Character arc

This article originally was published on Suite101.

How to Plan a Character’s Journey

In popular fiction, every protagonist goes on a journey, whether physical or emotional.

In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain wrote, “Anything endangering survival or happiness creates fear.” And the point of creating fear is to introduce tension.

Tension is what hooks readers.

A protagonist’s character arc should progress from happiness to fear to tension (for most of the book) and back to happiness. It’s cyclical.

Create a Short Setup

This establishes who the character is before the events of the story. A writer should show what the character desires, what constitutes happiness for the protagonist.

Keep this section short, or incorporate the information within the action of the first chapter or two. Most editors prefer a quick start to the story.

Hit the Protagonist With the Inciting Incident

Also called the Catalyst, this is an external event that propels the character into the story.

It is some form of change that endangers what the protagonist desires or what makes the protagonist happy.

A writer can set up the protagonist’s emotional state and give a hint of how he will change emotionally in the story.

The Inciting Incident usually results in the protagonist making a choice to pursue his external goal.

The protagonist’s behavior or choice causes the rest of the action, the rest of the story.

Obstacles Should Hinder the Protagonist’s External Goal

There are often three major turning points in the story, made up of three major disasters—events which hinder the protagonist from reaching his external goal.

These events cannot simply be bad things that happen. They have to be things which specifically work against the protagonist’s external goal.

Each disaster should make things worse and worse for the protagonist, hemming him in, taking away his choices. This will build tension and keep the reader reading.

The Climax Should Bring Everything to a Point

The climax of the story will bring the protagonist to a point physically and emotionally

Physically, the disasters have boxed him in so that he must fight from a corner.

Emotionally, the protagonist has finally realized what about himself needs to change in order for him to become a stronger, better person. This emotional crux is often called the Epiphany.

Usually, the protagonist is made to choose between either two good choices or two bad choices. In popular fiction, the hero usually chooses for the greater good, making a personal sacrifice of some sort. The Epiphany and self-realization come into play here, making the hero act on the principle he has recently learned.

The Resolution Delivers a Satisfying Ending

Often in popular fiction, once the protagonist has made this awful choice and everything has gone south, rescue comes from without. The cavalry arrives, an enemy turns friend, a friend rises from the grave.

The ending is satisfying to the reader because the protagonist has already proven himself to be worthy of his Happily Ever After—when he made the right choice in the Climax.

The ending may or may not give the protagonist his external goal. Sometimes the hero finds satisfaction in not attaining his goal—because he has learned something emotionally/spiritually that has made him a better person.

Analyze Your Character’s Arc

While these are a general guidelines to character arc, every story is different. While in one instance, tweaking a story to fit these points might make it a stronger story, in another instance, a story might be good enough on its own. It’s up to the writer to make the choice.