Over the past several months you've transformed your characters from rudimentary ideas into real, living people. You've uncovered their formative memories and deepened their relationships with others and with themselves. Last month you started on the most important (and intimidating) part: building their character arcs.
Today we're going to finalize that character arc and map it out so you can start building your plot around it. You will need extra time to complete these exercises. I recommend an hour and a half to complete both. This can be split up into two sessions, but I prefer doing it in one session when possible.
Please note that these exercises assume you have already built your character. If you haven't developed your character, go back to the previous editions of this column and walk your character through the exercises.
Choosing the most powerful character arc
Last time we came up with potential character arcs; today it's time to narrow that down. You'll need all your character notes, something to write with/on, a timer, and roughly 30 minutes to complete this process.
Set your timer for 30 minutes and jump in:
1. Choose the primary flaw you want your character to overcome
Your character might overcome several flaws throughout the story, but one of those flaws will be at the core of their journey. Choose the flaw you're most interested in exploring.
Not sure what that is? Ask these questions to figure it out:
Do any of these flaws make you instantly hate a person? This type of flaw should be avoided unless you're working on a villain's character arc.
What flaw do you most identify with/have you struggled with most in your own life? Exploring your own issues from a new angle is fascinating (and sometimes therapeutic), and working with flaws you understand from personal experience can deepen your writing.
What flaw do you find most interesting in other people's characters? We're all drawn to certain types of characters, and when you're writing a book, the characters need to be people you want to stick with.
If none of the flaws immediately stands out as the best choice, narrow your list to three options and sleep on it. The best idea is almost always the one that sticks with you through the night.
2. Choose the most interesting way for them to conquer this flaw
This is the skeleton of your character's arc. Go through your list of potential ways for your character to overcome their primary flaw and ask the following questions about each one:
What type of conflict does each opportunity provide? Does this character journey encourage physical conflict, mental/emotional conflict, or both? A story rooted completely in one type of conflict can work, but the most powerful stories often contain both.
What option provides the most opportunity for conflict? Again, this can be mostly internal conflict rather than physical action, but there must be conflict—and there needs to be enough of it to maintain an entire novel.
What type of conflict are you most interested in writing about? If you're not sure about this, think about the stories you like to read/watch. What type of conflict do they focus on? That's probably the type of conflict you'll love writing about.
The ideal journey for your character is the one at the intersection of maximum conflict and maximum interest. You may be interested in small, internally focused stories, but you still need to ramp the conflict up to keep readers (and yourself) interested.
3. Create a timeline or 'map' of your character arc
Now that you've chosen a basic character arc, let's dive into the hard part: creating a
timeline or 'map' of the arc's emotional beats.
What are emotional beats?
Emotional beats are the meat of your character arc—the emotional peaks and valleys your character must face to achieve their goals.
Consider the emotional beats Frodo goes through between getting the ring and arriving in Rivendell in the Fellowship of the Ring (movie version):
Confusion at why Gandalf is so desperate to get the ring to Rivendell and why Gandalf can't take it himself
Fear when they encounter the first Ringwraith. Frodo begins to understand how dangerous the ring's pursuers are
More fear when they meet Aragorn. Frodo becomes certain he's out of his league
Complete desperation hits when the Ringwraiths find the camp and attack Frodo and friends
Desperation worsens as Frodo is poisoned and rushed to Rivendell
More confusion as Frodo is delirious and thinks Arwen is an angel
Waking up healed and sane in Rivendell, Frodo now understands the weight of the ring and the danger of its pursuers
Watching the council argue over who should carry the ring, Frodo decides he will carry it
These emotional beats form a miniature character arc within Frodo's overall arc during Lord of the Rings. They show Frodo—and through him, the readers—growing to understand the ring's power, specifically the way it attracts dark forces. When he leaves the Shire he's simply doing what Gandalf told him; when he reaches Rivendell he's grown enough to choose the ring's burden for himself.
Frodo still doesn't understand the full depths of what he's getting into, but at this point he has a pretty good idea. All the emotional beats on this list were necessary to give him that knowledge.
Your character's emotional beats function in a similar way, carrying them from one end of their character arc to the other. Planning these emotional beats and connecting them to the plot points on your outline ensures that your character's journey hits all the right notes.
There are many ways to find your story’s emotional beats, but today we'll focus on the method I've used.
EXERCISE: Build a list of emotional beats for your character's arc to hit
For this exercise you'll need something to write with/on, 30-60 minutes, and your extended character profile. You may need to break this up into multiple sessions, but I prefer doing it in one go when possible.
STEP ONE: Write your character's name, their primary flaw, and a one-sentence version of the general journey you've chosen for them at the top of the document/page.
STEP TWO: Set a timer for ten minutes. Write down every emotion your character will need to face to overcome their flaw. Don't focus on the order for now—just write down all the emotions you want them to confront, such as ignorance of their flaws, unwillingness to face their flaws, and an enormous loss caused by those flaws.
STEP THREE: Put all the emotions from step two in chronological order, from the opening of your story to the moment your character overcomes their flaw.
STEP FOUR: Set a timer for five minutes. Brainstorm all the possible external events that could trigger the first emotion.
STEP FIVE: Repeat step four with each emotion on your list.
STEP SIX: Compile the most interesting possible events in another list and head over to the outlining section of this book.
Now that you've got a character arc, you're probably itching to start, but I suggest you wait. Come back to your character arc in a few days with fresh eyes and make sure it still seems worthwhile. Some ideas are great when they're new but quickly fizzle out. If you give yourself time to discover this in the planning phase, you can save yourself time writing 10,000+ words of the wrong book.
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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