How to Create a Character Arc from Plot

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.

"So you've put me in this plot, now what?"
“So you’ve put me in this plot, now what?”

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…

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

 

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

23 thoughts on “How to Create a Character Arc from Plot”

  1. For my new/first/last/only book i started with the main character, and around him i created the characters and events that made him the way he is. I take a rollercoaster approach (or cyclical fish out of water) where whenever he is the best at what he handles, he is forced into uncharted territory. He began as a soldier turned into spy turned into wizard turned into criminal having to master all the new skills it involves. What i don’t know is that if requires too much changes in the character for just one book.

    1. Wow! That does sound like you might have multiple books. And putting your character into uncharted territory is definitely a way to create a plot from character – the opposite of what I usually do! Maybe I will try that approach with my next story. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I think you’re right! I usually think in terms of plot, too, so this is an excellent way to make sure the character arc doesn’t suffer. Again, it’s so timely. BTW, I wrote my synopsis like we discussed and I think it’s the best one I’ve ever written. A huge THANK YOU for making that particular nightmare bearable, even, dare I say, fun.

  3. I’m the same way. I always come up with the main conflict/situation, and the characters come immediately after. And I work hard to make sure that my main characters are dynamic. The plot forces them to change somehow.

    Static characters are boring.

  4. For me personally my subjective truth is somewhere in the middle but I suspect it’s going to be different for each book. For the novel I am writing the first draft now the process was more or less like this:

    – Initial idea of the novel, what it is about but not a plot just the main premise. Glimpses at my protagonist(s).
    – Think about the main characters. Who are they? What do they want? This is a rough sketch.
    – Who is the antagonist? What do they want or why are they the way they are? Rough sketch again.
    – How do I connect the protagonist(s) with the antagonists(s) roughly? This is the point where the plot starts emerging again in rough form.
    – To clarify who my two heroines are, I researched pictures trying to find some that could “be them”. This is not exact science, to be honest it was pure intuition and based on how it felt. But what happened was that their characters emerged as I was researching the photos and I knew who they were in a much better detail and how they functioned and thought.
    – Wrote a few scenes with my characters to establish their voice. Some of these will never make it to the novel but that’s something I knew beforehand.
    – Brainstorm the plot in better detail. The plot would have to test the characters and try to break them. This is where I also start thinking of character flaws, issues and whatnot, while adapting both the characters and the plot. until I have something that fells the right thing for both plot and characters.
    – Continue with writing and outlining running in parallel. Outline is not detailed but at the level of “roughly what happens next” with the writing session solidifying those ideas.

    This is my process for the first draft and it doesn’t contain subplots. Once that is finished I intend to go through the main plot and create a detailed outline with parts, chapters and scenes, trying also to determine the beats and how the entire plot flows. I will also be thinking about subplots. Also editing, rewriting what needs to be rewritten, revision and re-vision, etc.

  5. I seem to start with plot, too, so this is helpful for me. I would also add that the hero needs to have agency, or push and bend the plot, lest they seem like they just sit there and let things happen to them. Just a suggestion born of reading Chuck Wendig constantly! Wish I could claim advice as my own, but have to give credit where credit is due.

    Thanks so much for this post.

  6. Thanks for the instruction. I start with plot, too. I think this will help. My character comments early in the book that she’s not afraid of anything but by the end she’s shaken, grabbomg at the only option she knows that will provide her with security.

  7. So inspiring! I think that plot and characters evolve together in what I do, though I often have characters and world ideas before actual plot. It can be hard to tell exactly how it goes. I realized that even when I played pantser (a rarity for me) with recent short stories, the characters were there in my head from start, then plot happened.

    1. Yes, I know a lot of people who write with the character in mind first. I want to try that method just to see what it’s like. Especially since you describe it as simply “then plot happened.” Makes it sound so leisurely, unlike the battle I go through creating a character arc from plot. 🙂

  8. Yes, yes, YES! I can’t agree more with you on all of these points, Heather. 🙂 My favorite stories are ones where characters evolve by The End. If they don’t, I usually come away from the book feeling like something’s missing.

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