Thursday 13 August 2009

WRITING TIP: What is a Character Arc?

We're often told that the characters in our novels must grow and change. But how do we plan that growth when we're outlining our story? The easiest way is to design a character arc for each major character.

A basic character arc will look something like this:

1. Emotional Wound: Question: what has damaged the character? Answer: His father abandoned him as a child and he doesn't know how to love anyone.

2. Inner Goal: Question: What unconsciously motivates the hero? Answer: His inner need to be loved; the growth he must undergo through the story is that he must learn how to love someone else before he can believe that he is loved.

3. Character Flaw: Question: What stops the character from reaching his inner goal? Answer: He is unable to trust that someone else will love him enough to stay.

4. Turning Point: Question: What happens to make the hero begin to change? Answer: He meets a woman and falls in love.

5. Black Moment: Question: What makes him believe all is lost? Answer: He sees the woman kiss another man and climb into a car with him and thinks she is abandoning him.

6: Climax: Question: How does the hero take action based on his inner changes (refer point 4). Answer: He decides to ask her for an explanation, where before he would have never spoken to her again.

7. Resolution: Question: How is the conflict resolved in such a way that the character's inner changes have become permanent? Answer: He drives to her flat to speak to her about what he saw. She invites him in to meet her long-lost brother who is the man she was kissing. The hero - relieved that he had not just walked away - shakes the brother's hand and asks her to marry him. They live happily ever after.

For more complicated stories, the character arc becomes more complex. For example, in a tragedy the hero would not experience a "black moment", when everything seems lost but then turns out fine (because of his inner growth has changed his behaviour). Rather, he would experience a moment when everything seems as if it will turn out fine but, in the climax that follows, his fatal flaws (those that he has not been able to overcome) will bring about a tragic resolution.

Drawing up a character arc will help you create more compelling characters who grow and change as your story progresses along the twists and turns of your plot.

You can read more about character arcs here and here and here.


septembermom said...

Ann, thank you so much for this writing tip! It provides such valuable guidance. I'll print this post and add it to my writing research folder. Hope you and your family are well and happy :)

Marilyn Brant said...

With every new project, I feel as though I'm starting all over again and building these new characters up from an idea to (hopefully) more fully-realized beings... It was great to be reminded of some of what needs to happen in that building process :).

Ann Victor said...

Kelly - all well here, thanks! And glad you found the post useful! It's a simplified summary of all the articles I've read on character arcs.

Marilyn - I think you made a great point. Sometimes the idea (the character arc) shifts and changes as the characters become more fully realised during the progression of the story.

Lady Glamis said...

Brilliant post, Ann. I've done an outline for all my character arcs in my most recent novel. It has changed plot and everything, so it's something I should have done earlier. This is very well set up. Thanks!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Lovely! I am always glad to be reminded of these simply...yet complex craft bits. I think I do them naturally, but it is so nice to hear them put in words...


Ann Victor said...

Lady Glamis: I was working on re-writing my synopsis and decided to work on the character arcs. Brings a whole different view to my novel and also something I should have done long ago! :)

Nancy: I agree! The technical bits of writing should come naturally otherwise the story is all head and no heart. But it's interesting to go back and see where the gaps are - I've found trying to suss out the character arcs a good learning curve.

Brittany Tucker said...

Great tips, muchly needed!

Ann Victor said...

BRITTANY: welcome to the blog! :) And glad you found the tips useful!

Anita said...

I know I should do all this, but it just freaks me out when I try. For me, it's like getting this big lesson about how a car works before getting behind the wheel...I know I should get the lesson and that I'd probably be a better driver if I did, but I just stick the key in and go. You should just give up on me, Ann!

Ann Victor said...

Anita: We could *never* give up on you!!!!(((HUGS))) And to let you into a secret all these writing rules freak me out as well. I find it much easier to apply them after writing (e.g. when analysing the novel to write the synopsis, which is what I'm currently doing) then to remember them while I'm actually writing!

Anita said...

Ann: It's funny, because I can also analyze the rules with books I read... I think "Ah, clever the black moment there." But I just can't do it when I'm writing/outlining. Hmm...

Janet said...

Hi Ann,

What an interesting post :)
That inner goal is very tricky and I wonder if your character's inner goal here is actually his inner need(?)

For the inner conflict the inner goal should maybe be the character's misguided solution to his inner need?

So if his subconscious inner need is love, his inner goal might be to be very charming and surround himself with lots of friends (so he feels loved) This would be his driving motivation.

Only it would be a misguided solution because he'd only be connecting with these
people on a very superficial level and this wouldn't bring him the love he craves. (In fact people would tire of such shallow friendship and abandon him--reinforcing the flaw ie the belief that when you get close to someone they abandon you)

That inner goal (to learn how to love someone else) is maybe the author's goal for him rather than the character's

Ann Victor said...

Anita: you're not alone! I've become an expert on seeking out the structures and arcs in books I read (to the detriment of my enjoyment of the novels!) but during the creative process of my own novels I can't work that logically at all!! :O

Ann Victor said...

Janet - nice to see you here again!

You've raised an interesting distinction between inner goal (author motivation of character) versus inner need (character's driving motivation). You've explained it very well and it's a point I'll watch out for as I work through my novel identifying th character arcs so that I can revamp my synopsis.

Thanks for your input!

Janet said...

Hi again, Ann,

"...inner goal (author motivation of character)" I think this author motivation of character needs to have a different name from "inner goal" "Lesson learned" maybe?

The way I see it, the character needs a misguided/ misplaced inner goal (which arises from the subconscious inner need)

He will eventually realise his misguided inner goal is not giving him the satisfaction he expected, realise where he went wrong and have his inner need fulfilled from a different source ( the h's love maybe)

As he pursues his external goal the misguided inner goal will drive him-- until he learns his lesson (the realisation of what he truly needs as opposed to what he thought he needed.)

That way the misplaced inner goal drives the external action.

In your example the character's need for love is his internal need but the inner goal that you give is maybe the lesson he will learn?

He needs a misguided inner goal to cause a few emotional problems along the way.

Ann Victor said...

Janet: thanks for the further clarification. I did try to keep the post very simple, but have changed it slightly to try and cover the complex distinction you've made. Thanks again!

Janet said...

Hi Ann,

I always find nailing that inner goal so difficult. My ideas came from Carolyn Greene's 'Prescription For Plotting', but I haven't seen a definition of the inner goal in any other writing books. A pity--I'd like to know how others approach it/see it

Ann Victor said...

Hi Janet - looks like another good book I must get to add to my ever-increasing "to be read" pile!