A Character Arc Template for Crafting Riveting Transformations
We made it just for you. It’s a downloadable, fillable PDF you can use to create emotionally engaging character arcs. And that’s an essential task for any author hoping to write a book that resonates with readers. Few aspects of a story are as fun and fascinating as watching a character change.
With a great character arc, you can inspire readers with the reminder that transformation is possible. Or devastate them with the reminder that change is inevitable.
Character arcs also help us explore the extent to which we control our own lives. A character who grows is a character who actively accepts responsibility for the trajectory of their existence… at least to the degree that any of us can.
So if you’re ready to dive in, download our free character arc template and get started.
And if you need a little more help understanding what a character arc is or how to fill in the blanks of your template, keep reading.
What’s a Character Arc?
“Character arc” is the term we use to talk about a character’s journey of transformation.
Katniss Everdeen becomes the leader of a revolution in The Hunger Games. In Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley grows from an awkward, impulsive child into a young woman whose uniqueness makes her strong.
And in Breaking Bad, Walter White transforms from a mild-mannered science teacher to a terrifying drug lord, as one does. Not all arcs are positive.
In fact, an arc can be:
- Positive – The character changes for the better and makes their world better because of it. (Examples: Eleanor Shellstrop in The Good Place and Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol)
- Negative – The character changes for the worse and everyone around them suffers because of it. (Examples: Walter White in Breaking Bad and Killmonger in Black Panther)
- Flat – The character doesn’t change at all. (Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web and James Bond)
So Which Characters Need a Character Arc?
Great question! It’s up to you.
You’ll definitely want to think about an arc for your protagonist, even if you decide to give them a flat arc. (Quick tip: protagonists with flat arcs appear most often in mysteries, thrillers, and adventures. That’s not to say those main characters must have a flat arc. It’s more like a heads-up that it’s riskier to write a flat-arc protagonist in other genres.)
It’s also good to consider which secondary characters should have an arc.
And keep in mind that you can put a character arc in a character’s backstory. That’s the case with Killmonger’s negative arc in the Black Panther movie. It’s only through flashbacks that we see his journey to villainy. In the current timeline, he’s all evil all the time.
Key Elements of a Great Character Arc
In order to get the most out of your character arc template, you’ll want to nail down a few essential details about your character.
(Note: From here on out, we’re talking about negative and positive arcs only.)
Here’s what you need to know about any characters who change:
Your character’s backstory sets the stage for who they are at the beginning of your novel. It includes things like:
- Life experiences
- Cultural background
- Societal influences
- Personal relationships
You probably want to give your character a traumatic history that shapes the way they handle the conflict in their story. We call this horrible memory the “Ghost” or “Wound.” As you build their arc, you’re going to conjure that Ghost or poke that Wound a lot.
In response to the Ghost, your character latches onto a philosophy that they believe will prtect them from similar trauma going forward.
This is called a Lie, because the philosophy is flawed. It has to be flawed so your character has a reason to change. No one wants a story about someone who’s got it all figured out.
In The Soulmate Equation, Jess is haunted by the heartache of being repeatedly abandoned by her self-absorbed mother. Now a mom herself, Jess lives by the Lie that a good mother never thinks about her own needs.
Over the course of their arc, your character will learn to embrace the Truth. Unless it’s a negative arc. That’s where things get complicated.
There are three types of negative character arcs. (You can read about them here.) The short version is that characters who transform for the worse either:
- Believe in a happy Lie (“the world is a safe place”), then learn a tragic Truth (“no, it’s not”),
- Believe a Lie, then actively reject the Truth in favor of a worse but more appealing Lie, or
- Begin with the Truth, then get lured in by an attractive Lie.
Wants, Needs, and Motivation
Let’s break this down:
- Want – What change does your character want to see in their life?
- Motivation – What deeper desire drives them towards that change?
- Need – What change do they actually need? (If they have a positive character arc, they probably don’t see the Need at the beginning of the story. They’ll discover it later.)
These details work together to set your character along the path to transformation.
Their Motivation and Want push them to set specific goals, like vanquishing a villain or scoring a promotion. The Need shows you how to sabotage their attempts to reach those goals.
For example, let’s say your character is chasing that promotion to become their parents’ favorite child (Want) because they crave validation from others (Motivation). Ultimately, they have to learn that true happiness only comes when they learn to value themselves (Need).
To get them there, you—the author and puppetmaster—must punish them for obsessing over their parents’ validation. You may even give them that validation and then take it away again to prove that they’re chasing something they’ll never control.
It’s mean. But it gets the job done.
Internal and External Conflict
Your character’s internal conflict is a war they’re fighting entirely with themselves. Maybe it’s an identity crisis, a moral dilemma, inner angst caused by shifting beliefs or relationship changes… it could be a lot of things. This article can help you think through the possibilities.
The external conflict is a battle between the character and something outside themselves, like society, technology, or another character.
Your character’s internal and external conflicts should continuously make each other worse. At some point, all this conflict comes to a head, and that’s when your character is forced to make a bold move towards growth.
Strengths, Fears, and Flaws
Okay, real quick:
Strengths – This is what your character is good at. Over the course of their arc, your character will learn to put their strengths to better use than they have in the past.
Fears – Your character’s greatest fear is usually linked into their Ghost, Lie, and Motivation. Forcing them to face that fear is how you force them to grow. You’ll see how in a bit.
Flaws – If you have a character with a negative arc, they might have a tragic flaw that ultimately leads to their downfall. A character with a positive arc should have a flaw that causes them to make a huge mistake they must learn from.
A Line They’d “Never” Cross
What would your character never do? Find the answer. Then figure out what it would take to get them to do that thing. Compelling character arcs always include that moment when the character crosses their own line.
Now, this moment doesn’t have the same function in every story.
Crossing a line might mean that the character has become so single-mindedly focused on their goal that they betrayed their own moral code. They come to see this as a mistake and work to fix it.
Or the moment might represent a point of no return in a negative arc, like Walter White’s first kill in Breaking Bad.
It could even signal a positive shift in values and perspective, like Anne Shirley befriending Gilbert Blythe (swoon) after she swore she never would.
Character Arc Template
Now that you’ve created a character worthy of an arc, let’s dig into the character arc template.
I’m about to walk you through the same beats that are on your downloadable template. These beats will help you create a protagonist’s arc. You can also use this guide to create less involved arcs. I’ll explain how as we go.
Finally, you might notice that the character arc beats I’m giving you are basically the same as those in the three-act structure. That’s because this extremely common storytelling structure pinpoints the moments when the protagonist makes bold changes and is forced to examine their choices. You know… arc stuff.
That doesn’t mean every character’s arc has to coincide with your major plot points. This character arc template is merely a guide to help you shape each character’s evolution. You can plug their journey into your novel in whatever way makes sense.
9-Point Character Arc Template
1. Everything’s Normal
Establish who your character is at the beginning of their journey. Where do they come from? How do they view the world? What are their desires, goals, fears, strengths, and flaws? What motivates them?
Oh, and what’s the Lie that guides their decisions?
2. Interrupt Their Normal
For your protagonist, this is known as the “inciting incident.” It’s an unexpected event that presents a new threat or opportunity that’s too big to ignore and ultimately sets the whole story in motion.
If you’re working with a supporting character, this moment doesn’t have to be as momentous as an inciting incident. It just has to force them to make a decision or adaptation they didn’t expect to make.
3. Let Them Pivot Towards the Future While Still Clinging to the Past
Your character’s going to make a decision that moves them in a new direction. But! They’re going to make that decision while holding onto old beliefs and hangups.
This is important because it’s what makes the character arc feel real. Your character is setting out on a path that will eventually change them. But they’re not abruptly reversing everything they think and feel and believe in response to one unexpected incident.
Let’s look at The Soulmate Equation example again. Jess’s life is interrupted when she’s offered a large sum of money to date a guy she hates. She takes the deal, but only because she needs the cash in order to provide for her child.
She still has every intention of neglecting her romantic life to be the selfless mother she believes she should be.
4. Throw a Bunch of Crazy New Stuff at Them
Turn your character’s decision into a string of increasingly difficult challenges they cannot escape. Remember what I said about continuously heightening the internal and external conflicts? That starts now.
Your primary job at this point is to challenge your character’s Lie. For Jess, that means giving her a lot of beautiful encounters with her once-hated love interest. It also means having the daughter and love interest accidentally meet and adore one another.
Because Jess is still committed to the Lie that a good mom wouldn’t let these things happen, these experiences are as torturous as they are wonderful.
Now, if you’re doing a simple arc for a side character, you can bring your character’s journey to a close at this point. Let the challenges they encounter build towards a realization that something needs to change. Then have them change.
If you’re looking for a more involved arc, keep going.
5. Flip Something on Its Head
Even if they don’t like it, your character’s finally getting a handle on how things work in their new reality. Time to pull the rug out from under them again.
This could be a devastating revelation, like the betrayal of a trusted ally.
Or it could be something that seems fantastic. This could be the moment when the love interests can no longer resist the pull towards one another and finally kiss.
Whatever it is, your character is the most vulnerable they’ve ever been.
6. Let Them Do the Boldest Thing They’ve Ever Done
Okay, now it’s undeniable. This character is changing. They’re the most vulnerable they’ve ever been, and yet, they’re choosing to walk towards the danger.
They’re going to face the villain, even though the betrayal of their sidekick means they’re in it alone. Or they’re going to go public with their romance, even though they’re certain another heartbreak would destroy them.
In order to really sell this decision, you need to make it clear what they have to gain. Make it something they couldn’t see before.
7. Let Them Blow It One Last Time
Be mean. Target your character’s weak spots. Let their Ghost come howling back. Make their greatest fears come true.
Let them fail in the face of all this… at least for a moment. Allow their biggest flaws and insecurities to come roaring back in the form of bad decisions or big mistakes.
And then give them a choice:
Change or die.
That could be literal for the hero/ine whose trusty throwing axe has been destroyed by the villain, forcing them to get really good at punching really fast.
Or it could be something that just feels like death, like the protagonist who’s no longer willing to lose their chance at love just to avoid the pain of heartache.
8. Have Them Fully Commit to Change
Your character does the scary, difficult thing. They probably succeed. And they’re definitely a better person than they were, unless this is a negative arc.
If it’s a negative arc, they probably did the corrupt thing and now they’re a worse person.
Either way, change has happened, and now you can:
9. Show Us Their New Normal
Who are they because of what they’ve been through? How does their transformation change the world around them?
Show us that. And then you’re done.
Weaving Character Arcs Into the Plot
You’ve done it! You’ve developed a captivating character and used your character arc template to give them the transformation they deserve.
The next step challenge is weaving their arc into your plot. For that, I highly recommend checking out Dabble’s Plot Grid.
With the Plot Grid, you can keep track of character arcs alongside the scenes of your novel. This helps you see how the inner lives of your players unfold and makes it easier to look for loose threads and unfinished storylines.
If you’re not a Dabble user, don’t worry. You can check it out for free for 14 days. Your free trial gives you full access to all Dabble’s features—no credit card required! All you have to do is click this link and get started on your own thrilling journey.
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