Welcome to the Character Evolution Files! This monthly column focuses on character arcs, from the elements that create or enhance a character’s inner journey, to techniques that writers can employ to strengthen character arcs in their own work. Today we begin our Journey Through the Character Arc with File No. 03, which focuses on the Trigger (a.k.a. the Inciting Incident).
A character’s evolution doesn’t ignite on its own. Like a firework, it needs a spark – something that catalyzes the plot as well as the protagonist’s arc – so the story can take off. This is the moment where your story truly begins. In story-structure land, this is known as the Inciting Incident. For the purposes of the Character Evolution Files, however, we’ll give it a different name: the Trigger.
This first stage in our journey through a positive character arc is the subject of Character Evolution File No. 03. We’ll discuss the important elements of an arc Trigger, the role that untruths or “false beliefs” play in arcs, and how this arc stage aligns with the Inciting Incident. Also, we’ll study two examples of Triggers using well-known fictional characters, both of whom we’ll follow during our journey through the positive arc. (Hint: Check out the banner above to guess who will be featured.) Oh, and there might be a downloadable goodie for you at the end. 😉
Shall we begin?
The Basics of a Character Arc’s Trigger
The Trigger is the plot point that draws the protagonist into the conflict. It occurs somewhere during the first couple chapters (roughly 10%) of your story. In other words, it happens very quickly – and it needs to, in order to capture the reader’s attention. If the Trigger doesn’t come soon enough, the absence of it might leave the reader wondering when the real story will begin.
Think of your story’s plot as a problem. A problem originates when an event occurs or a decision is made that upsets the balance. That’s the essence of a character arc Trigger: It forces the protagonist to react or make a decision in a way that creates the problem he’ll have to resolve during the story.
That being said, three introduction essentials need to be addressed before or during the Trigger:
- Introduce your protagonist. Readers will need to know his name and get an idea of his age and his occupation or role in society. You might also want to naturally work in defining physical characteristics such as birthmarks, scars, deformities, and hair / eye color. (Some of this information can be saved for the Comfort Zone / Act I, which we’ll cover in File No. 04.) However, if an aspect of the protagonist’s appearance impacts the story or might hinder his ability to achieve his goal, mention it as soon as possible. For example, if the protagonist limps due to a leg injury that never fully healed, consider sharing this the first time he walks during the story.
- Offer to your readers a (fairly) accurate first impression of who your protagonist is. What is his personality like? His positive attributes or flaws? His talents, fears, or false beliefs? (We’ll discuss false beliefs in the next section.) How can you incorporate any of these details into the opening scene and/or the Trigger? You don’t need to show all of your cards yet, only a select few that you want your protagonist to be immediately known for.
- Give readers their first opportunity to connect with the protagonist. If you present a sufficient introduction and first impression of your protagonist, your readers should have enough information to form an opinion about – and, in the most successful cases, be interested in – your main character. Maybe they’ll admire him for a certain skill, relate to his family predicament because of personal experience, or sympathize with him because of his health condition or physical disability. The trick, of course, is remembering Essentials #1 and #2 so you can establish that reader-character connection.
Once that’s done, it’s time to kick off the story and turn your protagonist’s world upside-down. Here are four keys to creating an effective character arc Trigger:
- The Trigger should catalyze both the arc and the plot. Remember how we likened the story to a problem? Your Trigger should show a) the birth of the problem, and b) the protagonist’s immediate reaction, which can be developed further in Keys #2 and #3 below.
- The Trigger should elicit a reaction from the protagonist. In order for a Trigger to work, the protagonist must be emotionally invested in its consequences. How does he feel? What is he thinking? Does the Trigger speak to one of his fears, sidetrack him from a long-held dream, or make the fulfillment of everyday goals more challenging in the long run?
- In most cases, the Trigger should bring the protagonist “face to face” with his false belief. Again, we’ll dive into false beliefs shortly, but this ties in with the protagonist’s reaction. It’s OK if the Trigger doesn’t reveal any false beliefs, but make sure one is introduced at some point during Act I.
- The Trigger should hint at the protagonist’s story goal. Your character might not what his goal is yet, but you do. Make sure the Trigger gives readers a first glance into where the story might go from here, and implies that he’ll need to make a choice soon.
As you can see, the Trigger involves a great deal of emotion (worry, fear, love, etc.) on the protagonist’s part. That’s why it’s crucial to create a reader-character connection so early in the story. If readers are drawn to the protagonist by the time the Trigger happens, they’ll most likely react in a way that entices them to keep reading. And if the protagonist is deeply invested in the outcome, chances are your readers will be, too.
False Beliefs and Your Protagonist’s Arc Trigger
I first learned about false beliefs during a character development seminar led by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi at WANACon 2014. The more I’ve learned about false beliefs over time, the more strongly I’ve come to believe that they should be part of a character’s arc. Not only is this a neat idea in theory, but it actually works.
In my DIY MFA article on character arc themes, I defined “false belief” as an untruth that the character has been conditioned to believe is true about himself or the world at large. It often develops as a result of a traumatic experience or emotional wound, and can distort a character’s worldview and cause him to react in ways that allow him to avoid the same pain in the future. For example, if the protagonist is abused by a parent during his childhood, he might grow up with low self-esteem or a lack of desire to have children for fear of becoming an abusive father, among other attitudes and behaviors.
False beliefs aren’t limited to fictional characters. Real people – you, me, our friends and family – have them as well. Perhaps you’ve believed one of the following statements (or something else not listed here) in the past:
- I am unworthy or incapable of love.
- I am a burden to my family.
- I can’t trust anyone.
- Don’t get too attached to anything or anyone, since you’ll lose them anyways.
- I will never be as good as [him / her / specific person / etc.].
It’s human for us to react to trauma by developing protective behaviors and false beliefs. And by giving our characters similar wounds as well as appropriate traits that result from those wounds, we can make our characters more believable – and more human.
Why call them “false beliefs”? Because in other people’s eyes, the untruths we have come to believe about ourselves are not true. The same goes for your protagonist. He is worthy and capable of love. He is not a burden to her family. He can trust other people. You get the idea. Other characters and the reader will see the truth, and so will you.
Therefore, if you’re planning to write a story with a positive character arc, your job is to craft an arc that teaches the protagonist to let go of his false belief. The plot should give him an opportunity – or force him – to question his warped perception about himself or the world. That way, when the plot’s in full swing, he’ll also be on the path to shedding that belief and changing for the better.
And what about the Trigger? Like its name implies, the Trigger needs to “set off” the protagonist’s arc by introducing his false belief to the reader. It should bring the untruth or fear to the forefront as a “knee-jerk” reminder or physical manifestation. This is why it’s crucial to consider how the protagonist reacts to the Trigger. Make it personal. Choose a Trigger that not only isn’t an ordinary, everyday moment in the protagonist’s life, but also threatens his status quo and his aspirations for the future. The right one will cause him to react and care about the outcome – and be the perfect spark for his evolution.
How Does the Trigger Align with the Inciting Incident?
As stated in the introduction, the Trigger is the Inciting Incident. We have only given it a new name so it reflects what happens in that particular point of the character arc as opposed to the plot. This is illustrated in the Comparison Table shown before “The Basics of a Character Arc’s Trigger.”
How do the Trigger and the Inciting Incident align?
- Both occur at the beginning of Act I of a story.
- Both involve the story’s protagonist(s).
- Both act as catalysts that set the story in motion, and therefore establish (or hint at what will be) the protagonist’s story goal.
- Because of the protagonist’s involvement, the protagonist needs to be introduced either before or during the Trigger / Inciting Incident.
- Enough character development occurs before or during the Trigger / Inciting Incident so that the reader has an idea of the protagonist’s personality and finds reasons to care about or follow him on his journey.
- Both draw the protagonist into the story’s main conflict, regardless of whether he chooses to become involved or is drawn into the conflict beyond his volition.
- The protagonist responds or reacts to the Trigger / Inciting Incident, and can no longer take a passive role in the story.
See how many fundamentals the Trigger and the Inciting Incident share? The protagonist’s character arc and the story’s plot do more than parallel one another – because in essence, they are the same. You’ll see more of this alignment between plot structure and character arc stages as this series continues.
An Example of a Character Arc Trigger Using Aragorn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
When I asked for suggestions for a fictional character to feature during our Journey Through the Character Arc, readers made their choice very clear. 😉 Then again, Aragorn is an excellent example to “guide” us through the arc stages. His transformation is especially intriguing for two reasons. First, it’s spread out over three books instead of being confined in one. Second, he starts off as a supporting character to ringbearer Frodo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring; but when the fellowship splits up at the end of Fellowship, his storyline bears equal weight with the destruction of the One Ring.
As we go through Aragorn’s journey through the positive arc, we’ll refer back to the Trigger basics that were discussed in the first section. This will refresh our memory of the important pieces of each arc stage, and illuminate how they play out in the story. Also, please note that these Aragorn sections will reference both the books and Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. While book-Aragorn sets out with the intention to reclaim the throne of Gondor, film-Aragorn endures a more noticeable internal struggle. As a result, we’ll focus on film-Aragorn’s character arc, with references to the book series as needed.
When we first Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, he’s known as Strider, a Ranger of the North; and he seems to be at the tavern of the Prancing Pony in Bree at the same time as Frodo, Samwise, Merry, and Pippin by coincidence. That’s until Frodo falls and becomes invisible when the One Ring slips onto his finger. Once Frodo reappears, Aragorn removes him from the tavern and privately warns him to be more cautious. He then reveals that he’s aware of Frodo’s quest and why the Nazgûl are hunting him, and offers to guide Frodo and his friends to Rivendell.
You can watch all of this in the following YouTube clips from the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring. Aragorn appears at 1:39 in the first video. (Please note that there’s an overlap in coverage between both clips.) The book version of this scene contains slight differences, but ends with the same results.
Based on this, we can say that Aragorn’s Trigger is the moment that Frodo unintentionally uses the One Ring. Here’s how it aligns with our reference points:
- Timing: Although Aragorn doesn’t appear until Chapter 9 of The Fellowship of the Ring*, his Trigger occurs during his first scene and at the book trilogy’s 15% mark. This scene also marks Aragorn’s debut in the films, about 52 minutes into Fellowship (9% through the film trilogy).
- Introduction: See #1 above.
- Defining Features: In both versions of this scene, we learn Aragorn’s alias (Strider) and his current role in society (Ranger). The book version describes Aragorn’s appearance on Pages 177 and 178*, while the film version shows them (dark hooded cloak, Ranger clothes, rugged build, unkempt hair, etc.).
- Glimpse at Personality: From the two videos above, Aragorn appears to be clever, clandestine, and calm despite the uproar Frodo has caused. He’s also honest (informing the Hobbits of imminent danger) and willing to do what he believes is right (taking the Hobbits into his protection). His intimidating posture, initial abruptness with Frodo, and disinclination to share information about himself does raise suspicions. But ultimately, we can assume Aragorn is a decent character.
- Plot / Arc Catalyst: The overall plot is already moving by this point in the story. However, this first scene with Aragorn brings him into the fold and gives us the (accurate) impression that he’ll continue to be involved as the trilogy continues – though we don’t yet know how involved or important he’ll become.
- Character’s Reaction: Despite his initial behavior with the Hobbits, it’s clear that Aragorn is concerned for their safety and by the powers of the One Ring. This leads him to take charge of their well-being (hiding the Hobbits from the Nazgûl, volunteering to guide them to Rivendell) and to share what he knows about the Nazgûl’s origins and their duties to Sauron.
- False Belief: Our current knowledge of Aragorn is too limited to tell us what his false belief might be. However, we’ll learn what lie he believes when we study his Comfort Zone (Act I) in the next Character Evolution File.
- Story Goal: Right now, we can say that Aragorn’s goal is to ensure Frodo’s safety on this leg of his quest to destroy the One Ring. If we wanted to, we could assume this goal might extend to the rest of the journey. Let’s see what happens as this series continues.
- Reasons to Care About This Character: This last point is more subjective than the others. I personally remember feeling concerned about Aragorn’s intentions for Frodo at first, especially since Aragorn wasn’t a protagonist or POV character at that point. Then I warmed up to him once I learned more about him. If you’ve read Lord of the Rings or seen the movies, how did you feel about Aragorn when he first appeared and allied himself with the Hobbits?
A Second Example of a Character Arc Trigger Using Tris Prior from Veronica Roth’s Divergent
Let’s use one more example of a Trigger using Tris Prior from Veronica Roth’s Divergent. This will be more abbreviated than Aragorn’s example, with each element identified in bold. So even if you haven’t read Divergent, you should be able to follow along.
We meet Tris (currently known as Beatrice) in Chapter 1 of Divergent (introduction). In the opening scene, she sits in front of a mirror as her mother brushes her hair (physical features). They also talk about Beatrice’s upcoming faction test, which is designed to help 16-year-olds in their society decide in which faction they want to spend the rest of their lives. As the rest of the chapter unfolds, we catch a glimpse of Beatrice’s personality. She’s curious, intelligent, and self-conscious; and she often resorts to stubbornness or dishonesty to hide any feelings of weakness. Most importantly, she’s conflicted about her place in society. From all this evidence, we can safely say that Beatrice’s false belief is a combination of “I don’t belong here” and “I am weak.”
Beatrice’s faction test comes at the end of Chapter 2. Nothing about it seems out of the ordinary until the start of Chapter 3 (timing = 4% through the book**), when the test proctor gives Beatrice her results: They’re inconclusive, which means Beatrice is a Divergent, one who doesn’t neatly fall into any faction is and considered dangerous by society (catalyst). The news stuns Beatrice, who had hoped for clearer answers, and causes her to question herself and her future (reaction). Like with Aragorn, whether the reader cares about Beatrice depends on the reader’s feelings at this point. However, all of the necessary elements are in place to give Beatrice her story goal: choosing her faction, and finding her place in society.
What Questions Should You Ask to Determine If You Have an Effective Trigger?
Taking what we now know about arc Triggers and Inciting Incidents, here are questions to consider when working on your stories. These can help you determine the most appropriate Trigger for your protagonist’s arc or whether an in-progress arc features the necessary elements to draw in your readers and launch the character’s evolution:
- During which chapter and page does the character arc’s Trigger occur? Where is it located in terms of the story’s overall page and word count?
- Have you introduced your protagonist to the reader yet?
- Have you volunteered details such as age, occupation / role in society, and important physical descriptors?
- Have you revealed some of the protagonist’s qualities, strengths, or talents? How about flaws or weaknesses?
- How does the Trigger tie in with the external plot?
- How does the protagonist react to the Trigger?
- Does the Trigger bring the protagonist face to face with his false belief?
- Does the Trigger hint at the protagonist’s story goal?
- What reason(s) have you given readers to care about your protagonist at this point? Why should they care about his reaction to the arc Trigger?
Introducing the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart
I wanted to give readers a visual guide or accompaniment they could refer to as our Journey Through the Character Arc continues. I’m no expert on graphics, but a comparison chart might work well enough, right?
Starting today, the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart is available for download and/or printing from the Worksheets for Writers page. This chart expands on the Comparison Table from the beginning of this post by:
- Showing the parallels between the 10 character arc stages and the most important elements of the three-act story structure
- Giving approximate percentage values of where each arc stage / plot point occurs in a story
- Summarizing the purpose of each stage / plot point
This chart is designed to be a basic tool for writers, and a “reference” document you can pull up whenever a new Character Evolution File goes live. If there’s enough interest, I might do a “Character Evolution” Beat Sheet or other, more in-depth worksheets as time goes on. What do you think?
What are some memorable character arc Triggers / Inciting Incidents from books you’ve read? If you’re working on a story, what would you say is the Trigger for your protagonist’s character arc? Can you also identify the character’s false belief, if he / she has one?
Also, please join me again in October for File No. 04, where we’ll cover the Comfort Zone (Act I), the second stage of our journey through the character arc.
*Reference: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001 paperback printing by Del Rey / Ballantine Books
**Reference: Veronica Roth’s Divergent, 2011 paperback printing by Katherine Tegen Books