Day 9: Character Arcs

Over the past few days, our gaze has been settled strongly on the underlying mechanism of plot that structures your story. You may be wondering: what of our characters? I mean, I did, after all, characterize story as revolving around the fundamental change that the character experiences. It is time to illustrate the way these two critical storytelling forces operate together.

Libber Hawker, in her paean to pantsers, Take Your Pants Off! explains that the three-legged stool of story elements is composed of 1) character arc, 2) theme, and 3) pace. It may seem surprising that what she leaves out is plot.

“The struggle to grow, to learn how to be a better person, is a theme that is constantly repeated in mythology across the world. This surely indicates that it plucks at a very deep and important chord in the human psyche,” Hawker writes.

For Hawker, the plot is a mutable by-product that emerges out of first understanding the struggles of the character’s learning and growth. That’s why she treats the character arc as one of the key elements of the story. The character arc must underpin the plot.

K.M. Weiland quotes Michael Hauge in explaining the symbiotic relationship between arc and plot: “The three acts of the [story] correspond to the three stages of the hero’s outer motivation. Each change in the hero’s motivation signals the arrival of the next act.”

Weiland provides a helpful explanation of how character motivation, her needs and wants, help drive story. This, in turn, links us back to the story structure as expressed in plot. The character begins the story by holding fast to a want. Often times this is well articulated and external to the character.

But what really provides the energy to the story is the character’s flaw, which can manifest as a need. Without this need fulfilled, the character can never be complete. Almost always, however, the character is oblivious to her need while she’s laser-focused on her want. This dichotomy leads to what Weiland calls “The Lie Your Character Believes.”

Weiland describes how the tension between want and need provide the fuel of the story: “The Lie plays out in your character’s life, and your story, through the conflict between the Thing He Needs (the Truth) and the Thing He Wants (the perceived cure for the symptoms of the Lie)…. In a word, the Thing Your Character Needs is the Truth. He needs the personalized antidote to his Lie.”

The Hero’s Journey is really a story about a character’s growing consciousness. Here, Vogler breaks down the familiar paradigm from the character’s perspective. See how, from this viewpoint, the story seems to unwind as a tale about growing awareness and the effects that that awareness has on the character’s decisions to act.

Character Arc

Hero’s Journey

Limited awareness of the problem Ordinary World
Increased awareness Call to Adventure
Reluctance to change Refusal
Overcoming reluctance Meeting the Mentor
Committing to change Cross the Threshold
Experimenting with first change Tests, Allies, Enemies
Preparing for the big change Approach to the Inmost Cave
Attempting big change Ordeal
Consequences of the attempt (improvements and setbacks) Reward
Rededication of change The Road Back
Final attempt at big change Resurrection
Final mastery of the problem Return with the elixir

Here are some questions to help you flesh out the arc for your principal character:

What does he want at the beginning of the story? What is that he actually needs (this is almost always outside of his awareness)? What is the tension between the want and need? How does the Call to Adventure increase his awareness of his wants and/or needs? How does he either integrate his want and need or come to the answer that his need is the true answer at the end of the story?

Visit the Countdown to Nano Program Site for a listing of all the articles in the series.

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