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
Do you know the difference between an epiphany and a character arc?
When plotting out or revising your novel, it’s important to understand the difference between an epiphany and a character arc. Both are useful and important, but they serve very different roles in the narrative. Think of them like salt and sugar: They’re both dry, granular materials, both are very important in cooking, but the two are hardly interchangeable.
This is an epiphany. It’s a moment of revelation, when a character comes to understand something he couldn’t grasp before. I’m not talking about realizations that relate to the plot, as when someone comes to understand the key to a puzzle or finally figures out what missing thing they need in order to overcome some challenge. Those are great story moments, but they don’t have much to do with characterization.
I’m talking about moments when a character suddenly realizes something about himself. Those are moments of deep significance in your book because they foreshadow that the character will begin to think and act differently.
A lot of modern fiction trades in making protagonists into their own worst enemies. This has been true for some time in literary novels, which tend to be deeply driven by characters rather than plot. However, it is becoming increasingly true in mainstream and “plot monster” books too, as writers learn the power of characterization and character growth to more deeply involve the reader in the book.
Regardless of genre, many books have a setup in which a character flaw is the one thing that most prevents the protagonist from getting the job done. Only when he recognizes this—like when an alcoholic finally admits that his drinking is in fact a problem—can he begin to get out of his own way.
This is a character arc. Well, ok, that’s not strictly true. But graduation is a nice representation of a character arc: It’s where a character ends up after a series of epiphanies.
In school, students are faced with many challenges—classes, term papers, and exams—to overcome. They must experience many epiphanies—moments when they finally grasp their course material—in order to overcome these challenges. When they do, they finally succeed—they get an emotionally fulfilling moment of celebration, complete with cap, gown, and diploma.
It’s the same in a novel. Your character starts with some flaws. Throughout the plot, he’ll encounter many challenges, some of which he’ll fail at because of those flaws. After enough failures or after a failure with dire consequences, the he’ll have an epiphany and realize how he must change in order to succeed. After additional challenges, some inevitable setbacks, more epiphanies, and a lot of hard work, the character really does grow as a person. Finally, at the novel’s climax he can then tackle a problem that would surely have defeated him before.
The key difference
An epiphany is nothing more than a realization in the thread of your character’s personal growth. It is a plot point along the inner plot of the character’s personal journey. A character arc, then, is the whole journey.
The journey is not the destination
While graduation is a great metaphor for a character arc, don’t confuse the two. Graduation is not school, it is only the destination of a student’s journey through school. It’s an emotional, symbolic moment. Likewise, a character arc is not an emotional moment, but is the process leading up to a moment when the changes a character has undergone are finally recognized.
For the novelist, this means that while your book should work towards a “graduation moment” for your character, to provide an emotional payoff to the difficult journey of personal growth, you can’t skip the growth itself.
Here’s what doesn’t work: I’ve seen manuscripts from clients where they tried to add a character arc by inserting an epiphany scene into the beginning of the book, and a graduation moment at the end, but without touching anything in between. That’s like character sleeping through the entire four years of college but still receiving a diploma anyway. It falls flat.
To be meaningful, a character arc must affect the plot. It must affect the choices a character makes in the novel’s scenes. To be effective, a character arc must convince readers that the plot would have turned out differently without it because the character would have made different (worse) choices.
You need an epiphany moment to kick things off near the beginning, several smaller epiphany moments along the way as the character’s understanding grows, and the graduation moment at the end. This is why it is so difficult to paste a character arc on top of an existing story structure: Because to make it work, you have to go back and re-consider every choice the character makes in light of what the character learns in the epiphany moments.
February 01, 2010 22:38 UTC
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