Building a Character Arc

                                   by Gayle Bartos-Pool

There aren’t strict rules for writing fiction, but at least one character needs to change in some significant way by the end of your story just to make the journey worth taking. But it doesn’t have to be the main character. If you’re writing a series, whether it’s in book form or a television series, you can take a lot longer to have your main character or a series regular change in some significant or meaningful way. If a character is making a “guest appearance,” they can change dramatically in that one book or show. But whether it’s a novel, short story or screenplay, one character should have a true Character Arc in each outing.

Part 1

So what is a Character Arc?

A main character needs to go through phases during any given story. Usually it’s the protagonist in a movie or stand-alone novel, but sometimes it’s a character very close to the lead character. That person usually has these phases thrust upon them by nature, or willful intent by another character (the antagonist), or by a fatal flaw in that particular character. Or, here’s a fun reason: the character learns something about himself or herself that alters their personality or their way of thinking because of that revelation. Maybe they’re from outer space or somebody else is really their father or they have a twin. This kind of thing can happen to the hero or a major player. It’s how the character deals with it that makes the difference.

Watch old movies and pick out these arcs or phases as the movie progresses. It is amazing how many screenwriters use these phases. They work perfectly in a short story, too.

You will find many books on the topic of the Character Arc. Even if the phases are given different names, the description is pretty much the same.

The Phases:

            Orphan – the character feels alone or is literally abandoned

            Wanderer – the character goes looking for clues or answers

            Warrior – the character decides to fight for what is right

            Martyr – the character risks everything for his ultimate goal

Character Arc from “A Role to Die For” – G.B.Pool

  • Orphan – middle-aged actress starts losing roles to younger actresses
  • Wanderer – she starts looking for one last, great part
  • Warrior – she defends herself against the person who wants that part
  • Martyr – she risks getting caught for doing a dastardly deed, but doesn’t flinch when confronted

Character Arc from The Wizard of Oz

  • Orphan – Dorothy is blown to Oz by the tornado
  • Wanderer – Dorothy wanders around Oz and meets several characters who accompany her on her journey
  • Warrior – Dorothy and her pals have to brave their way through the woods and flying monkeys to get to the Emerald City
  • Martyr – Dorothy dispatches the evil witch and then can’t catch the Wizard’s/Professor’s balloon to get back home. She fears she will be stranded there until she is told she has the power to go home in those ruby slippers.

Dorothy’s Character Arc is also an outline for what is called The Three-Act Structure which is the basis of most every story ever written. Follow:

Act I – A young girl finds herself alone in a strange place; she meets a few characters who are willing to help her in her quest: she wants to get home.

Act II – She is told she must ask the wise man in the city that is far away for help; but someone who wants what she has doesn’t want her to make it to the city and throws out roadblocks.

Act III – She and her new friends have to fight their way through some tough places to get to the city and she ends up saving her friends’ lives; the wise man leaves without helping her; and then someone tells her she has had the means to get back home with her all along – the ruby slippers.

The basic Three-Act Structure (or Beginning, Middle, and Ending) is found in most great movies and books and short stories. It’s simple. It works. It goes hand-in-glove with the Character Arc phases.

Okay, let’s dig deeper into this Character Arc concept.

You know there should be a plan, but how do you know what your character is supposed to be doing in each Character Arc phase? That’s where your Plot comes in. You can’t really have a story without both Plot and Character, can you? If you know roughly where you want your character to go, you can plot/plan/prepare the journey.

Your character(s) must have a destination in Act I, even if they don’t realize they are on a journey when they wake up that morning. In most stories the journey is thrust upon them. They are living their lives when all of a sudden they find themselves out there in the wilderness. In a mystery, the protagonist is either the main suspect or asked to find the clues leading to the real killer and is basically left to their own devises. In other words: Orphaned in the story.

In the Act II they need to gather both clues and maybe some help in order to solve the crime. In a romance, the girl (it’s usually a female in these things) finds herself in a new town or a new job or a new environment like aboard a ship or even a spaceship. The character finds his or her self wandering aimlessly (hence the Wander Arc) and needs to get his or her bearings.

Also during Act II the character (the Wanderer) can learn a few things about himself or about the people around him. This is also the time the character begins to question not only others, but themselves.

It’s during the transition from Act II and Act III (or Warrior phase) when the main character has obstacles thrust in their path. This can be red herrings in a mystery or maybe an earthquake or hurricane or drought in an adventure. Books come in all flavors, so whether you’re writing Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Thriller, Romance, Westerns, Dystopian, or a Contemporary story, this phase comes into play. But it’s also during Act III when the Martyr Arc kicks in. It’s the Do or Die phase. Does the hero succeed or die trying? Not all stories have happy endings, but they should have an ending that fits the story the author is writing. And I do mean that the author has a choice to make (At least at first; more on that subject in Part 2). There is no formula here. Write the ending that fits the story you want to tell.

Along with the Character Arc for either your main character or a character whose life is sort of the center of the story you are telling, there is also a Character Arc for another central character in your story, especially if you are writing a mystery. This is the Arc for the villain. Remember, the villain is the guy or gal who caused all the trouble in the first place. This character sets the action in motion, is introduced somewhere around the early part of the story as just another character, then tries to thwart any solution to the problem during the middle of the story, and is brought to justice or a reawakening of his or her soul by the end of the story. That’s four parts, just like the main Character Arc.

Some writers both past and present will drop in the bad guy right at the end of the story with no early introduction which isn’t fair to the reader or the story. This character has two faces. Usually the first one seen is nice, sympathetic, tries to help find the solution to the problem at hand. Of course, what this character is actually doing is seeing what holes he can patch up before he’s caught. Sometimes those methods are diabolical, but that’s why he’s the bad guy.

While the Wandering hero is gathering friends to help him solve the puzzle, the bad dude is working in the background to make that not happen, sometimes offering to help as well. When the hero becomes the Warrior, the villain has to double-down. Bad stuff starts to happen and the hero has to make serious decisions. The villain already knows what he will do. And it is never very nice.

The last phase has both hero and villain battling to the death, both figuratively and actually in your story. Sometimes heroes die. Again, that’s your call as the writer. But always keep in mind who the villain is and what he or she wants. That Arc will show the reader what kind of person the villain is. Will he sacrifice everything for whatever it is he wants? Money? Power? Or does he just hate the hero because of jealousy? Just keep in mind the villain’s Arc while you are crafting your story. And remember, even if it’s not a mystery, a love story or saga can have one person trying to screw up the life of the main character. And it can be because of love, money or power. Craft that Arc well and you will have a good story.Part Two of this blog will be coming up in a few weeks. Watch for it!