Welcome to the Character Evolution Files! This 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 continue our Journey Through the Character Arc with File No. 6, which focuses on the Struggle (or the first half of Act II).
Now that we’ve passed the Point of No Return, it’s clear that the protagonist’s life has changed forever. That, however, doesn’t mean that the protagonist has also changed at this time. In fact, she’s bound to kick, scream, and deny her new circumstances. She’ll struggle to accept her new reality even though she has a clear story goal to work toward. However, she’ll also start to show her potential to change for the better. This back-and-forth wavering is the soul of Stage 4 of our Journey Through the Character Arc.
And so the Struggle will be our focus for Character Evolution File No. 6. We’ll learn about the contradicting forces that must be at work to propel the protagonist toward her story goal and wrestle with her false belief – and why the Struggle is one of the “meatiest” periods of character evolution. We’ll also continue following Aragorn of Lord of the Rings and Tris of Divergent as they lurch through this stage in their separate positive arcs.
As with past Journey Through the Character Arc posts, you can follow along with the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart, which you can download from the Worksheets for Writers page.
The Basics of the Struggle
Act II is the longest section of a story, lasting for roughly 50%. It begins as soon as Act I ends, and can be divided into two halves. The Struggle is the first half of Act II, lasting from the 25% mark to the 50% mark. This gives you ample page-time to show how the protagonist reacts to the choice she was forced to make during the previous stage.
That reaction is the essence of this stage. The Struggle shows the protagonist grappling with the aftermath of the Point of No Return / End of Act I (Stage 3) and resisting initial attempts to let go of her false belief. We know from our own experiences that change is like traveling into uncharted territory. Your protagonist’s evolution will be no different. She might leave the original setting or embark on a physical journey during this stage. The key here, though, is that she’s venturing out of her Comfort Zone / Act I (Stage 2) – and she’ll feel distressed and exposed as a result.
At the same time, the protagonist starts actively working toward her story goal. She knows what she needs to accomplish and is emotionally invested in the outcome, and perhaps she’s aware (or in denial of the fact) that there’s no turning back. However, the process of achieving that story goal won’t be easy. She’ll make progress, but not without obstacles or failures. And the post-Point of No Return mindset? That will influence the protagonist’s every move during this stage.
The trick to an effective Struggle is allowing the protagonist’s inner conflict to manifest outwardly. Selecting the right events and their proper sequence to demonstrate that conflict will help you build your plot and evoke reader empathy through the character’s vulnerability. First, let’s consider possible setbacks:
- Continued Behaviors Reflecting the False Belief: Just because the protagonist has been forced out of her Comfort Zone doesn’t mean she wants to change yet. She’ll still act and make decisions according to the lie she believes; and when those actions and decisions result in failure, she won’t understand why. Here are examples of those behaviors:
- “Flare-Ups” of Flaws and Weaknesses: Review the protagonist’s flaws that you brainstormed for the Trigger / Inciting Incident (Stage 1) or other character development exercises. How do they affect her ability to achieve her story goal? What kinds of scenes would demonstrate these weaknesses?
- Mistakes and Judgment Errors: What mistakes might the protagonist make because of her false belief, flaw “flare-ups,” and/or post-Point of No Return mindset? How can they create conflict with other characters or hinder progress toward the story goal?
- Reminder of the Antagonistic Force(s): Remember the antagonistic force(s) brainstormed for the Comfort Zone and clarified during the Point of No Return? It should reassert itself during the Struggle and remind the protagonist of what she’s up against. These reminders can also present new clues about the conflict at large. (FYI: Some writers call this a pinch point and recommend it occur around the 37% mark.)
It’s also important to offer glimmers of hope for the protagonist during the Struggle. She won’t be ready to make correct “inner conflict” decisions on a consistent basis yet. However, the Struggle is the ideal time for her to receive tools or ideas that will be useful in her story goal pursuit and can plant the seeds of change in her mind. This can be accomplished by incorporating the following:
- Assistance: Who or what can help the protagonist during this stage? This can come in the form of advice or encouragement from supporting characters (mentor, friends, colleagues, etc.). However, it can also manifest as skills that the protagonist already possesses or newly acquires, tools or gifts she receives from other characters, and other useful objects.
- Mirror Characters: Do any of the supporting characters share the protagonist’s false belief? Have they experienced similar circumstances or conflicts? Let the protagonist observe or interact with these characters, and have her compare their attitudes and behaviors to hers. Seeing those differences can give her insight into what life might be like without her false belief – or how she could fall if she doesn’t let go.
- OPTIONAL – The Occasional Correct Decision: Hey, the protagonist is bound to make good choices once in a while, right? She might seem reluctant or resentful when making such decisions, since her false belief will prevent her from seeing it any other way. Nevertheless, this kind of event will remind readers of the character’s potential for positive growth.
- Be careful with how frequently you use this option. Too many correct decisions will detract from the essence of the Struggle. One or two good choices (or none, if you wish) should be plenty.
Finally, make sure to include the protagonist’s reaction to each Struggle event. If she cares about her story goal, she’ll experience strong emotions during this stage’s peaks and valleys. Making her reactions part of the story will raise the stakes and ensure the story continues to engage readers. So, with each setback or positive step, consider the following:
- How does the protagonist react to this event? Why?
- Does her false belief and/or post-Point of No Return mindset influence her dialogue, attitude, or behavior at this time? If so, how?
- Does this specific reaction lead to later setbacks during the Struggle?
Remember: The protagonist still isn’t ready to believe the truth that will undermine her false belief. She’ll catch glimpses of it during her Struggle, but she won’t have a true “lightbulb” moment until the Revelation / Midpoint (Stage 5). Right now, let the protagonist keep reacting in the way she had before, then punish her by showing the “same old way” doesn’t work anymore.
For more tips on the Struggle / Act I, First Half, check out these articles from Fiction University (three act structure and preparing your novel’s middle), Mythic Scribes (Story Structure, Parts 2 and 3), and Helping Writers Become Authors.
How the Protagonist’s False Belief Manifests During the Struggle
When we last left our fugitive criminal, she had reached her Point of No Return and decided to ask for help instead of turning herself in to the police. She made this choice in spite of her false belief (“I can’t trust anyone”) because it will help her achieve her story goal (avoiding capture / arrest / jail time). So, how might this character struggle with her lack of trust now that she’s in hiding?
First, let’s consider her post-Point of No Return mindset. What lingering feelings might she have after deciding to seek help? Perhaps fear, reluctance, or worry – and in extreme cases, shame or resentment. This overall mentality will be crucial, as it will greatly impact the fugitive’s decisions and behaviors for the remainder of this arc stage.
Next, we need to ensure this character is actively working toward her story goal. Going into hiding has brought her a step closer to eluding the police. Now she needs to escape – for good. However, given the fugitive’s current emotional state and the close call that prompted her to seek help, she’ll prefer to stay put for a while. What difficulties might this present for the fugitive and her benefactor? How might her presence affect the benefactor’s daily routine, overall lifestyle, and relationships with other people? And, how will the fugitive and the benefactor get along?
The best way to answer these questions is by developing potential setbacks and glimmers of hope, as well as the fugitive’s reactions to each. The table below shows some possibilities.
With this foundation, the fugitive’s Struggle has the potential to be intense and riveting. This, however, will only work if the previous stages established enough reasons for readers to care about the protagonist. If readers haven’t connected with the character by now, they might quit the story altogether. Let the protagonist be vulnerable. Show her humanity by exposing the hopes and fears that were introduced during the previous three stages. This will help you craft a fascinating Struggle that fully engages readers in the character’s inner conflict.
How Does the Struggle Align with the First Half of Act II?
Like the previous arc-stage comparisons we’ve made during this series, let’s look at how the Struggle and the first half of Act II parallel each other:
- Both stages occur during the second 25% of the story (25 to 50%).
- Both show the protagonist beginning to work toward her story goal.
- Both reveal more of the story’s core / external conflict.
- The protagonist’s primary flaws hinder her progress toward her goal.
- The protagonist receives help from and runs into conflict with other characters.
- The antagonistic force(s) reasserts its threat to the protagonist.
- The action and/or exploration promised earlier in the story occurs at this time.
An Example of a Character’s Struggle Using Aragorn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
As we follow Aragorn’s journey through the positive arc, we’ll refer to the Struggle basics we discussed earlier to illuminate how they play out in a story. Also, please note that these Aragorn sections will reference both the books and Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. The focus will be on film-Aragorn, who endures a more noticeable internal struggle than book-Aragorn, but the discussion will include appropriate references to the books as needed.
With the Point of No Return, Gandalf had fallen into the chasms of Moria, and Aragorn had assumed responsibility for the Fellowship, putting himself in direct conflict with his false belief (“I can’t be a good leader”). Now, Aragorn spends the next quarter of the series coming to terms with that decision.
After escaping Moria, Aragorn leads the Fellowship to Lorien for a brief rest, then down the Great River toward Mordor. At Amon Hen in Rohan, Aragorn makes his first mistake: He opts not to heed Legolas’ advice and cross to the Great River’s eastern shore. Here, the antagonistic forces return with a vengeance. Boromir attempts to take the One Ring from Frodo, prompting Aragorn to let Frodo and Sam go to Mordor on their own; and an Uruk-hai ambush leads to Boromir’s death and Merry and Pippin’s kidnapping. This results in disheartening failure on Aragorn’s behalf as leader.
However, watch the scene below (0:00 through 1:19) from the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Notice the emotions in Aragorn’s initial expression, then the shift in his demeanor as he proposes a change in plans.
Aragorn faces more setbacks during The Two Towers. He hesitates to speak up to Eomer and the Rohirrim of Rohan, and must quickly reconcile with them after outbursts from Gimli and Legolas. His fear of failing others also returns when he learns Merry and Pippin may have been killed in the Uruk-hai slaughter outside Fangorn Forest. This self-questioning is more obvious in the books than the films, where he openly blames himself for Boromir’s death at Amon Hen (Page 5**) and acknowledges that pursuing the Uruk-hai may have been in vain (24**).
During his Struggle, Aragorn meets his mirror character, King Theoden of Rohan. Strong-willed, frank, and decisive, Theoden embodies the ultimate leadership role that Aragorn has avoided. Yet when more warnings of impending war arrive, both characters are divided on the best course of action. See what happens in the clip below from The Two Towers, and how Theoden responds to Aragorn’s warning. The scene immediately afterwards shows Aragorn disagreeing with Theoden’s choice but accepting it nonetheless.
Aragorn also receives assistance from key characters during this stage. He regains a mentor when Gandalf returns from his duel with the Balrog, and receives more guidance from the wizard when Theoden flees for Helm’s Deep. Flashbacks of Arwen also show her encouraging Aragorn to believe in himself and embrace his destiny.
None of this, however, moves Aragorn as much as Boromir’s final words to him at the end of Fellowship. This farewell comes as a surprise, since Boromir had challenged Aragorn’s authority repeatedly once he took charge. (See Chapters 6, 8, and 9 of the book*, and this scene from the film’s Extended Edition.) Nevertheless, Boromir’s approval of Aragorn’s right to rule Gondor – the homeland they share – is a resounding endorsement of the leadership qualities he sees in Aragorn, and that Aragorn has yet to see in himself.
Whew! Now let’s break down the keys to Aragorn’s Struggle:
- Timing: In the books, Aragorn’s Struggle begins on Page 371 of The Fellowship of the Ring* (31%) and ends on Page 148 of The Two Towers** (51%, therefore lasting 20%). In the films, it begins at 2 hours 9 minutes into Fellowship (23%) and ends at 1 hour 55 minutes into The Two Towers (52%, therefore lasting 29%).
- Story Goal Progress: Aragorn must continue leading the Fellowship to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. However, the Battle of Amon Hen and the subsequent breaking of the Fellowship forces him to modify that goal so he can focus on rescuing Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-hai.
- Post-Point of No Return Mindset: Despite his calm exterior and determination to see the Fellowship succeed, their rest in Lorien shows that Aragorn is still shaken by Gandalf’s (supposed) passing and unsure of his abilities as a leader.
- Mistakes & Behaviors Reflecting His False Belief: Aragorn’s self-doubt returns after his misjudgments at Amon Hen and then when he briefly believes Merry and Pippin are dead. His insecurity also renders him hesitant and reluctant to defend his opinions at times.
- Reminder(s) of the Antagonistic Force(s): The Uruk-hai ambush at Amon Hen (Fellowship) and the warg attack en route to Helm’s Deep (Two Towers film only) are the two most notable reminders of Sauron’s intentions for Middle-Earth.
- Assistance: As discussed, Gandalf, Arwen, and (at his passing) Boromir provide advice or encouragement to Aragorn during this stage. Aragorn’s flashbacks also highlight the Evenstar, a necklace Arwen gave to Aragorn as a token of her love and belief in him.
- Mirror Characters: King Theoden acts as Aragorn’s mirror, causing him to consider what he would do if he were in Theoden’s position.
- Reactions to the Struggle’s Events: Aragorn remains driven and positive despite the setbacks and negative emotions (guilt, defeat, insecurity) he experiences. After the Battle of Amon Hen, he appears determined to set things right and adjusts his story goal. When Theoden disagrees with Aragorn’s advice, he still accompanies Theoden despite the dangers he knows they’re riding toward. What did you notice in the other scenes we touched on?
A Second Example of a Character’s Struggle Using Tris Prior from Veronica Roth’s Divergent
Since Tris’s Point of No Return comes early in Divergent (9.6% through the book), her Struggle is quite lengthy, lasting until Page 209*** (43% mark, with the stage lasting roughly 33%). It’s also chock-full of hurdles and small victories that test her false belief (“I am weak”) as well as her story goal (finding her place in society).
Tris’s initiation process into Dauntless begins moments after the Choosing Ceremony ends (story goal progress). She and her fellow initiates must jump into moving subway cars and off of rooftops (with a net below); play Capture The Flag paintball-style for a team-building exercise; and learn how to shoot guns, fight, and throw knives. In some instances, Tris make crucial correct decisions. She volunteers first and succeeds in the roof-jumping challenge (Page 57***) and scales a broken-down Ferris wheel during Capture The Flag to locate the other team’s hiding spot (142 – 154***). Each triumph gives Tris a boost of confidence, inspiring her to keep proving herself to her new faction. She even acknowledges during her first shooting lesson, “Maybe I do belong here.” (79***)
However, Tris still behaves and makes mistakes in ways that reflect her false belief. She cries herself to sleep during her first night at Dauntless (73 – 75***) and worries constantly about whether she belongs in her new faction or will pass initiation. She even berates herself over what she considers her inability to defend herself (“Silently I scold myself for being such a coward… I should be willing, if not able, to defend myself instead of relying on other people to do it for me.” [124***])
It doesn’t help that antagonistic forces seem to be around every corner. Eric, one of Dauntless’s leaders, openly doubts Tris’s success with initiation during their first meeting (“‘We’ll see how long you last.'” [69***]). Tris’s fellow initiate Peter also assumes a “bully” role, targeting her verbally (i.e., making fun of her Abnegation roots) and physically (107 – 111, 168 – 169***). Eric and Peter also prey on other Dauntless initiates, reminding Tris as well as readers that she’s not the only one who’s struggling.
For Tris, though, there’s the added pressure of keeping her Divergence a secret. When her fellow Dauntless initiates ask her about her aptitude test results, she lies and says she got Abnegation (195***). She knows that telling the truth is too dangerous, yet she frequently wonders if others can see through her her lies (“I feel like the word ‘DIVERGENT’ is branded on my forehead, and if he looks at me long enough, he’ll be able to read it.” [164***]) Therefore, we should also consider society at large as an antagonistic force.
That said, Tris receives plenty of assistance during her Struggle. She befriends fellow initiates Christina, Will, and Al, with Christina in particular giving Tris a wardrobe makeover (86 – 88***) and offering moral support after a fight gone badly (120***). Tris also finds a mentor figure in her trainer Four, who gives her additional advice on fighting techniques and compliments her on her hard work, especially after her strategy helps their team win Capture The Flag (154***). Tris also turns to tattoos as a symbolic object: three ravens in flight, on her collarbone, to “honor my old life as I embrace my new one.” (90***)
As for mirror characters, Tris finds two during Divergent. Her friend Al could be called a “true mirror,” since he too struggles with courage and belonging. Like Tris, he cries during their first night at Dauntless (74***). He also confesses to feeling out of place in his new faction, even losing his fights on purpose so he won’t have to hurt other people (115***). Dauntless leader Eric, on the other hand, is more of a “distorted” mirror, twisting his faction’s rules to threaten and bully his students. His brutal behavior causes Tris to reconsider her own definition of bravery – and it doesn’t align with Eric’s.
Finally, what about Tris’s post-Point of No Return mindset and reactions to the Struggle’s events? We already know her mindset because we considered her immediate reaction to her Point of No Return in File No. 5. The emotions Tris experiences then – shame, fear, doubt, and excitement – return throughout her Struggle. Her more negative emotions resurface during her mistakes, “false belief” behaviors, and reactions to the antagonistic forces. However, Tris remains determined to find her place. Her “pick yourself up and dust yourself off” attitude holds firm after she loses fights, visits the infirmary, and is singled out and humiliated. This is a result of the positive emotions lingering after Tris’s Point of No Return – and part of the fuel that will help fire her upcoming Revelation.
Questions to Ask While Developing Your Protagonist’s Struggle
Now it’s your turn to craft an intense, effective Struggle for your protagonist. Here’s a list of questions based on the points we’ve discussed. Feel free to refer to your answers to past Journey Through the Character Arc questionnaires, as well as the additional questions throughout this post.
- Where does the Struggle begin in terms of the story’s overall page count / word count? How long does it last?
- What steps does the protagonist need to take toward her story goal during this stage?
- What is the protagonist’s lingering mindset after the previous stage (Point of No Return)? How does this influence her early behaviors during the Struggle?
- How does the protagonist’s false belief affect her progress toward her story goal? Which flaws or weaknesses flare up during this stage? What kinds of mistakes does she make?
- How does the antagonistic force(s) reassert itself? What clues does this reminder(s) offer about the external conflict that’s driving the protagonist’s story goal?
- Who or what will help the protagonist during her vulnerable state? What kind of assistance does she receive?
- How do any of the supporting characters act as mirror characters for the protagonist? What common false beliefs or inner conflicts do they share but have dealt with in different ways, either positive or negative?
- How does the protagonist react to each event during the Struggle? Why? What are the consequences of her actions and reactions?
What are some memorable Struggles from books you’ve read? If you’re working on a story, how would you describe your character’s Struggle? How does he/she grapple with the aftermath of the choice made during the Point of No Return and resist initial efforts to change?
Please join me again in March / April for File No. 7, where we’ll cover the Revelation, or the story’s Midpoint.
*Reference: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001 paperback edition by Del Rey / Ballantine Books
**Reference: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2001 paperback edition by Del Rey / Ballantine Books
***Reference: Veronica Roth’s Divergent, 2011 paperback printing by Katherine Tegen Books