How to Create a Convincing Character Arc in Four Simple Steps
Would you like some quick, simple tips on how to build a convincing and attractive character arc for a story you are perhaps writing or have in mind?
In an earlier article, I looked at how to develop a powerful plot in four steps. In brief, this was a matter of coming up with some kind of disastrous final event, which would form the climax of your story, then inventing another event of about half the magnitude of the first designed to take place in the middle of your story, and finally creating a much milder incident to form the beginning of the tale. Then you string these out in reverse order, the mild event building up through the middle one to the final climactic occurrence which is where the heart of the matter of your plot is resolved.
In this way, with the major event, you create a powerful ‘vacuum’ or crisis, which will act as a magnet not only for readers but for you as a writer - you will feel the ‘pull’ of this event as you construct the details of the plot around it.
It’s possible to take a similar approach with regard to creating a character arc, the particular 'curve' of one character within a story. Try these steps as an exercise and let me know how you get on:
1. Write down the biggest or most awful personal tragedy that you can imagine occurring to a character within the context of your story.
This could include the loss of one’s soulmate or the loss of life itself - something which would be absolutely devastating to a character in the framework of your story. Don’t pull any punches - make this truly terrible, the worst thing you can imagine. It has to be enormous, overwhelming. You may even have trouble confronting it yourself! But the more powerful you can make it, the more strength your story will have.
2. Now decide whether you want your character to overcome this apparently inevitable disaster or not.
If your character is going to fail to come through this incident, you’re writing a tragedy or an irony - stories in which the readers are left with an intentionally negative experience. This type of story rests upon that final incident closing the story but not closing off the darkness.
If your character is going to somehow triumph despite impossible odds, you’re writing a comedy or an epic. Epics form 90% of stories - in these, there is usually a happy ending even though the final incident outlined in step 1 made such a thing look impossible. Often, something miraculous has to occur to rescue the situation and to turn it into what Tolkien called a ‘eucatastrophe’, a story in which there is a ‘turning’ towards happiness and resolution even when that seemed most unlikely.
Which kind of story is yours going to be?
3. The next step is to have something happen to your character which is of about half the magnitude of the disaster above, prior to that disaster.
Usually this is the loss of a companion, or a great opportunity missed, or a debilitating physical, emotional or spiritual wound. It’s not totally overwhelming, but it is serious: it shows the reader that your story has real impact, that you are not afraid to create an effect upon the figures within your tale. It also means that, when the character later faces the complete disaster you envisaged in step 1, the reader takes it seriously and doesn’t know what the outcome will be, which makes your story stronger.
4. Now create something which is merely annoying for your character.
This could be a minor inconvenience or setback. Ideally, you should come up with something which foreshadows in some way what will happen in the upcoming incidents: for example, in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, heroine Maggie Tulliver pushes her cousin Lucy into a muddy pool when they are children, upsetting her and ruining her beautiful dress. This foreshadows Maggie’s later betrayal of her cousin when she almost elopes with Lucy’s lover.
This irksome incident sets the story off, and should also be something that is not entirely out of the everyday experience of your readers. This encourages them to identify with your character and gently guides them deeper into the story.
With these four steps, you have created a character arc which will appeal to readers and draw them on in the same way that your plot should also be designed to lead the reader right to the heart of the tale.
Take a look at a character arc from a film you’ve recently seen or a book you’ve recently read to find more examples. Practice creating character arcs using the steps above. You’ll find that these invented curves have a life and dynamic about them suddenly which may surprise you. As you write, you might find characters taking you by the hand and leading you towards their own moments of crisis. The whole business of storytelling will become easier and more comprehensible.
You’re writing fiction that will work. Your readers will enjoy it more - and so will you.
For more, get the book How Stories Really Work.