There are lots of things that make a story good. In fact, I’m constantly overwhelmed trying to keep track of them all. But what elevates most stories above the rest is a satisfying character arc. What is this? Well, at the most basic level it is a story where the character changes. If your character doesn’t change, you don’t have an arc. And you must have an arc! Not sure you buy that? Read this post where I explain how stories that lack character change fall flat because they don’t connect with readers.
Since character arc is so important, some might think that every writer would start a story with the hero’s change in mind. That would be smart. I wish I wrote that way. Alas, my ideas are born out of situation, not character. I always think of the plot first. This means I have to create a protagonist for the plot to change.
Let me reiterate: the plot changes the hero. The character arc is not some side street that runs parallel to the main road and never intersects. The character arc travels right on the main plot! The arc happens because of the plot, not despite it.
You can see how if a writer comes up with the character arc first they can create a plot that will push the hero’s buttons and poke at his flaws and force him to change. And, at least to me, that seems easier than moulding a character to a pre-existing plot idea. Maybe I’m wrong. Writers who write this way (character first), please chime in in the Comments! Since I write plot first, I’ve come up with some things to consider when creating that crucial character arc from plot…
Skills. What skills are needed to resolve this plot? At the beginning, the hero doesn’t have these skills, or has the skills but hasn’t mastered them, and must develop them over the course of the story. Often skills arise from overcoming flaws.
Flaws. What flaw does your hero need to complicate this plot? For instance, if your story is about an orphaned rich kid who spent all his inheritance and now has to get a job and a roommate, give him the flaw of being uncompromising. This flaw will make getting a job and roommate more difficult, and of course, in order to succeed by the end, he will have to change and learn to compromise (a skill he didn’t have at the beginning). Other flaws that would work for this plot: classism, laziness, naiveté.
Fears. Why does this plot scare your hero? Fear is part of all stories, not just thrillers and horrors. In a romantic comedy, the fear is rejection. The presence of fear means there are stakes for the hero, and if there are stakes the hero will care enough to change, hence the character arc. In the bankrupt orphan story, his fear could be losing the family mansion, the only connection he has to his deceased parents. Without fear, the character won’t give a damn about changing and have no arc.
Secrets. How does this plot threaten to expose your hero? Protecting secrets is a great way to add internal conflict and strengthen the character arc. Another approach is have the plot reveal information the hero didn’t even know! Either way, the plot should rattle all the skeletons in your hero’s closet.
Morals. What morals does this plot test? Plots that upend the hero’s belief system make for strong character arcs. Perhaps the bankrupt orphan thinks he’s better than the working class. The plot of getting a job will certainly challenge that belief!
So those are a few things I ask myself whenever I come up with a story. Well, now I do. I floundered for much to long trying to create great character arcs, so I thought it was high time I figured out a better way! And I think this is it. Though if you have more suggestions, please share!