Character Arc Notes November 13, 2019

Assignment for next week: Continue writing but think through your primary character. Determine what that character arc would be called and might look like. Be able to talk about what you discover for class.

Note also that the URL is given for each part of these teaching notes. Please visit those sites for more information or further help.

Part 1: Character Arc  Notes from

Definition of character arc: Simply put, a character arc takes its form

Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author's Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 7) by [Weiland, K.M.]

when a character starts the story off with a certain viewpoint and then through trials and tribulations, that viewpoint changes. Essentially, the arc is the emotional or psychological growth, transformation and development of your character. A positive change in a character leads to a happy ending. A negative change or no change in a character leads to a tragic ending

Is this always true?  Not necessarily…a character may remain steadfast and that is a good ending! Consider telling the story of men and women who started well and finished well. Although they may have faced great challenges, their foundation beliefs are demonstrated as sufficient for a consistent life ending well.

Part 2 Notes are from

What Character Arc Really Means in practice.

Some characters grow by maintaining their resolve against all odds.

When asked to define character arc, most people think it has something to do with how the Main Character changes within a story. While in some respect this is correct, it is inaccurate to assume this means every Main Character needs to undergo some major transformation. Understanding the difference between growth and change is essential to the proper implementation of character arc in a story.

Without a doubt, Main Characters need to grow. A story cannot develop organically if the principal characters within it do not grow and adapt to the shifting dramatic tides. When an act progresses from one area of exploration to the next, the Main Character needs to progress as well. That’s how stories work. Therefore, it is easy to see how growth, and in particular the Main Character’s growth, is inherent in the mechanisms that run story.

But when you talk about change and how the Main Character “has” to change, you’re making an assumption about the nature of that growth. Not all growth is transformative. Sometimes a person can grow by maintaining their position, shoring up their resolve against whatever is thrown at them. This is no less meaningful than the kind of growth where someone changes who they are or how they see the world.

When the Main Character reaches the crisis point or climax of a story they are faced with a very important question: are they on the right path or the wrong path? Some stories are about characters who realize they have been doing things wrong the whole time. These characters change and adopt a new way of seeing the world. Other stories are about characters who realize that the way they have been doing things is in fact the right way to approach their problems. These characters remain steadfast. In both cases, this realization that they arrive at is an extension of, or better yet, result of their growth.

Now whether or not their decision turns out to be a good thing or a bad thing is a completely different area of discussion. The takeaway here is that in assuming that every Main Character has to change, you are effectively ignoring or discounting fifty percent of the stories out there. And we’re not talking about weak stories or stories that have problems. AmadeusThe Silence of the LambsChinatown, the list goes on and on. These are fantastic stories that are on the top of every Top 100 list. Non-transformative growth can be a powerful means of expressing an author’s point-of-view.

Again, understanding the difference between growth and change is the key. Not all growth requires a different mindset. As the video above clearly shows, there is great meaning to be found in stories where a character’s “arc” requires them to stand their ground.

Note the video on this site!   Steadfast characters:   Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Robert Downey Jr.,

Part 3: Notes for How to Write a Compelling Character Arc from:

A character arc maps the evolution of a personality through a story. It’s a term that writers use to describe their protagonist’s journey from a place of comfort to rapid change and back again: hence, an arc.

While main characters might face big challenges, character arcs have to do with internal, personal change. Characters will find their strengths and weaknesses tested over the course of the story — so that by the time they arrive at the story’s end, they are a changed person. These changes might not be monumental, but they will have made a significant impact on the character, either positively or negatively.   

Remember there is value also in a Steadfast character arc!  That said, let’s look at ways to write Characters with a positive change or a negative change.

  1. How to write a character arc with a positive change

When the protagonist overcomes external obstacles and internal flaws in order to become a better person, we can describe this as a positive arc. It’s often used in story structures such as the Hero’s Journey.

At its core, this positive arc is made up of three points:

  1. The Goal: Every character needs to have a goal. It might be to fall in love. Or it might be to make as much money as possible. Either way, their journey will be hindered by…
  2. The Lie: A deeply-rooted misconception they have about themselves or the world that keeps them from reaching their true potential. In order to reach their goal, they’ll need to acknowledge and overcome the Lie, by facing…
  3. The Truth: While the character may have their own plans, the positive change arc has its own goal:  self-improvement. This is achieved when they learn to reject The Lie and embrace The Truth.

To see this arc in action, let’s map it onto a few classic protagonists.

Example The Hobbit  In The Hobbit, Bilbo faces Smaug — and his own internal insecurities. Bilbo Baggins lives a quiet life in his hole in the ground, which he likes. All he wants is to continue living a life of simplicity. Until the inciting incident introduces…

The Goal: To help the dwarves reclaim the treasure stolen and guarded by Smaug.

  1. The Lie: Hobbits belong in the Shire, surrounded by their creature comforts. The outside world is dangerous and for braver men — the kind who know how to sword fight and take on goblins.
  2. The Truth: Heroism is just as much about the inner strength to follow your own moral compass in the face of adversity than it is about facing down danger.

Character Arc Map: They believe the Lie that they’re unworthy of journey → They are overcome by obstacles on the journey because they continue to cling to Lie → They are forced to confront the Truth about their inner strength → They believe the Truth and they win.

A Christmas Carol: In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge turns from miser to good-natured. Ebenezer Scrooge, his life is consumed by earning as much money as possible until the inciting incident introduces…

  1. The Goal: To not meet the same bitter end as his deceased business partner, Marley.
  2. The Lie: A person’s value is measured by their wealth.
  3. The Truth: A life surrounded only by one’s riches is a miserable one, no matter how many you may count.

Character Arc Map: They believe the Lie that they need a certain thing to be happy → They set out on a journey to achieve this Lie →Their journey shows them the Truth, and that they’ve been chasing a false goal → They believe the Truth and they win.

This particular model of creating an arc is particularly compelling because it always grounds the story in something plausible. It doesn’t rely on a series of fantastical coincidences to drive the protagonist’s development — it simply requires them to realize something that was true all along.

Think of your favorite story that has a happy ending: it might be a fairy tale, a Pixar film or even The Matrix. Chances are that the protagonist will have a goal, believe in a lie and eventually find enlightenment with the truth.

Of course, not all protagonists change for the better. Which is why there’s also such a thing as a negative change character arc. Let’s find out what that’s all about.

  • How to write a character arc with a negative change

Not everyone always comes out on top after they fall on hard times. That means that struggle can get the better of us, and fiction that accurately portrays a person’s downward spiral can be extremely moving and compelling. Characters don’t always necessarily change internally for the worse in this kind of arc — sometimes, it’s just their world that is negatively impacted.

A negative character arc contains the same three basic elements as the positive one:

  1. The Goal: The same as with the positive arc, they will have a goal. However, instead of being hindered by it, the goal will become driven by…
  2. The Lie: The belief that achieving a certain goal will bring about a positive outcome. In order to reach their goal, the character either knowingly or unknowingly embraces the Lie, bringing them further away from…
  3. The Truth: Whether or not the goal was born out of ill intentions, the truth of the matter is that it was self-destructive: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Now, let’s see the negative change arc in action.  Example: The Great Gatsby. In The Great Gatsby, Nick learns that all that glitters isn’t always gold.

Nick Carraway lives a restless life in Minnesota after completing school at Yale and fighting in World War I. To begin, his purpose in traveling to New York City is to learn the bond business.

Until the inciting incident introduces

  1. The Goal: To get a taste of the excitement of high society life, without succumbing to it entirely.
  2. The Lie: The belief that the rich and beautiful are the picture of happiness — and moreover, that you can take people at face value: they say they are.
  3. The Truth: All that glitters isn’t necessarily gold.

Just as in the positive arcs, Nick starts the story believing the Lie — though this Lie is an optimistic and innocuous one that life thus far hasn’t forced him to challenge, and that East Egg initially supports in spades.

Also like the positive arcs, Nick engages in a push-and-pull relationship between the Lie and the Truth for much of the story, until the Truth finally wins out in the end and Nick is able to see new “friends” for what they really are.

Unfortunately, this new Truth does not strengthen Nick’s character but leaves him totally disillusioned with life. The climax of his arc occurs when Gatsby is murdered and none of the hundreds of people who eagerly attended his extravagant parties is there to mourn his passing.

Character Arc Map: They believe the Lie about the world….They leave their normal life and enter a world that reinforces the Lie…They are confronted with the Truth and the world is not what they thought….They are disillusioned by Truth and they lose.

Example: Breaking Bad

In Breaking Bad, Walter goes off the deep end. Walter White is in a happy marriage and lives an honest life working as a science teacher and as a father to his teenage son — but then he receives news of his advanced lung cancer. To begin, he’s concerned with the sudden confrontation with his own mortality.

Until the inciting incident introduces…

  1. The Goal: Sell enough meth with ex-student-turned-drug-dealer Jesse Pinkman so that he can pay for cancer treatment and to secure the future of his family.
  2. The Lie: Arrogance. Walter believes he has the power to avoid the hand of the law, avoid corruption, and avoid bringing danger upon his family while entering the drug trade.
  3. The Truth: Walter believes he’s on a noble journey to provide for his family. In reality, he’s rebelling against his mortality — and playing with fire usually results in burns.

This arc is different from the others we’ve examined because Walter starts his arc already aware of the Truth: cooking meth is risky business and is not the solution to his problems. But faced with impending death, the boundaries of his morals have been suddenly pushed, leaving him vulnerable to the Lie: the belief that he is immune corruption. His arc sees Walter continuously rejecting the red flags and embracing the Lie, until any distinction is lost and he’s so far gone he has no choice but to embrace the Lie completely. In the end, it consumes him and he loses everything, turning into a full-fledged anti-hero.

Character Arc Map: They know the Truth about the world → They pursue a goal believing they can hold onto Truth → They succumb to the Lie and reject the Truth → They embrace (or are defeated by the Lie) and lose.

These three steps, while being universal elements of all arcs, can take countless forms depending on the specificities of your character. Sometimes, the arc doesn’t involve substantial internal change, and is more about the change they effect on the world around them — something often called a “flat arc.”   Or Steadfast character arc!

When planning the arc of your central personalities, always look for the lie they believe, the truth they may or may not believe, and the goal that drives them. You may download this free character profile template to help. If you find that you’re still struggling, try using these character development exercises. Ultimately, breaking arcs down this way should help you emphasize cause and effect and keep your characters anchored in ways that will make it so much easier for your readers to empathize with.

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