Friend and fellow WBP contributor Akshaya Raman has been lightly badgering me about writing a post on character, because apparently as much as I talk about how and why character is the most important part of any aspect of story, it seems I have not actually written a post about this! Yes, I have written about pacing, timelines, and writing first chapters for multiple POVs, which does touch on character a bit, but I haven’t actually sat down to write about character arcs: what are they, why are they important, and how do we go about crafting them?
Well folks, today is the day. To me, character arc is the most important aspect of story to master, because all (good, compelling) story plots are really just manifestations of character arc. Plot is just a series of choices and events that force a character to confront some deeply held belief and change in response to that confrontation. This is how I think of it anyway, and you might disagree, but these are the kinds of stories I like to write and that’s what I’ll be talking about.
I tend to build my character arc in a fairly predictable pattern–start with the character’s backstory, which should help determine what this character’s internal struggle is, and then figure out what (and who) makes the character change as a result of that struggle. You can actually go about this in whatever order makes the most sense to you, and my process tends to change from character to character, but these four pieces stay pretty consistent in terms of what elements go into plotting a character arc.
World and Backstory
The world the character exists in and the specifics of that character’s upbringing/backstory will have a huge impact on the starting point for your character (and thus what direction they will grow in–more on that later!) What lessons did the character learn about their world when they were young? What traits were values and what traits were diminished in their culture? How much experience did they have with other cultures and viewpoints besides their own? All of these things contribute to who the character is at the start of the book and how they react to the challenges they will face.
One of my favorite ways to shape a character (and build conflict into them) is to give them a particular trait and then put them in a society where that trait hinders them in some way–for an example from There Will Come a Darkness, Jude Weatherbourne is a particularly sensitive and emotional person growing up in a society where he is taught that his emotional wellbeing can never take precedence over his duty. Of course, some of your character’s traits should reflect the culture they’re in in some way–still using Jude as an example, his society is based on faith, duty, and honor, and thus a lot of how Jude views the world is shaped by these ideas.
Different characters will react to their circumstances in different ways, so this should all be thought of in context with other aspects of the character. You might have two characters with similar upbringings who have reacted in two very different ways to that background. It’s also important to see how a character’s gender, race, and their sexuality will impact them in different ways depending on the culture they’ve been brought up in. As an example, a man brought up in a traditionally patriarchal society who is forced to take on a caretaker role will react differently to that than a woman in that same society taking on that role. Power dynamics and other cultural precepts have a profound effect on how a character sees themselves and views their world, so dig deep into your character’s culture and use that to help figure out how their backstory has shaped them.
Whatever your character’s backstory is and how they’ve reacted to that should provide some framework and inform the next piece of building the arc.
Inner Need and Struggle
In very basic terms, character arc is based around how a character’s internal conflict holds them back. Some people conceive of this internal conflict as a fatal flaw, or an internal wound that must be healed, or a lesson they must learn, or a lie that the character believes about themselves and their world. To me, a character arc stems from some deep truth the character does not understand about themselves and their world, either because something is holding them back from admitting that truth, or because they have not yet encountered something to challenge their initial beliefs.
Another way of looking at a character’s inner need is to think about what behaviors and mindsets a character has developed that served them well in their past (another example of how to consider backstory) that, once a character is in a new situation, they might discover no longer serve them well anymore. I find this helpful because a lot of times we think of a character’s internal need as a flaw or a weakness, but I think it’s important to realize that weaknesses only exist in context–and in another context, those weaknesses can be strengths.
As another example from There Will Come a Darkness, the character Anton survived a lot of his life on the streets. He does not trust people easily and he tends to act opportunistically. Both traits were crucial to his survival back then, but now hold him back from forming relationships and relying on others to take care of him. His experiences and reactions to those experiences have entrenched the idea that no one will protect him and therefore he must do everything he can to avoid facing anything that might harm him. That idea forms the basis of the internal conflict he struggles with throughout the book.
However you choose to think of this internal conflict, it should be deeply ingrained in the character’s backstory, and it should determine the growth of the character as well as what actions the character chooses to take over the course of the book. That sounds like quite a lot to all weave together, and it is! But take any favorite character and you can see how they are developed with all of these things working in tandem.
Goals, Challenges & Choices
Which brings us now to how a character’s backstory and internal struggle inform their actions. Whatever internal struggle your character is experiencing should guide the types of challenges that you, the author, have them face over the course of the book–that is to say, the plot! While we tend to think of plot as the external challenges driving the story, plot should really act as scaffolding for the true meat of the story to unfold–the internal struggle taking place within the character.
Based on their backstory and their internal struggle, figure out what it is your character wants above all. Is it to find a place they finally belong? Is it to experience adventure and find glory? The possibilities are as numerous as there are people in the world, but figuring out what motivates your character should be informed both by their backstory (what have they been taught to value?) which in turn informs their inner need (what have they been denied in their life and what mindset/lie/belief has kept them from having it?).
What your character wants should conflict in some way with that internal wound, lie, or lesson–that is where the struggle comes from. Sometimes this means that a character’s internal need/wound/lie is an obstacle to getting what they want–sometimes even preventing them from pursuing it altogether. Other times, it might be that what a character wants will actually deepen their wound or reinforce the lie.
Either way, the external challenges your character faces in pursuit of this goal should highlight this internal struggle. Your character should make choices in order to overcome these challenges–choices that either bring them closer to or further from discovering the truth that will heal their inner wound/lie/need.
For example, the character of Prince Zuko in Avatar: the Last Airbender wants to regain his honor and return to the Fire Nation. The lie he believes is that his honor is contingent upon his father’s approval. (Spoilers ahead–if you haven’t watched, go do that now!) By the second season, Zuko has begun to question the lie that he believes, but when he is offered to have his place in the Fire Nation restored, he chooses to double down on this lie. This is a great example of how plot should force your characters to either reject or embrace their lie. And in Zuko’s case, this choice puts him on a path to discover that getting what he thought he wanted only deepens his inner need.
What has a greater impact on us than our relationships? I would venture to say: nothing. Relationships, whether between child and parent, between siblings, between protagonist and antagonist, between friends and unlikely allies, or between main character and love interest, play a central role in character arcs. I tend to like to create characters that will play off each other in interesting ways–if I have a character who’s very pragmatic and self-interested, for instance, I might give them someone more idealistic to bounce off of, giving each character something to learn from the other. Or it might be useful to create two characters who are very similar in certain ways to highlight their discrepancies and show the importance of certain choices.
Relationships also help determine what role your character sees themself in–are they a caretaker of a parent or sibling? Are they a leader? Are they a dutiful son or daughter? Or perhaps they eschew relationships all together and see themselves as a loner. Relationships help us contextualize a character within their world–think of it like a tiny microcosm of their society. And whatever role your character has cast themselves in in relation to the people around them can play a part in determining what your character’s inner struggle is.
Crafting character relationships gives you great opportunities to dig deeper into your characters and start to poke holes in their worldview and attitude. The other people your character comes into contact with should challenge them and change them, for better or worse. And visa versa! Your main character should not be the only one whose arc your book follows, and crafting multiple character arcs that all play off each other will help strengthen both the core of your book and make the characters feel more dynamic and realized. It’s also just one of my favorite aspects of writing–exploring how by coming to know one another better, characters come to know themselves better, and begin to change.
Character arc is a huge topic, and there are many resources available for writers who want to dig deeper. This is a topic I think about almost constantly in the brainstorming, development, writing, and revising of my books, so this post really only scratches the surface, but hopefully it can serve as a helpful jumping off point for anyone struggling with this aspect of writing. If anyone has particularly helpful resources on character arc, feel free to share in the comments!
My favorite resource for character arcs is simply analyzing my favorite characters and seeing how these concepts play out in real stories. Some examples that I consider to be great character arcs, if you’re curious: Prince Zuko in Avatar: the Last Airbender (really any character in these series, the arcs are all flawlessly done), Essun in The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin, Kestrel in The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Radu and Lada in the And I Darken trilogy by Kiersten White (a GREAT example of character relationships and character arc mirroring), Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride & Prejudice (a prime and eternal example of how romance + character arc should work together–maybe a post for another day!) and Alexis Rose in Schitt’s Creek (in general there are a lot of great character arc writing in sitcoms! Seriously, just watch The Good Place and you will know everything you will ever need to know about character arcs!)