by Monica Shaughnessy
If you’re a beginning writer or maybe a writer struggling with your second novel, you might be wondering how to construct the perfect character arc. Well, I’m here to help. First, let’s define it, shall we?
Character Arc: a character’s emotional journey throughout the story.
This is completely different from (but intertwined with) characterization, which is the exploration of details about a character’s past and present that make them seem real and that help drive decisions (along with emotion) throughout the story. For instance, if your main character is autistic (characterization), it will significantly alter their emotional choices (arc). One feeds into the other. But for the sake of this post, let’s extract the character arc so that we may study it in detail.
At the opening of your story, your character begins with an emotional state. Here are some classic opening emotions:
Boredom – I wish something exciting would happen to me for a change.
Joy – I met the most wonderful guy last week, and now we’re dating.
Terror – I just woke up, and there’s a man at the foot of my bed.
Pressure – If I don’t defuse the bomb, the mall will explode.
Throughout the story, your character’s emotional state will vary, but the main emotion, the one you begin with, will drive the forward action of the plot because your MC will either be trying to rid themselves of that feeling or trying to maintain that feeling, despite roadblocks. So choose this state carefully and with purpose.
As we progress through the story, here’s how the above emotions might play out, depending on plot turns:
Boredom – I went looking for action, and I found it! Hooray! Except, it’s more dangerous than I thought it would be. And I have to be home in time for dinner.
Joy – My guy’s mother doesn’t like me. She’s trying to tear us apart.
Terror – I’m going to fight my way out of this situation. Again and again.
Pressure – I’m getting a little old for all this pressure. Do I even want it anymore?
As the story progresses, your character will continue to fight for what they want or they might begin to see what they’re fighting for isn’t worth it.
Boredom – Well, I’m not bored anymore. Because I’m in the emergency room with a broken foot.
Joy – I’m so confused. We were so happy once. Can we be that way again? Maybe, if his mother moves to Boca Raton.
Terror – I refuse to live in terror. I will make a plan, once and for all, to end this.
Pressure – You know, defusing bombs is kind of fun. And it beats working for the post office.
By the end of the story, your character will come to terms with the emotions they’ve been feeling since page one, and they will assess whether they want to maintain that initial state or not. Even if they don’t control the outcome of the plot, they can still choose their mental state.
Boredom – Things aren’t so bad at home. Especially when you compare them to a trip to the ER. I’ll take homework and dinner with my parents any old day! (character craves boredom)
Joy – Who needs a mamma’s boy? The guy was a jerk. Good riddance. (character realizes that joy is no longer attainable)
Terror – I defeated that crazy guy and reclaimed my life so that I can live in peace. (character overcomes terror)
Pressure – This job is totally worth whatever stress it gives me. I’m not ready to retire. (character accepts pressure)
You see? The main character will accept or overcome or reject or crave what they once felt. In all cases, the emotion is tightly bound by the plot, and the plot is tightly bound by emotion. If, once you write your story, you can’t easily change the plot without damaging what the character is experiencing emotionally, then you’ve nailed your character arc. Congratulations! But if you can easily swap out one emotion for another, say, lust for greed, then your story needs more work.
With a little hard work, I know you can get it right!
Your turn, dear reader. Having trouble with a pesky character arc? Let’s talk shop.