Creating Character Arcs: Torment Your Hero in Eight Steps
For many of us, creating character arcs is one of the most painful aspects of writing.
It starts out pleasantly enough. There’s the fun of slowly falling in love with a character as they become more and more human. There’s the anticipation of the triumph: that final victory or the long-awaited kiss.
But then you realize the only way to get the character from who they were at the beginning of the book to who they are at the end is to torment them without mercy.
Depending on your genre, this could mean everything from gunshot wounds to having their diary read aloud at a school assembly. It means your character has to fail, lose against their enemies, lose against themselves, and come very, very close to giving up.
Because your character (usually) has to change. And change is won through hardship.
So how do you set up the perfect, most disastrous arc for your character?
I’ll show you step by step. But before we can talk about creating character arcs, let’s get clear on terminology.
What is a Character Arc?
A character arc is the character’s personal journey over the course of a story. Often (but not always), the arc includes an internal transformation reflected through an external transformation.
For example: a loner (external) who only cares about protecting herself, her family, and her one friend (internal) becomes the leader of a rebellion (external), fueled by growing anger and a sense of responsibility to the wider world (internal).
This is different from the story arc. A story arc is the series of events that moves the story along. These events should force your character to make difficult choices, face fears, and deal with all the other drama that will eventually get them to change.
Speaking of change…
Not All Journeys Are the Same
Before we can get into creating character arcs, it’s important to note that not all character arcs follow the same trajectory. There are actually four options for you to consider.
We already have a great article on the four types of character arc, so I’ll keep this brief:
- Moral Ascending Arc (or Positive Arc): Your character learns a lesson and becomes a better person.
- Moral Descending Arc (or Negative Arc): Your character gives into their weaknesses or desires and becomes a worse person.
- Transformational Arc: Your character transforms in a major external way, typically by gaining remarkable skills, power, or status.
- Flat Arc: Your character doesn’t really change at all. This arc is usually reserved for side characters or for protagonists in specific genres like action-adventure or mystery. Think James Bond or Miss Marple.
The type you choose will influence the way you design your character’s inner and outer journey. As we dig into creating character arcs in the next section, I’ll note those areas where different arcs require different considerations.
Creating Character Arcs, Step by Step
First, know that character arcs are not strictly a protagonist thing. Not every character in your story has to have an arc, but many of them should. Your side characters’ and villains’ arcs keep the story interesting, support the theme, and even enhance your protagonist’s journey.
Here’s how to build character arcs that will have your readers saying, “Oh, wow, what an engaging transformation!” (Or whatever.)
Step One: Nail Down Your Character’s Whole Deal
The first step is character creation.
A compelling journey begins with these character elements:
- Want: What is the outcome your character believes will make them happy?
- Need: What do they actually need?
- Motivation: What motivates your character? Motivation often takes the form of a fear or desire. The character believes that achieving their Want will help them avoid that fear or fulfill that desire.
- Fear: What does your character fear most?
- Flaws: What flaws hold your character back?
- The Lie: What backwards philosophy or perspective guides your character’s decision-making?
- The Ghost: What major event in your character’s past still haunts them? (The Ghost is usually responsible for the Lie.)
These elements together help you outline how your character needs to change and why that change is difficult.
A quick note on Need:
If you’re working with a moral ascending arc, your character is most likely unaware of their Need at the beginning of the story. Recognizing the Need is part of the arc. This is often true for transformational arcs, as well.
Meanwhile, the descending moral character is going to reject the Need, even if they’re aware of it from page one.
The flat character might discover the Need, have always known about it, or remain oblivious. Either way, they won’t change.
A character with a flat arc can also get away with not having a Lie. This is often true of idealized heroes like Wonder Woman. If they do have a Lie, it manifests more as an interesting character detail than a challenge to overcome.
Step Two: Establish Your Character’s Goal
An inciting incident presents your character with a problem or opportunity that causes them to zero in on a specific goal. Their pursuit of that goal is the journey that is going to change them.
For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s Want is to protect and provide for her family. That Want propels her to volunteer for the Hunger Games in her sister’s place, and now her goal is to win this absurd horror olympics.
Step Three: Ruin Everything
Make it really hard for your character to reach their goal. Thwart them at every turn with obstacles that tap into their Fear, expose their Flaws, and force them to confront the Ghost.
As you throw all this miserable garbage at them...
Step Four: Let Your Character Fail at Fixing Things
You must resist the urge to rescue your characters. You especially cannot rescue them from themselves.
The central idea behind any character arc—often even a flat arc—is that we human beings (or whatever your characters might be) have a death grip on our Lies. When we attempt to solve our problems, we do so through the logic of the Lie. Your character must do the same.
In a moral ascending arc, clinging to the Lie makes everything worse and worse until the character realizes they must change.
In a moral descending arc, the character’s Lie-based choices mostly make things worse for other people.
As for a flat arc, the Lie doesn’t actually have to impact the story. The gritty, dark-souled detective who sees the world as a den of deceit and debauchery can bring that energy to every case with zero consequences.
You still need to let your flat-arced character fail, but the failure doesn’t have to be deep or symbolic. It can be a judgment error, a weakness, or even a malevolent force beyond their control.
What you can do is allow this character to briefly doubt their belief system because of this failure. You see this most often in flat arcs where the character is a heroic being who has no Lie and has been enlightened since day one.
To be clear, it’s also okay for your character to have a win or two in the middle of their arc. You just want to avoid solving all their problems in the middle of act two. You can make it look like they’ve reached their goal, but that victory should spark an even greater consequence. This is what we call a false win.
Step Five: Repeat Steps Three and Four
Repeat as many times as is appropriate for your genre and the length of your story.
Step Six: Force Your Character to Confront the Lie
At some point, things are going to have to get so bad that your character has a “change or die” moment.
If their arc is moral ascending or transformational, they’re going to change.
Your moral descending character will let everything around them blow up and they’ll walk away smiling, warmed in the light of their own destructive flames.
Your flat arc character may not be confronted by the Lie at all. If they are, that story beat will be less “change or die” and more, “You might be happier if you changed—just something to think about.” (They won’t change, and they probably won’t think about it.)
Step Seven: Triumph!
Or rather: Outcome! Because a character arc only has to end in a happy ending if you write romance.
In moral ascending and transformational arcs, the character’s change is the big outcome, regardless of whether or not they achieve their goal. The same is true for moral descending arcs; it’s just a different, more disturbing type of change.
As for a flat arc, your character’s journey draws to a close with a clear external outcome, like solving a mystery or saving the world. This outcome typically reaffirms their worldview, whether that view is a beautiful Truth or a dark-and-gritty Lie.
Step Eight: Establish the New Normal
The final step is to show your reader what it means that your character has changed (assuming they have). What does life look like for them now? Are things better or worse? How are they putting their transformation to work in their community and relationships?
These eight steps will help you create character arcs that resonate with readers and build unforgettable stories. But in the interest of being thorough, here are a few more tips to ensure you nail it.
Creating Character Arcs That Are Seriously So Good
I’ve already covered the part where you have to make your protagonist’s life a living nightmare. Here are a few other hot tips.
Craft Contrasting Arcs
If your protagonist has a moral ascending arc, consider giving them a foil with a moral descending arc. Or pair your flat-arc action hero with a new partner who is completely changed by their harrowing mission.
Reflect the Inner Struggle in the Outer Conflict
Design your story’s conflict to force your character to confront their inner demons. Also consider how your character’s inner struggle can make that outer conflict harder than it has to be.
Design Irreversible Decisions
Go big or go home. When your character enters the adventure, make it a “point of no return” situation. When they make a choice for the sake of the Lie, make sure that choice cannot be undone.
Follow Through with Consequences
As you heighten the drama for your character, think in terms of consequences. It’s totally fine to have a few bad things happen to them. But it is also important that your character is personally responsible for making things worse, especially in a moral ascending arc.
A bad choice with devastating consequences leads to growth. (And don’t I know it.)
Consider Your Theme
Your characters’ journeys should clarify the theme for your reader. And we’re not just talking about your protagonist’s journey. We’re talking about all your characters, side by side, each navigating the same world in their own way.
Crazy Rich Asians explores the theme of class and belonging. We know this because every character arc in the story grapples with the relationship between connection and money. There’s no rando storyline about someone trying to avenge a death or inspire young minds.
How to Keep Your Character’s Inner Mess Organized
Change is messy. That’s true for you, it’s true for me, and it’s true for the people you and I compulsively imagine and write into existence.
So how do you organize, plot, and reveal your character’s complicated evolution?
Studying story structure alongside character arcs can certainly help. The better you understand both elements of your story, the more you see them as inseparable. You naturally infuse your plot with character growth and you naturally find ways to channel your character’s internal struggle into external conflict.
In fact, I recommend “plotting” character arcs alongside your actual plot. The Dabble Plot Grid is my go-to for doing exactly that.
You can also track your character arcs using label ribbons.
And because it’s a versatile tool that allows you to make your headings whatever you want them to be, even pantsers can get in on the fun. I promise, no alarms will sound if you do this instead of plotting out your story scene by scene:
If you’re not already a Dabbler, no problem. You can explore all the writing tool’s Premium Features for free for fourteen days by following this link.
Now get out there and torment your characters.
The inciting incident is the make-or-break moment for your story. It’s the catalyst for change. It’s the thing that sets your entire tale in motion. It’s the kick in the pants your protagonist needs to force a change in their lives they probably never saw coming. Novel openings are one of the hardest things to nail and you can’t do that without a compelling, disruptive, and logical inciting incident. But how do you create an inciting incident that will carry your whole story?
Do you have a story in you? Of course you do! Come write with us for the Dabble Writing Challenge.
Essentially, a beta reader is an (hopefully) objective third party who will read your novel or story and provide (hopefully) constructive feedback. A beta reader is not an editor, and often they’re not writers either, though there’s a good chance a lot of your beta readers are going to be authors as well.