Novel Writing 101: Ingredients for Character Arc Soup

Hello, friends! Do any of you like cooking? Or perhaps just watching other people cook on TV shows? (Iron Chef, anyone?) I’m more of a baker myself, but the concepts are the same. Whatever you’re making isn’t going to come out very well without adding the right ingredients in the proper order.

Last time we talked about using the Three-Act Structure to give a novel “bones.” This time we’re going to focus on another important aspect of planning out your novel, creating character arcs. If you’ve got a one-sentence summary of your story, then you’ve already considered your main character’s goal and how the antagonist will oppose them. Now we’re going to dig deeper into exactly how to create a character arc and how to tie it in to your plot structure.

First off, what exactly is a character arc? We all know plots run on conflict, but what about characters? When it comes to characters, readers care about their journey, or how the events of the plot (all that wonderful conflict) shape and change who they are or the world around them. There are three main possibilities here:

  1. Positive change arc – The character changes for the better over the course of the story (although the story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending).
  2. Negative change arc – The character becomes worse because of the events in the story.
  3. Flat arc – The character himself (or herself) doesn’t essentially change, but their actions in the story alter the world around them for better or worse.

Most stories have a positive change arc, but not all of them. Think about Star Wars Episode III – a great example of a negative change arc as Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. Flat arcs are often seen in series, where the beloved main character is kept essentially the same but impacts his world, like Sherlock Holmes or Angela Lansbury’s character in Murder, She Wrote.

Fantastic, you might be thinking. But how do I create one of these arcs for my own story? First, you’ll have to choose your recipe – decide what kind of story you want to tell, and which type of arc will work best. When you imagined your main character(s) initially, what were their wants and needs? How did you picture them at the beginning versus the end of the novel?

Now, on to the main ingredients. (Note: these are for change arcs, not flat arcs). For each main character, think about the following things:

  • Want the external motivation for your character. At the beginning, what does your character want? As we’ve talked about, this “want” must translate into a tangible goal to create the plot.
  • Wounda past incident, set of circumstances, or flaw that has injured your character in some way. Like real people, characters aren’t perfect, and neither are their backstories. Find a flaw or some other situation that is holding your character back in some way from being truly happy or fulfilled, or from achieving what they want.
  • Liea falsehood the character believes and lives out because of their wound. A person who is physically wounded will do whatever they can to protect or hide the injury, and the same is true for emotional wounds. If your MC’s mother abandoned her as a small child (wound), she might go through life thinking it was her fault, and that since she’s inherently unlovable she’ll have to earn others’ love (lie). Or say your MC was born with a deformed arm (wound). He might be convinced that he’s not as capable as someone who is whole (lie). Whatever the lie is, it will shape how your character interacts with others and responds to events in the story.
  • Needthe character’s internal motivation, often unrecognized at first. Living with a festering wound and life-shaping lie will leave your character with an obvious need for whatever will counteract that lie. Of course, true to real life, your MC isn’t usually going to recognize any of this at first. They’ll be so consumed with what they want, they won’t even think about how believing the lie is holding them back. Examples? The MC who believes she’s unlovable may try to earn others’ love, when what she needs is to accept she should be loved for who she is (think of Jane Eyre, for example). Or the MC struggling with his deformity might avoid people or taking risks, when he needs to learn self-confidence

How do these work together to create the character arc? As the story progresses, the character gradually must face the lie (and the underlying wound) that holds them back. As they move away from the lie and toward truth, they reach a point where they must decide once and for all what they will believe. From this decisive moment on, they’ll face the consequences of that decision and how it affects the events of the story. By the end, we’ll see whether they’ve managed to get what they want and/ or what they need, and how they’ve changed.

Now let’s take a look at how to line up our “ingredients” with the major plot points we talked about last time.

Act I

This act is all about set-up, both for the plot and the character arcs. It introduces the character’s want and reveals their need, though usually they aren’t ready to acknowledge it. At the First Plot Point, the MC commits to pursuing their goal, but they continue to live in their lie.

Act II

As this act progresses, the MC becomes increasingly aware that something is holding them back. By the major twist at the Midpoint, the MC realizes their lie and begins to take action to turn away from it.

Act III

The third act opens with the Third Plot Point, a major failure or reversal for the MC after seeming victory. Often accompanying this event is the black moment, a moment of personal crisis in which the MC must decide whether to press on in fighting their lie or revert back to who they used to be. Once this decision is made, the MC moves into the climax fully committed to their choice, and often facing added consequences or raised stakes because of that choice. In many cases, the MC may find that their want and their need are diametrically opposed, and that to get one they’ll have to forsake the other. Disney’s Tangled is a great example. Flynn Rider wants to be with Rapunzel, but the only way to save her is to cut off her hair and give up his chance to be healed and live. He acts out of his new identity (selflessness instead of selfishness) and chooses to save her. Of course, being a Disney story, they still deliver on the happy ending.

At the end of Act III, in the resolution, we see how the character has changed either for better or for worse because of their decisions during the course of the story.

And there you have it! The right ingredients put in the right places creates character arc soup. If it still seems a bit murky, that’s very understandable – it’s a lot to wrap your head around! The best way to clear things up is to think about books you’ve read (or yes, watch more movies) and analyze the character arcs. Once you’re ready, go back to the notes you’ve collected on your characters, as well as the major plot points you’ve come up with so far, and see how you might be able to fill in the gaps. If you can create a neatly intertwined plot that drives the character arc, you’ll have a book no one can put down!

Questions or thoughts? Leave me a comment! You can also check out K.M. Weiland’s excellent series on character arcs here for more detailed information. Until next time, happy writing!

Image credit: pexels.com, CC0 License.

One thought on “Novel Writing 101: Ingredients for Character Arc Soup

  1. Pingback: Novel Writing 101: Outlines – Pulling It all Together | Kellie Michelle Parker

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