tragedy, we’d better see them exhibit those emotional responses, or we’re going to have an awfully hard time believing in them as real people.
I wish this psychological road map wasn’t labeled with the word “grief,” because that implies that the road map only applies when characters face truly dire, truly tragic situations. Although I’ve used the word “tragedy” in the above descriptions, the truth is that the five stages apply to all kinds of tragedies, large or small. Although this model of emotional response originated through studies of people faced with terminal illness and other truly life-changing situations, where serious grief is in play, the road map applies everwhere.
As writers, we need to learn to generalize this framework. Call it “The Five Stages of Misfortune” if it helps, but understand that this model applies at all scales. On a grand scale, you could write a five-book epic about a character learning to come to terms with a true tragedy, devoting a whole book to that person’s processing of each stage. On a small scale, the whole five-stage drama can flash by in a couple of paragraphs, for calamities that are much less consequential to the character’s life.
Depending on the situation, you have a lot of leeway with the five stages. The stages don’t always come strictly one after the other. They often overlap. Sometimes you can skip a stage. But by and large, we should see hints of all five as the ripples that spread from each misfortune you subject your characters to.
Let’s take a quick example of how, even in a very short scene or very brief moment from a story, you can convey all five stages. Watch how it lends emotional credibility to the scene, and how you find yourself empathizing with the character. Let us set this scene in a Chicago tenement house, in the early years of the 20th century, in a small, dark, drafty, and dirty apartment on the fourth floor. In this scene, a young husband nervously awaits the birth of his first child, pacing outside the bedroom where the midwife is practicing her craft.
“Gregor!” the midwife yelled from the bedroom. “I need towels. Clean ones!”
“Yes, alright,” Gregor called back. He rushed down the apartment’s narrow hallway to the linen cupboard. He flung open the doors. There were no towels.
No, we can’t be out of towels now! He shoved aside rags and bars of soap, peering into dark corners, finding nothing.
“Damn and blast,” Gregor swore under his breath. He dashed to the apartment’s small bathroom. Perhaps there were some in the laundry basket that had yet to be put away. Please, God, let there be some. Pulling a wrinkled work shirt out of the basket, he held it quickly to his nose. It stank of sweat and of the slaughterhouse. He threw the shirt back; if there were any towels buried under his dirty laundry, they were far from clean.
“Gregor!” the midwife called again.
“I’m looking!” he shouted back. If my child dies for want of a towel— Gregor shoved the thought aside and dashed out again towards the front door. He was across the hall in an instant, pounding furiously on the neighbors’ door. “Anna, Peter, I need towels!”
It’s not a long scene, but we see all five stages. Note, too, that the tragedy is very simple: no towels. It’s very minor on the grand scheme of things, but it still demands a credible emotional response from the character, because for him the stakes are high. As far as he knows, his child’s life may depend on his ability to provide clean towels. If less was at stake—say, if the baby had already been born and the midwife only wanted towels so she could clean up the mess—Gregor’s reactions would be commensurately smaller.
Gregor’s short bit of inner monologue after opening the linen cupboard reflects denial, that brief feeling of “What? How can we be out of towels now, of all times?” He mutters a brief curse, betraying his anger and frustration at the situation. He thinks of an alternative, one he knows to be a long shot and bargains with God to let there be clean towels in the laundry basket. Of course, there aren’t. All his immediate strategies for making this no-towels tragedy go away have failed, pushing him into a moment of depression as he briefly contemplates what’s at stake, implying to himself and to the reader how sad the situation might turn out to be. But there’s no time to dwell on what might happen. No, Gregor must act. In noveling terms, he must drive the scene. He accepts the situation, and makes the best of it by banging on the neighbors’ door for help.
As you write, and especially as you edit, I want you to consider the dramatic moments in your story. Consider the times when you let something bad—be it big or small—happen to your characters, and ask yourself whether you have shown credible emotional responses in every case.
Remember, every story moves forward through characters overcoming obstacles, and on some level every obstacle is an instance of something bad happening to the character. Every single one is an opportunity to show your characters’ personalities, by giving them appropriate five-stage emotional responses to those obstacles.
August 07, 2009 22:07 UTC
For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar