Building a Character Arc

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

Part 2

Here’s Part Two of the Character Arc Blog I started a few weeks ago. We discussed the main points of not only the Character Arc, but also the Three-Act Structure that works right alongside it. Here are some other points that you might want to consider.

Here’s the harsh reality that I warned you about in Part 1: If you write a book and the story is sold to the movies, your ending might be changed. It’s happened many times. Just cash the check and hope people read your book and see what you wanted to happen in the original version. The Lord of the Rings, Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, and I Am Legend all had their ending changed. There are many more examples out there. Some were better endings, some worse than the original, for some it didn’t matter (except maybe to the author, but they still cashed the check and moved on. What else could they do? That’s Hollywood.)

Nevertheless, write your story as if it will be carved in stone.

So let’s continue. Whatever happens to your main character(s) during that final Act and phase is going to threaten/effect not only the protagonist, but many of the characters who populate your story. But it’s the protagonist we will be watching to see how he/she handles the crisis. In a mystery it’s usually the villain of the piece who tosses in a few monkey wrenches or hand grenades. This is the time when the hero needs to see what skills they might have within themselves to overcome the obstacles.

Here’s a breakdown of Scarlet O’Hara’s arc in Gone with the Wind.

Scarlet is basically Orphaned because of the Civil War.

As the Wanderer, she nearly loses Tara; she does lose her mother; gains and loses a husband.

She starts replanting and harvesting cotton, dispatches a thief; meets Rhett Butler; learns she can’t have Ashley, she marries Rhett, but loses her daughter during a very busy Warrior phase.

Scarlet learns even more during the Martyr phase. She discovers she has to stand on her own two feet while rebuilding her life. As for getting Rhett back, she’ll think about that tomorrow.

What is so helpful about knowing these Character Arc phases is the fact you can start forming your story around each one. They give you the basic outline along with the Three-Act Structure. It’s a game plan.

You probably have a rough idea who your main character is. Now you can give him or her a kick in the pants to get them out there in the world. You get to paint that new world they find themselves in. Is it bleak? Does it start out rosy and then all hell breaks loose? Is there a misunderstanding that thrusts the character(s) into chaos? There needs to be some major change to their life to get them on the road to solving this problem. The reader has to see this little Orphan out there all alone. That’s how you grab their attention when they first open your book. Make your main character likeable and the reader will want to see how they solve the dilemma they are in. I have actually read a few big-time authors whose characters were so unlikable that I didn’t care if they succeeded or not. A few of these books I put down just a few chapters into it, never to be picked up again. That is not your goal as a writer.

Once your Orphan is out there in the wilderness, (this usually means in an unknown environment or one radically changed by circumstances like a crime or poverty or holocaust), it’s time for your character to take a look at this new landscape. The writer can use the next phase to paint a picture of where the Wanderer is wandering. Readers do like to see new places, so paint a good picture. You also need to show how your character(s) react to this new place. Their reaction will say something about who they are. They should be wary at first. This place is all new. They are learning what the boundaries are. What their limitations are. One character might crumble, another will rise to the challenge.

As your main character starts to grow, they meet people who aid or even try to block their progress. This Warrior Phase lets you introduce new characters or expand the personality of characters already introduced. You don’t want to drop all the characters into the first part of the book. Even if you might have mentioned them, you can reveal new things about their character in this phase. It’s the middle of the story. The Second Act. Even minor characters can have a bit of a Character Arc as the story unfolds.

By the time you get to Act III and the Martyr Phase, your main character(s) need to hit a wall. This is true for a mystery or regular fiction or any fiction. Some problem needs to confront your hero so the reader can watch them overcome it or have a meaningful exit from this world because they did the right thing to solve the dilemma. This is also the time the writer discovers that special trait in their hero that sets them apart. They have learned things during their journey and now they can use those lessons to solve the problem facing them.

Do yourself a favor and watch old movies or read a classic novel and see how this method was used. I mention using older examples because I know they work. When you watch newer movies or read more contemporary books, see if they follow the same game plan. If not, ask yourself if their method worked as well or if there is need for improvement. The old method worked for centuries.

There aren’t many steps in this format. Four Character Arc Phases within Three Acts. Keep them in mind when you’re crafting your story. Write On!

Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes three detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence), The Johnny Casino Casebook Series, and the Chance McCoy detective series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS, Only in Hollywood, and Closer. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook and So You Want to be a Writer are available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

16 thoughts on “Building a Character Arc”

  1. Excellent post on characters, Gayle. You got me thinking and analyzing, always a good thing.

    I often forget the “Hit the wall” Martyr phase, and interesting about endings changing because in my mind the ending is crucial and very much tied into the starting set up. But I will now keep that changed ending possibility in mind, for when the film companies come knocking, ha, ha, ha.!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m thinking of one of my earlier stories and how I’d love to change the ending. A film company would be most welcome. As always, an instructive and thought-provoking post, Gayle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Maggie. I learn something new from everything I read. Sometimes we go outside our comfort zone and it might work, but when I see how a favorite movie or book was handled, I can see that there are basics that almost always work, so I keep them in mind.

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  3. Enjoyable and helpful post, Gayle. I have a form I fill out regarding, among other things, character development, and I always enjoy seeing my characters develop their own arcs as I write their stories!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Our characters do take on a life of their own if we give them the tools. It’s always fun to see where they go.

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  4. Gayle,
    extremely informative and helpful as usual. I print out all your ‘classes” and am so grateful for your succinct suggestions. I like Linda’s idea, too, of filling out a form. I write a general character bio but a form sounds much more efficient and official and Must Be Obeyed although it changes as my character grows. One editor told me to make one of my characters more likeable so I gave her stray dogs and feral cats to adopt. How do my fellow Writers in Rez make their characters likeable?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jill, I have found that many times the character will drag me into unknown territory when they discover themselves before I know who they are. It actually happens and I have turned out a character that surprised me.

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      1. Gayle, I assigned one character as the killer but as she ‘grew’ I came to like her so much I switched over to someone else as the murderer.

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  5. nother useful and informative tutorial, Gayle. I always run your posts against my work to see if I’ve missed anything. And to answer Jill’s question, I had it easy – I introduced my protagonist as a seven year old orphaned in a pogrom. Hard to make her unsympathetic. Since then she’s risked her life, literally or metaphorically, to save another.
    Look forward to Part three when it’s posted.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sitting in your class and raising my hand (no not to visit the restroom) but to say thanks for the many answers to our writing questions along the way. Now if we would only take these topics and run with them in writing our stories. Thanks, Gayle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jackie, I also learn so much from the blogs we post on Writers-in-Residence. Writers learn as they go and when they pass along that information it helps us all even if we take a little longer to get those words on paper.

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  7. Late to the party again! But, Gayle, I love these ‘classes’ of yours. I always learn something new. And, like Jill, I always print them out and keep them on my desk when I am plotting. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

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