Over the past few months we've developed your characters in incredible detail. We've looked at your characters' formative memories, their relationships with themselves and the world, and their connections to each other. We've also talked about how to compile these factors into an extended character profile.
Now that you understand who your characters are and how they fit into their world, you're ready to build their character arcs. The next three exercises will help you create realistic character arcs based on the information in your character profiles.
If you haven't been updating your extended character profiles, take a moment to do so with anything new you've learned about your characters.
What are character arcs?
A character arc is the story of your character's inner journey and the changes they must undergo to overcome the external plot. In the movie Labyrinth, the character arc is Sarah’s realization that she is powerful in her own right and cannot be controlled by the goblin king.
If you're writing a tragedy, the downward spiral is what leads to the character’s ultimate failure. In the novel Clariel by Garth Nix (part of the Old Kingdom series), it is Clariel rushing headfirst into helping without understanding the full dangers of free magic. This magic ultimately corrupts her, turning her into one of the series' main villains.
How can you create a powerful character arc?
The best character arcs are framed around both the character's main goal and their major flaw. You can also frame the character arc around the plot, but doing so often leads to a weaker story overall. Plots are great, but we most often remember the characters. We read to connect with new people, and we want to see those people grow and change—just like people in real life.
Instead of a more traditional exercise, the next few pages will ask a series of questions to help you create a character arc your readers will remember for years to come. You'll need the character documents you've already created, something to write with, something to write on, and plenty of time to tackle these questions.
1) What is your character's main goal?
This one should already be in your character sheet, so all you need to do is transfer it to a shiny, new "Character Arc" document.
2) What internal beliefs are stopping them from achieving this goal?
External factors make achieving our dreams more difficult, but often we fail to achieve something because of our internal processes. We hold ourselves back all the time; so should your characters. That makes them feel real, like people we actually know. Maybe even people we could be friends with.
Open your extended character profile and look at the notes you took from the exercises we did on your characters' beliefs. If you've gone through these exercises honestly, some beliefs should immediately stand out as harmful. Some won't directly affect your character's main goal, but many will.
List all the beliefs you can identify as harmful. Pay close attention to any belief that starts with phrases like "I can't,” "I don't," "Nobody will,” and "Nobody wants.” Some harmful beliefs don't start with these phrases, but I can almost guarantee that beliefs framed around these phrases are harmful.
3) What harmful thinking patterns are stopping them from achieving their main goal?
Harmful thinking patterns are often related to harmful beliefs, but not always. Some characters are logical and ruthless to a fault. Others are emotional and rash to a fault. These are entire thinking frameworks rather than singular beliefs, but they can cause more trouble than a singular belief would. They prevent your character from thinking outside of the box and provide weaknesses for enemies to exploit.
Most of these patterns will also stand out as you go through your character profile. Look for anything your character is described as always doing, saying, or thinking. Those are the patterns that will get your character into trouble.
4) How do these beliefs and thought patterns stop them from achieving their main goal?
Again, this will be pretty straightforward, but it's important to write these things down anyway. You want to keep track of everything in one place. Our minds aren't perfect, and even the most important things get forgotten sometimes.
Don't spend a lot of time on this, though. Write one or two sentences explaining the harm caused by each internal belief, then move on.
5) How can they overcome these internal beliefs/thought patterns?
For this question, do a more traditional brainstorm. In fact, you'll want to do several—one short brainstorm for each internal belief. Your goal here isn't just to come up with a character arc; it's to create the best character arc possible. The one people will remember for the rest of their lives.
Feeling stumped? Here are a few examples of how characters can overcome their internal beliefs and thought patterns to succeed:
A character who believes nobody can ever be trusted forms a deep bond with another character for the first time
A character who believes they're hideous changes their look and discovers they can actually like their appearance
Someone who always plans everything in excruciating detail and refuses to alter their plans for anything learns to live in the moment by training with a spiritual mentor
These are the first ideas that popped into my head, but the possibilities are endless.
If you're writing a tragedy, tackle this question from the other side: how can they cement their harmful beliefs? What decisions will stunt that character's growth?
6) How can external plot force them to overcome these internal beliefs/thought patterns?
The only constant in life is change, but that doesn't mean we like it. Most people will only change their internal beliefs or thought patterns when confronted with a situation that forces them to.
Great stories begin with forcing characters into those situations. Lord of the Rings pushed Frodo out of the Shire. Harry Potter was thrust into the wizarding world. Katniss Everdeen was forced to volunteer for the Hunger Games or watch her sister die.
Brainstorm a list of ways you can force your character to do the same. If you already have a plot in mind, how will the events in that plot influence your characters' harmful beliefs and thought patterns?
Once again, your goal here is to come up with as many options as possible. In the next section, you'll narrow things down to create the best character arc possible.
The answers to these questions are the pieces you'll use to put your character arc together. Take your time with them. You want to build the best character arc the first time so you can write the strongest novel possible.
Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and a columnist at Writer's Corner. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.
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