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 look back on our Journey Through the Character Arc with File No. 13, which answers questions we might have and that readers have posed during the series.
Analyzing the components of character evolution is no easy task. So is using those components to craft a protagonist’s path of growth through an original story. Thanks to our recent Journey Through the Character Arc series, which focused on 10 stages for developing a positive arc, we’re now equipped with a step-by-step process and targeted questions that can help us develop such a path that’s logical and compelling. But have Files No. 3 through 12 answered all of our questions about character arcs? Probably not.
So, for File No. 13, we’ll explore some of those questions. For example, can the order of the 10 arc stages be rearranged? How closely should those stages align with a story’s plot structure, or with the percentage milestones or lengths recommended in each post? Plus, if you found each arc stage’s questionnaire beneficial, check out the final section for a special worksheet announcement!
Don’t forget to download a free copy of the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart from Worksheets for Writers if you haven’t yet. This graphic shows the connection between each arc stage and its parallel stage in traditional three-act story structure.
Should a Character Arc Have All 10 Stages?
Ideally, yes. A character arc should have all 10 stages discussed during our Journey, from the Trigger / Inciting Incident (Stage 1) to the Emergence / Resolution (Stage 10). Using this method will ensure a sense of completion for the internal (the arc) and external (the plot) aspects of the story, as well as careful consideration of character relationships, significant objects, and the protagonist’s reactions and emotions. In other words, including all 10 stages is to the writer’s benefit.
Imagine you’re working on a new story. As you’re plotting it (or, if you’re a pantser, drafting it), you decide to skip the Point of No Return / End of Act I (Stage 3) and transition directly from the Comfort Zone / Act I (Stage 2) to the Struggle / Act II, First Half (Stage 4). How would you move from one stage to the next? The protagonist won’t decide on his own accord to leave the “world” he’s grown up in a wilderness where he’ll grapple with his false belief and its opposite truth. Something – an event, choice, or action on the protagonist’s part – still needs to force that shift, thus creating the need for the Point of No Return.
Think of the Journey Through the Character Arc as a hydropower plant (or any other machine or system). Just as the power plant needs each step of its process to function properly so it can produce electricity, a character arc is most successful when all 10 stages are present and drawing from the elements of previous stage(s). Each stage feeds off of the last one and influences the next one. If one step is missing, it can disrupt the story’s flow or throw off the arc or plot entirely.
Therefore, be careful when considering each stage of a character arc. If you think a particular stage isn’t necessary, ask yourself why you think so and assess the pros and cons of eliminating that stage. Your story should still make sense to your audience in the end; and if they (or you) sense something is missing, it might be best to keep that arc stage after all.
On a related note: Some writers might argue that an Emergence isn’t necessary. That might work for some stories, and not for others. Either way, it’s enough of a loaded topic that it deserves its own post, so be on the lookout for a discussion on this subject in a future Character Evolution File.
Can the Order of the Arc Stages Be Rearranged Depending on the Story?
If you’re planning to write a story with a non-linear structure (like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See), the answer is “yes.” A non-linear story structure allows the writer to share scenes out of order (instead of chronologically) to maximize the storytelling’s impact. In such cases, the character’s arc would be crafted by plotting each stage in advance, then arranging the various pieces as you see fit. If you’d like more information on writing non-linear stories, check out these posts from Romance University and Write It Sideways.
But what if you’d prefer stick to a more traditional story structure? Your best bet would be to keep the order of the 10 arc stages as-is. Minor alterations to the timeline can work to the story’s benefit, and some published novels (e.g., Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief) have succeeded with this approach. Such “reshuffling,” though, must be used sparingly and only with the most appropriate scenes. Otherwise, the arc – and the story itself – might not make sense to readers from a chronological perspective.
The point is, your readers need to be able to follow the story regardless of which structure you use. If they feel lost or struggle to piece things together, you may want to consider the structure when making further revisions.
Does a Positive Arc Need a False Belief? Or Will a Character’s Flaw Suffice?
Here’s the short answer: A positive arc can work if a character sheds a flaw without a false belief. However, the most compelling positive arcs are ones where the character outgrows a flaw because he has also shed a related false belief.
Now, the more detailed answer: In a positive arc, the protagonist does need to lose (or see a diminishing in) one of his flaws in order to reach his story goal. This flaw will be present in him during the Trigger and become an obstacle to his story-goal pursuit; and by the Dark Night of the Soul / End of Act II (Stage 7), he’ll realize this flaw is why he’s been struggling so much. In order to shed that flaw, he’ll have to change not only part of his behavior, but also part of his mentality.
For example, if your protagonist is withdrawn, it’s crucial to know know why he’s withdrawn. What emotional wound would be at its roots? Maybe the protagonist was bullied in the past, is embarrassed by a speech impediment, or struggles to trust people after being kidnapped. In all cases, the wound will have caused him to think a certain way that convinces him to withdraw from others for his emotional or psychological well-being. Depending on the specific wound, the character might think “Nobody likes me,” or “Everyone is embarrassed by me, so I should be, too,” or “I can’t trust anyone.”
Does this sound familiar? All three statements are examples of false beliefs. These conditioned ways of thinking alter a character’s perception of himself or of the world at large, and lead to “protective” behaviors that hamper the character’s pre-story growth. This means that a character’s flaws are often the result of his emotional wound as well as his false belief. And because of this connection, flaws that are tied to a false belief are the most sensible ones to challenge the character during his story, and the most compelling ones for him to outgrow through his arc.
Are all character flaws tied to false beliefs? Not necessarily. Fictional characters aren’t meant to be perfect, so they should have other weaknesses to balance out their strengths. Remember, however, that a character arc is intended to have a character change in a small yet significant way so he can reach his story goal. If you know his false belief, you can use that false belief to craft a story that teaches the protagonist to reject it and any associated flaws. Omit the false belief entirely, and the arc might still work, but it might not be as inspiring or believable as it would be if it hinged on one.
How Closely Should the Arc Stages Align with Plot Points in the Three-Act Story Structure?
The 10 stages of character evolution should match up closely – if not exactly – with the three-act story structure. If you read each of the Journey Through the Character Arc posts, you may have noticed that each arc stage was “subtitled” with an act, section of an act, or specific plot point. These “subtitles” indicated which aspect of the three-act story structure coincided with each arc stage. Each post also briefly touched on the parallels between each arc stage and its respective story structure segment.
Of course, we’re talking about literature and writing stories – which means there are always exceptions. 😉 We’ll look at one in the next section. But for now, let’s touch on a type of story where arc stages don’t always align with plot structure: multi-POV stories.
In stories with multiple points of view (POVs), two or more characters offer perspectives that converge to create a more expansive “big picture” than a single character can provide. Juggling those POVs with the plot’s events can be tricky, especially if some characters are in different locations. Add in arcs for those characters, and you have a truly intricate project on your hands.
To pull of a multi-POV story with several character arcs, it’s best to start with a firm grasp on the plot. This can mean outlining the external events or conflict (if you’re a plotter), or developing a basic understanding of where each major event falls in the three-act story structure (if you’re a pantser). Then, focus on the POV characters and determine their roles or individual paths within the plot. Keep in mind that each character’s unique set of motivations and personality will influence their reactions, actions, and decisions throughout the story.
Finally, in terms of arc-plot alignment, ensure that each character’s arc begins and ends at roughly the same point chronologically in the story. For example, the Trigger for Character A’s arc might not be the same Trigger for Character B’s, but the two events can occur in adjacent scenes or chapters. Both characters might also participate in the same event that marks the plot’s overall climax, but their individual Moments of Truth will play out separately. So, while each character’s arc stages will start and end at different word- / page-count milestones in a story, they should still coincide in time with the plot’s major events.
Most multi-POV stories take this approach. Others, of course, have successfully bucked it. (All those character deaths in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire saga, anyone?) Once again, it depends on what kind of story you want to tell. But if you study several multi-POV stories, you’ll discover that each arc’s defining moments come at about (though not exactly) the same time, regardless if said story is one book or a series.
Before we move on to the next section: A couple readers have asked if we could go into more depth with story structure / arc stage alignment. So, like the “need for an Emergence” discussion, we’ll go into greater detail about this subject in an upcoming File – because it’s too hefty to cover in only a few paragraphs here. (Do you sense a recurring theme yet? *winks*)
How Closely Should a Character Arc Follow the Recommended Percentage Milestones for Each Stage?
As you might have noticed from Aragorn’s and Tris’s examples during the Journey Through the Character Arc series, it’s nearly impossible to “line up” each arc stage exactly with the recommended milestones or lengths. (Hence, the use of “roughly” and “approximately” to describe said milestones in each Journey post.) But if your arc points fall close to those milestones, you’ll ensure smooth pacing and a natural flow of development (i.e., without rushing or prolonging any stage more than necessary).
The following chart illustrates the lengths of arc stages for several literary characters. An “exact” positive arc is pictured on the far left, followed by the arcs for Aragorn and Tris Prior from our Journey series, and a few more characters for good measure. The Trigger stages appear at the bottom, so make sure you the chart from bottom to top.
Notice anything interesting? First, all of the sample arcs feature all 10 stages of character evolution. Second, while none of the sample arcs’ milestones perfectly match up with those of the “exact” arc, their stages take place at approximately the same point in the story as the “exact” arc’s. Finally, the beginning, end, and length of each arc stage depends on a story’s unique needs, especially the timing of the plot’s events and the story’s total page / word count. (For example, Scott O’Dell’s Black Star, Bright Dawn is 112 pages, while The Lord of the Rings consists of three novels that average just shy of 400 pages each.)
The chart also shows outliers in some of the data. These outliers represent arc stages that either occur sooner or later than recommended, or appear longer than their equivalents in other stories. Let’s look at a few of them:
- Books with lower page / word count totals (e.g., Scott O’Dell’s Black Star, Bright Dawn, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist) have single-event arc stages (Point of No Return, Revelation, Dark Night of the Soul, and Moment of Truth) that appear to last longer percentage-wise, but are only a few pages long.
- As mentioned in File No. 3, Aragorn’s Trigger in The Lord of the Rings trilogy occurs later than recommended because he doesn’t appear until about 33% through the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. However, the delay makes sense because the trilogy is written in third-person omniscient, which is a form of multi-POV storytelling. (Remember our multi-POV discussion from earlier?)
- Tris’s Moment of Truth in Divergent lasts longer than suggested, as revealed in File No. 11. This is because the sequence of events comprising the plot’s climax (and the climax of Tris’s arc) is spread out over several chapters.
- Bilbo Baggins’s Emergence in The Hobbit appears unusually long because his Moment of Truth / Climax (Stage 9) comes before the plot’s climax, which is the Battle of the Five Armies (299*). His arc climax occurs during Pages 296 to 298*, when he makes his greatest act of courage by standing up to the “gold-sick” Thorin Oakenshield. This breach in plot-arc alignment, as well as the early Moment of Truth, is acceptable because:
- Bilbo doesn’t participate in the final battle, so his Moment of Truth needs to come before or after that event.
- Like The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is told in third-person omniscient, making it a multi-POV story.
All of these observations confirm that, yes, it’s difficult to keep precisely to the recommended lengths or percentage milestones for each arc stage. As the writer, your greatest concern should be to write the story the way it deserves to be written. As long you achieve this while ensuring each arc stage exists and lasts for an appropriate amount of page-time, you should still be able to craft a compelling, smoothly flowing arc that works for your character as well as the plot.
What Does All of This Mean in Terms of Character Evolution’s “Big Picture”?
Even though our pool of samples is relatively small, it supports the Character Evolution Files’ underlying concept: A universal arc structure exists in literature. You’ll find examples of character arcs across all genres, target age groups, and time periods. (Jane Austen fans will agree!) And if you study those arcs closely, you’ll see the same patterns occur time and time again.
Of course, how each arc (including the arcs you craft for your own stories) plays out depends on the character and the plot you send him on. If his Trigger pops up around the 7% mark instead of 10%, or his Dark Night of the Soul comes at 81% instead of 75%, that’s OK. Remember that the tips in these Files are guidelines, not strict rules. They’re designed to help you get a better grasp on arc structure and how to move your protagonist from Point A to Point B. I hope this will be the case as these Files continue.
Introducing the Journey Through the Character Arc Master Questionnaire!
Remember the sets of questions posed at the end of each Journey post? Now you can download one big, convenient worksheet that includes all of them!
The Journey Through the Character Arc Master Questionnaire contains all 10 sets of arc-stage questions, resulting in a complete and in-depth arc outline to accompany a traditional plot outline. Consider this your “one-stop shop” for plotting a positive arc from Trigger to Emergence and for gathering all of your notes about a protagonist’s journey of change and growth.
What other questions do you have about the Journey Through the Character Arc (namely positive arcs) at this time? Does the protagonist’s arc in your WIP differ from the recommended arc lengths or milestones due to plot structure or the story’s unique needs? If so, how?
Come back in November for File No. 14, where we’ll look more closely at the alignment between the three-act story structure and the 10 stages of a positive character arc.
*Reference: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, 2001 paperback printing by Houghton Mifflin