Crafting Strong Character Arcs For Your Novel
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Last week on the blog, we learned how to build powerful themes into our stories.
One thing I mentioned was that theme is often revealed through our stories' character arcs, but showcasing theme isn't the only way strong character arcs can add to our stories. Character arcs can also introduce riveting internal conflict, raise our stories' stakes, add complexity to our characters, and create deep emotional connections with our readers.
Not too shabby, eh? That's why I want to take time today to dig into character arcs — specifically, how you can craft your own with ease. Knowledge is power, right? So, let's get started...
The Many Approaches to Character Arcs
Character arcs follow the emotional or spiritual journey a character undergoes over the course of a story, and the first thing you need to know about crafting them is that there's no single correct way to make your approach. As you explore your characters and story idea, certain elements of your main character's arc will likely fall into place — whether you realize it or not.
For example, you may know that you want your character to overcome a certain fear or flaw as they work toward their story goal, which just so happens to be the crux of a positive character arc. But not every character arc changes your character for the better. Take a look at the three types of character arcs:
• Positive arcs: a character overcomes a flaw or fear to become a better person.
• Negative arcs: a character fails to overcome a flaw or fear and harms themselves or others as a result. (The harm can be physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, or so on.)
• Flat arcs: a character's morals and beliefs are challenged, but they ultimately hold true to who they are.
In today's post, we're strictly going to focus on creating positive character arcs, as they are by far the most common type of arc found in literature. If you'd like me to break down either of the other types of arcs, give me a quick shoutout on Twitter @kristen_kieffer or shoot an email my way.
Mapping Out Strong Character Arcs
Creating a character arc requires a deep understanding of who your character is. Before beginning to map out your main character's arc, I encourage you to work through my 33 Ways to Write a Stronger Character, as well as my favorite approach to building a character's personality.
Below, I've mapped out the blueprint of a positive character arc. To build a strong character arc of your own, make sure to identify all 11 beats for your story, but don't be afraid to work out of order. Approach your character arc as best fits your process and story idea.
Beat #1: The Normal World.
At the beginning of a positive character arc, your main character (MC) is in their everyday environment.
Over the first few scenes, showcase who your character is in this environment. What are their current circumstances? Who do they surround themselves with? Consider how these elements affect your MC. Make sure to highlight their personality, and begin to reveal their flaws and fears.
If you can, throw your MC into the midst of an everyday conflict so readers can better understand who your character is before their journey begins.
Beat #2: A desire arises.
For some reason, your character is (or should become) deeply unsatisfied with their everyday normal. Suddenly, they want something. Perhaps it's love, or a new career, or to gain revenge, or to become famous, or maybe just to be happy.
Whatever the case, your character quickly begins to plan out how they will achieve this desire — even though doing so will challenge their flaws and fears.
Beat #3: A push into the Great Unknown.
Your character's desire has led them to formulate a goal, but that goal cannot be achieved within their everyday environment. This will pose an initial emotional hurdle for your MC to overcome, and overcome they shall.
The stakes should your character not achieve their goal are high, and so your MC will push beyond their comfort zone and into the Great Unknown. Both their external and internal journeys have begun.
Beat #4: An ultimate fear becomes evident.
Because of the stakes you introduced in beat #3, your character is motivated to achieve their goal. However, at some point in the first half of the story, it should become clear that your MC will never achieve their goal if they don't change.
This is because of the Lie your character believes, a false mindset (usually built upon flaws or fears) that keeps your MC from achieving their true potential and finding the long-lasting satisfaction they crave.
Their Lie will become the biggest emotional hurdle your MC will have to overcome, and the knowledge of this Lie will amp up your story's suspense every time your character is forced to face a new conflict.
Beat #5: The Lie is challenged.
After launching into the Great Unknown, your character will face a series of struggles and conflicts that challenge the Lie they believe. However, the MC doesn't yet have the courage or clarity they need to overcome their Lie.
Instead, they play a game of push and pull, fighting through several instances of conflict made all the more difficult because they refuse to acknowledge their ultimate fear. They even struggle to overcome much smaller emotional hurdles.
Beat #6: A switch is flipped.
At the midpoint of your story, a major conflict forces your character to confront their flaws and fears. Something huge is at stake, and your MC needs to act against their normal behavior it they don't want to suffer a loss.
No matter the outcome of this conflict, your MC will begin to see that they can change for the better. They find new strength and refuse to continue cowering. As the second half of your story begins, your MC goes on the offensive.
But facing small flaws and fears is one thing. Confronting the truth behind their Lie is another, and your MC still isn't ready to face the music.
Beat #7: The push and pull continues.
Now that your character has overcome (or is in the process of overcoming) a flaw or fear, they begin to take initiative. They confront the villain or antagonistic force head on, creating conflicts that move them closer to achieving their story goal.
Still, their Lie looms overhead, threatening to undermine all their hard work unless your MC chooses to finally face it.
Beat #8: The Why behind the Lie is revealed.
An event or circumstance in your character's past taught them to believe their Lie.
Whether traumatizing, embarrassing, or otherwise difficult to face, your MC will try to keep this fateful event private at all costs. However, at some point the secret will come to light (most commonly during the second half of your story).
This instance will likely both relieve your MC and further complicate their actions. Suddenly, they can't ignore their Lie anymore... But they sure will try!
Beat #9: The Dark Night of the Soul.
Your character's fight against their Lie will quickly come to a head when they suffer a major loss just before your story's climactic sequence.
This loss is so devastating that it forces your MC to finally confront what they've been trying to ignore: their Lie. And so your MC combats their demons at last, emerging from their loss stronger and more motivated than ever before.
Your character now realizes that achieving their goal won't truly bring them the satisfaction they crave, at least not until they become the person they need to be.
Beat #10: Revelations are made manifest.
Your character has realized their Truth, and they need to put it into action ASAP because they have emerged from the Dark Night of the Soul and walked straight into your story's climactic sequence.
It's during this sequence that your MC will overcome any remaining flaws and fears and use their newfound Truth to become the best version of themselves, in most cases giving them the advantage they need to overcome the story's antagonist.
Beat #11: Amends are made.
After coming through the final conflict of your story, it's apparent that your character has changed for the better. Now it is time for your MC to make amends for any hurt they caused before or during their journey as a result of their flaws, fears, and the Lie they believed.
And just like that, we've mapped out the major beats of a powerful and redemptive character arc. If you're interested in learning how to weave your character arc into the fabric of your plot, I highly recommend getting to know the 3-Act Story Structure. It's a personal favorite structure of mine that I broke down on the blog last year.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind…
As you dive headfirst into crafting character arcs, keep in mind that not all stories need to feature prominent arcs. While some character arcs drive stories, others play second fiddle to the stories' main plot line, and that's okay. The important thing is to not overlook character arcs altogether. Conflict always has internal consequences.
Remember, as well, that stories can include multiple character arcs, so don't be afraid to have secondary characters undergo emotional development, too. Just make sure their development adds to the primary story — otherwise, you have a whole new novel on your hands.
Finally, don't forget that not all characters change for the better. Many fiction favorites include negative or flat character arcs. Your book can, too. Sound good? Great. Now what are you waiting for? It's time to begin crafting your very own epic character arcs today!