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Monday, November 2, 2020

Using Character Arc to Create a Story



Lately I've been writing down and pulling together different approaches to brainstorming and creating stories. Some are more basic and some are more advanced, and some will work better for certain people than others. Today I want to introduce an approach to brainstorming a story that works off character. Well, the character arc (or lack thereof, I guess), specifically. 

So if you are one of those writers who tends to favor character over plot (🙋‍♀️ #GuiltyToAFault #WhatIsPlot), this might be preferable to you. If not, it's still useful to have at your disposal. Every story needs to address character arc (or the lack thereof, obviously). 

Okay, so if you are new to the writing world, you might want to know what I mean by "character arc." "Character arc" is just a fancy term for how a character grows or changes through because of the story. Most of the time, we are talking about the protagonist, since that is the most important character. (But technically any character can have a character arc.)

And that's who we are referring to in this post, the protagonist. 

First off, not all protagonists arc. Some protagonists remain the same. To be honest, this can get pretty tricky, as like most things in writing, terms aren't always black and white.

For the sake of this post, I'm going to break down the protagonist options into two categories: "change" vs. "steadfast." (Because I've used this elsewhere and seen it used elsewhere.) 


Change Protagonist vs. Steadfast Protagonist


A "change" protagonist will do a more or less a 180, from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. 

A great example of this is Scrooge. He starts out miserly and through because of the story, ends up being charitable. Other examples of famous characters:

Harry Potter: Unloved and powerless --> Loved and powerful

Elsa from Frozen: Closed off/isolated --> Open

Jean Valjean: Hard, bitter, cold --> Loving and merciful

 

Generally speaking, these would be called "positive" character arcs. 

But you can also have a protagonist that has a "negative" character arc, such as Anakin's descent into becoming Darth Vader.

In the other category, we have the "steadfast" protagonist. A steadfast protagonist will be more or less the same from the beginning to the end--however, this doesn't necessarily mean he or she doesn't "grow." (Remember how I said this isn't necessarily black and white? Yeah . . . ) Sure, a steadfast character might stay essentially the same from beginning to end (cue classic Superman or 007), but most the time, in modern times, the steadfast protagonist will grow by degree

Meaning, instead of doing a 180 flip, he or she will gain a greater understanding or a greater ability or greater experience. He or she will become more of something. 

This doesn't necessarily mean the steadfast protagonist never wavers or never has doubts or never meanders the wrong way during the story. He or she just doesn't do a direct flip. 

It's hard to explain this, because it's really more of a spectrum (someday, someday, I will write that steadfast protagonist article ✊, but until then . . .)

Some more examples of famous steadfast characters:

The Little Red Hen

Job from the Old Testament

Jesus from the New Testament

Captain America

 

Generally speaking, these steadfast characters offer a "positive" example. Their steadfastness ultimately leads to positive outcomes.

But you can also have a steadfast protagonist that offers a "negative" example. This is what you may find in a tragedy, where the protagonist refuses to change. Their stubbornness ultimately leads to negative outcomes. An example of this may be the grasshopper in the "Ants & the Grasshopper" fable.

(Also, I hesitate to use the word "example," because it sounds too highbrow or judgy, but it conveys my point.)

Okay, so now that we have those defined, let's continue. 

 

Considering Your Character


This approach to creating a story is about figuring out how your character is at the beginning of the story and the end of the story, and then filling in the in between stuff.
Because often when you know how your protagonist starts and how your protagonist ends, you can get a better idea for what needs to happen in the narrative. 

And in a well-told story, the protagonist doesn't really change or remain steadfast through the story, but because of the story.

Think about your protagonist and how they are at the start of the story. What will they be like at the end of the story? If you aren't sure, maybe throw around some ideas until you find one that sounds interesting or that rings true.

Worth keeping in mind is that the protagonist's personal journey will play into the theme topic, so consider if there is a topic or attribute that sounds appealing to you. Do you want to write about love (Harry Potter), isolation (Elsa), hard work (the Little Red Hen), or bravery and kindness (Cinderella)? What defining characteristic does your protagonist have? What defines him in this moment in time? And of course, if you are brainstorming, you can come up with more than one answer.

Just know (I wish I'd known earlier!) that the attributes you choose to highlight in your protagonist will also play into the theme. So in choosing that, you are also influencing the theme. (However, let's leave creating a story via theme for a future method.)

While some writers prefer to think about how their protagonist is at the starting of the story to figure out the end, others prefer to envision the protagonist at the end, first, and then use that to help them figure out how the protagonist is at the starting.

For example, if I know I want Harry to be loved and powerful at the end, I might realize that I want him to be unloved and weak in the beginning, so his personal journey is more dramatic.

If you are new to writing, I'm gonna let you in on a little secret 🤫: Most people in the writing world will agree that the easiest and most-likely-to-be-successful protagonist option is a positive change protagonist

Steadfast protagonists tend to be more difficult to write, especially for beginners. 

Negative versions of either are more difficult when it comes to pleasing the audience.

Obviously all versions can be and have been done successfully, but it's good to keep this in mind. And my article aside, you will also find it is more difficult to find resources to help you write the other options, unfortunately. (Come on writing world! Let's remedy that!)

Okay! So next it's time to categorize (if you haven't already). 

Is your protagonist a "change" character? Or a "steadfast" character? 

Is this "positive" or "negative"? 

 

Arcing the Change Protagonist


If you are writing a change protagonist, the next thing to do is to list out potential challenges, events, or problems that are going to invite (read: force, often by baptism by fire) your protagonist to change. As always if brainstorming, try to come up with more than you think you need. Often the first things that come to mind are cliches, and you gotta dig deeper for the juicy stuff. 

Don't be afraid to be mean. Sometimes character-focused writers are afraid to hit their protagonists hard. But remember, that all stories should be about some type of death--meaning, the stakes should get high enough, that it feels like a life or death situation, even if it isn't. This means that there will be things that take place that cannot be undone, cannot be reversed--things that are "final." Also worth noting, is that stakes do more to reveal character than almost anything else (another article I need to write).

Now, if the change is positive, this often means the protagonist starts with a flaw, misbelief, or weakness that needs to be addressed and overcome. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is way too miserly! So what is it gonna take to make Scrooge, the most miserly person of miserdom, to change? Well apparently, three supernatural visits, that end in his potential death.

Unfortunately, the average person doesn't want to make a drastic personal change--it's hard and uncomfortable! So chances are your protagonist is gonna need some serious crap to happen to kick him out the door. 

On the other hand, if you are writing about a protagonist who wants to flip 180, then this is likely a want vs. need issue. As the story progresses, say the protagonist thinks she wants to be rich, but realizes, at the end of the story, she actually needed to be loved. Notice, however, that this is still a "forced" change--because in reality, she went from unloved --> loved. So just keep in mind that what your protagonist is gunning for, may not be the same as what he actually needs. (Sometimes in positive stories like this, once the protagonist gets what she needed, she is then able to get what she wanted, as well, ex. finding out the love of her life is actually rich).

In many novels really, you'll be dealing with a want vs. need within the protagonist, but let's stay simple for now.

If you are working with a negative change protagonist, your list of problems, events, and challenges may perhaps have a different nature, because you are thinking of how the protagonist is going to descend to something less. What does it take for Anakin to become Darth Vader? How does a high-achieving high school student become a notorious serial killer? And why? What happens that brings in these thoughts and leads them to make these choices? What will harden their worldview? What myths do they begin believing?

Perhaps they became so obsessed with chasing their want, that they miss out on their need. Since this is a negative arc, this is often the case, to some degree.

Again, list out more ideas than you need. Hopefully in the process, some ideas will start to coalesce and connect, with a sense of cause and effect

From there, pick out what ideas are most appealing to you, what ideas or most impactful and dramatic, and (if you are familiar with how theme functions), what ideas best embody the thematic statement you want to make (or at least a perspective on the theme topic you want to explore). 

Keep in mind that there are some key events in every story: the inciting incident (what kicks off the journey to change--typically the climactic moment of the beginning), the climactic moment of the middle (sometimes called The Ordeal), and the climax itself. These are big turning moments, so we usually want to use our big ideas for them.

In any case, all stories should escalate--meaning the problems get bigger, not smaller. 

It might be helpful to organize your list with these things in mind. 

Also, note that in the beginning of the story, you'll need to show how the protagonist currently is. Meaning, if you are writing a positive change protagonist, the beginning needs to show us what flaw, weakness, or misbelief the protagonist has, and ideally, how it is (negatively) affecting his or her life. If you are writing a negative change protagonist, you'll want to highlight attributes that foil what he or she becomes. Maybe this person was kind, innocent, and full of potential--show that in the beginning scenes.

At the end of the story, you'll need to show, or rather validate or prove, how your protagonist has changed. So we need to see Scrooge being charitable to others. We need to see Anakin become Darth Vader. Think about how you may validate the transformation. 

 

Testing the Steadfast Protagonist


Now, if you are writing a steadfast protagonist, this will be similar, yet quite different. 

Because the point in here isn't to illustrate a flip-flop. It's to illustrate ultimately holding onto core beliefs, despite all heck breaking loose. 

The biggest problem writers make with steadfast protagonists, is they make it easy for the character to be steadfast. And it's annoying. 

Instead of using a steadfast protagonist to illustrate how wonderful or great it is to be honest, charitable, kind, long-suffering--or how clearly wrong it is to be selfish, power-hungry, and dishonest--it's a gazillion times better and more effective to instead focus on the cost of being steadfast. 

That is what this journey is about. Because if you want to be kind to everyone, that ain't easy! I mean, is it really easy to be kind to the person who murdered your dad? And guess what, if you are kind to certain people, they will take advantage of you.

If you are writing a steadfast protagonist, the point isn't to come up with ideas that will flip the protagonist, but instead come up with challenges, events, and problems that make it very difficult and costly to remain steadfast (to put simply, because in another sense, one could argue these are two sides of the same coin). These can be bad things that happen that are difficult to deal with, but on the other hand, they can also be bad things that innately come about from being steadfast in whatever characteristic the protagonist is illustrating (ex. if you are kind to everyone, you may pick up stalkers).

List out ideas that are going to legitimately test how steadfast your protagonist actually is. When it comes to attributes, we often think in either-or, but in reality, most of us just have boundaries. For example, I don't steal stuff, but if I was starving, I might. 

So what needs to happen to test the boundaries of your protagonist's core? Try to look for complex situations that don't have an easy or obvious out. Sure, it's easy to be kind when you are surrounded by loving people and life's great. But can you still manage to be kind when you live with your evil stepmother and wicked stepsisters who are abusing you on a daily basis? Consider how being steadfast in an attribute can actually bring more hardship. 

In a sense, Job got dumped on because he was faithful to God. People tend to recall his story as one where he remained optimistic--but if you actually read the story, the costs got so great, that he became bitter and angry towards God. It was the cost of being faithful. But the point was, despite that, he was still steadfast in being faithful.

And again, don't be afraid to be mean. It's the struggle that makes the victory sweeter (or the defeat worse, I suppose).

If you are working with a negative steadfast character, you may consider what challenges and hardships could provide the opportunity to grow into someone better--while also fairly showing that there are believable, logical reasons for them not changing. It's helpful to consider dilemmas. Sure, she could be kind and associate with someone in the lower class, but if her father sees her doing that, she is at risk for losing the family fortune. 

When it comes down to it, when it really counts, will your protagonist choose to be selfish or self-sacrificing? If it's a negative steadfast protagonist, he'll choose the selfish option. 

More or less (I am simplifying some of this for the sake of the post). 

Often the negative steadfast protagonist will ultimately illustrate the tragedy and damage of not taking opportunities to change. 

The positive steadfast character will ultimately illustrate the benefits of holding true to good values. 

And keep in mind, just because a steadfast character doesn't change, doesn't mean he doesn't grow. In the story of Jesus, Jesus was already a God, but by atoning for the sins of humanity, He also learned how to succor His people according to the flesh. He still grew, by degree.

I like to think of this as the steadfast character gaining more wisdom.

So list out ideas of what could really challenge your protagonist's steadfastness. If he or she is going to grow by degree, consider how and in what way--what events can lead to that? What else does he or she learn and master about X attribute? And what does it cost to remain a certain way? How do these events lead to the protagonist ultimately becoming more steadfast? What wisdom is gained from them?

Keep in mind, we still want a coherent plot of course. So look for the personal journey and for cause and effect.

Since the protagonist isn't flip-flopping, often either the society or another important character will--sometimes because of the protagonist's steadfastness. For example, by Jesus choosing to do His father's will, it has lead many people since then to do a 180 flip in life. So it might be helpful to consider that as well. How can you show that change?

Once you have your events, pick out what ideas are most appealing to you, what ideas are most impactful and dramatic, and (if you are familiar with how theme functions), what ideas best embody the thematic statement you want to make (or at least a perspective on the theme topic you want to explore). 

Hopefully by this point, ideas are starting to coalesce and connect together into a natural order--the story. Keep in mind the plot needs to escalate--it needs to become more difficult to remain steadfast the more time goes on and problems build, not easier. And pick big or impactful events for key moments.

 

In Closing


By this point, a story should start to take shape. Or you at least have enough ideas to send you in the right direction. 

From there, you can outline, start writing, or dig deeper into incorporating more story-creating techniques. 

In the future, I'll share another.

2 comments:

  1. This is very informative and helpful. I'm writing a novel for NaNoWriMo and my MC is all over the place. Deciding whether he is a positive change protagonist or a steadfast character is very helpful. Thank you!

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