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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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

Tags: character, character arc, growth, failure, success, depression, skills

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10 Comments:

Posted by Gwen Hernandez on May 20, 2010 21:48 UTC

Great info as usual! Thanks.

Posted by Emily Casey on May 21, 2010 01:16 UTC

Thank you so much for posting this. I hope this can help other writers as much as it’s helped me.

Posted by Anna Staniszewski on May 21, 2010 15:13 UTC

This is such a fantastic post! I especially love this part: “Emotional growth is nothing more than learning a new emotional skill.” I’m definitely bookmarking this one - thanks!

Posted by Randolph Lalonde on May 21, 2010 17:16 UTC

I’m a great big lover of stage 4. In the Spinward Fringe series I have at least 4 minor characters who are stuck there for the same reason a lot of proud people spend decades in that state. “I keep my problem to myself, I don’t do it when important things are happening, and I enjoy it too much to stop.” is something I’ve heard from an alcoholic as well as several smokers and drug users. What they don’t know is that everyone sees they have a problem, important things can happen when they’re in the middle of engaging in their bad habit, and the last point of their statement is at the same time true and the reason why you can take a character all the way back to step 2.

It’s a difficult journey back to full on denial, but when you manage to take a character there convincingly, you can take steps 3 and 4 even faster the second time while developing an even more complex and broken being. I cling to the belief that a character that is happy and well adjusted on the long term is a boring character. One of my favorite character models is the one who has three issues: One they don’t know about (perhaps they’re prejudiced or have some flawed assumptions that make them unlikable by some people), one they think they’re dealing with (let’s use alcoholism as an example) by “keeping it under control", and another that they don’t actually think is a problem because their other issue dwarfs it by comparison (let’s say our character is a smoker).

So what do we end up with? A racist alcoholic who smokes like a chimney. Or, looking at it by the numbers: A 2,3,1 or a 3,3,2. Sounds like fun!

There are so many intensely interesting, deeply flawed characters out there that this formula works for, if you want some quick and dirty examples there are some documentaries you can check out: American Meth, Anything by Louis Theroux, or for a broader scale - watching companies and entire countries go to great lengths to deny they have a problem, check out “The Yes Men".

Well, that was procrastination time well spent... time to get back to work!

Posted by Terry Odell on May 21, 2010 18:03 UTC

A quick Google session turned this up: Portia Nelson is the author of the book “There’s A Hole In My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self Discovery.” Originally published in the 1970s, it was reissued in 1994. The title work appears on a poster in Dr. Maguire’s office (Robin Williams) in the film Good Will Hunting (1997).

Posted by Jason Black on May 21, 2010 19:37 UTC

@Terry Odell

Ah, thanks! I’d come across that 1994 reference, but thought that couldn’t possibly be it because I know I first encountered that poem well before 1994. Didn’t know it was a re-print from the 70s.

Posted by Elizabeth Kaylene on May 25, 2010 19:16 UTC

As I read this, I compared it to my own shortcomings and failures, and how each stage of each of my problems fit this nearly to a T. I now see some trouble spots in some of the things I’ve written, and how I can make changes to make everything more believable. Thanks a bunch for this!

Posted by Kathy C. on January 27, 2011 10:54 UTC

I have been stuck writing and re-writing Act I of my novel for so long that, how I haven’t given up yet from sheer madness is anyone’s guess. I make it part way through Act 2 and stop cold, unsure of the direction the plot should take. I finally defined the problem in my mind this morning - it is my under-developed character arc that keeps me “stepping into that same hole on the same street” repeatedly. I finally get it now. Once you figure out the steps to put your character through, the plot/final outcome will fall into place. The two are intricated connected.

THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart for defining this issue in such a clear, concise manner. Your advice as well as the poem truly hits the nail on the head. THANK YOU!!!

Posted by Jason Black on January 27, 2011 17:58 UTC

@Kathy—

You’re welcome, and I’m so glad to have helped!

Posted by Liz Hellebuyck on May 15, 2011 03:42 UTC

I stumbled upon this post while looking into character arcs. This is really helpful. Thank you.

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