Character Arcs and Plotting
Authors and critical readers often refer to character-driven stories as better than a plot-driven story. Each has their value, but novels, movies, and stories in general grow strong when both character arcs and plot elements work in unison. An effective story should make audiences ask both “what will happen next?” one moment and “what will he/she do now?” in the next. Strong story structure combines plot devices and character growth, creating a current that carries the reader through to the climax and satisfying resolution.
Really, the structure of a good character arc naturally follows a plot line. They both rise, have conflicts that build one on the next until there’s an inevitable breaking point of some kind. Since this week centers on the dynamics of character, there won’t be a ton of discussion on plot structure. Instead, consider the classic 3-Act Narrative format as it applies to a character’s growth.
The Wikipedia link included has an okay outline, but the link for Writers Write has more helpful material as well as a few tips for getting through the tough Act 2. Basically speaking, the three act structure can be applied to character as follows:
- “Establishes the start of the arc”: When starting a story, things have to get set in motion. First off, the characters, situation, and setting are introduced just enough for the reader to have a sense of place. This would be where the character’s current status is shared, including a demonstration of his/her most applicable strengths and weaknesses.
- Introduces the inciting incident: With a plot, this is the catapulting event that throws the story into action. To use Captain America as an example, the inciting event is his final effort to join the army where he’s picked up by Dr. Erskine for use in his super soldier program. On the same example, the inciting incident of the character arc had already occurred before the start of the movie. This was his friend, Bucky, enlisting in the army. This started “skinny Steve” off on his quest to join up, despite his 4F status. This, however, was still revealed to the audience in the first few minutes.
Runs through the first turning point: The first turning point in the story is the place where something unexpected happens, deepening the conflict beyond the original concept. To continue with the Captain America example, the first turning point is actually in the Hydra (bad guy) sequences, when the power of the tesseract is demonstrated. This is when the audience thinks “things are about to get real”, as the saying goes. In Steve Roger’s character arc, the first turning point is his discussion with the Dr. Erskine the night before the big experiment. He’s told why he was chosen, and this shifts his perspective from his weaknesses as a man to his strengths as a human being. It’s something that helps him through the rest of the movie, setting him up on the trajectory toward becoming, internally, Captain America. Other first turning points could look different, depending on the direction the arc needs to go.
- Cements the “point of no return”: This could also be called the “nothing will ever be the same” moment. At this point in the example, the two arcs run very close together. While the plot’s “no return” point is Steve surviving the experiment and coming out buff, tuff, and ready to beat stuff, the character’s turning point is seeing Erskine get shot by a spy and then die in his arms. The story could have gone on without this. There are other ways of making Steve the only successful super soldier ever. However, only this could have made Steve pursue a Hydra spy, tear off the door of a car for a shield, and incapacitate a submarine bare-handed. He did this out of love for Dr. Erskine, their shared love of America, and to live up to being a good guy in heart.
This can go on for posts and posts and posts, so this is just a sample of what it looks like to blend the plot arc with the character arc. A character’s perspective, emotional state, frustration, and/or level of awareness provides color and dynamics to the creation of scenes
Top of the Arc
The two arcs, plot and character, don’t have to be going at the same rate, but coordinating their climaxes (like the first turning point example with Erskine’s death right after the experiment) can double the impact and jumpstart the audience into the next phase of the story. This particular benefit of coordinating character and plot arcs improves with the thought that goes into them.
In the previous example, the acceleration was created using a supporting climax structure. Each built one on top of another. The first springboards off the second seamlessly. They are motivated by the same events, connected by essential plot structure, and happen in the same scene. It’s like smashing down the gas pedal and hearing the engine jump gears and roar to life. Readers hang on screaming “Oh YEAH!” Yes. Like that.
Duel climax structure is a bit different. In Goldmayne, a fairytale retelling by Kate Stradling, the climax scenes are connected, but they don’t happen in the same scene. In one climax, a witch who has been hunting the hero for much of the story, is finally defeated in an epic battle. The character climax of Wildfire, an enchanted horse, comes after the battle is over, and he’s faced with watching his happily ever after get torn from him. He finally calls on the hero to kill him, the only way to return him to his true form. This is a touching climax and one that tears the heart since these two have grown together as friends throughout the book. The resulting scenes tie up the story nicely, as with most fairytales.
As a recommendation to anyone hoping to better integrate their character growth with the plot structure, consider these questions. Write out the answers, and don’t stop at just doing the main character. Work with the major characters and allow the answers to help inform scene creation, plot twists, and maybe a supporting subplot or two.
- How does the character shift/grow/change in this scene?
- What is the character thinking when each new conflict comes up?
- What does the character need to become in order to win out?
- What makes this story personal to this character?
- “And no characters resonate more than those who in the course of a story learned how to transcend their own flaws and weaknesses to do something great”
- List of possible troubles:
lack of courage or inner doubts
o lack of ethics
o learning to love
o trauma from the past
o errors in thinking, etc.
- inner conflict should be mirrored by the outer conflict
- character arcs keep the tension in a story even when the action isn’t high
- the changes in character need to be smooth (because change is hard), so plan accordingly; skipping large changes in a character’s growth disorients and disconnects the reader
- we all experience our own character arc in life; we grow as a result of our experiences
- change arc
- growth arc; overcomes internal opposition while overcoming external opposition, protagonist 2.0
- shift arc; changes perspective, gains new skills, or gains a new role – doesn’t make them “better”, just different
- Fall arc; character dooms himself and others because of something that they can’t or won’t let go/overcome – tragic flaw
- STEPS! Where will they get to? And Where do they start?
- She maps out each type of character arc. Excellent planning resource!
- 3 act structure
- narrative arc has a full resolution; character arc doesn’t since life for the character continues to shape them
- character arc centers on the character’s state of wholeness/incompleteness in comparison to the story; they need to develop the skills and/or perspective of life necessary to overcome the obstacles throughout
- different characters are at different places throughout the story
- protagonists; largest and most dynamic arc
- non-protagonists; still arc, but not as broad as the MC
- Narrative structure has elements of the character arc that go along with it;
- first act: establish the start of the arc, inciting incident, first turning point, and “point of no return”
- second act: rising action of the plot, but also the more turbulent situations that cause the character to act, fail, and react in the development of their strengths
- third act: narrative has climax, falling action, and resolution, but character arc emphasis goes from learning new skills to a kind of recognition of what they are/where they now are, and forces a shift in thought as to their personal direction