The Stages of a Character Arc
by Jason Black
The most common piece of advice you're
likely to hear about creating lifelike, fully three-dimensional
characters is to give them a character arc. "Let the character
grow and change throughout the story," you'll be told. "Show us
that the character has emerged from the story as a better, wiser
Great. But that doesn't simply mean
adding a scene in which the character realizes he has a problem,
decides to act differently, and is immediately cured. Like
magic! That's not how life works. Personal growth is a
process, and there’s a framework you can use to guide that
process in your novels.
Step one: suffer for your sins.
Your character needs a motivation to
change. If his character flaws are causing him no ill effects,
why should he change? No reason at all. Set the stage for the
character arc by showing some sort of negative consequence from
that flaw. Effective options include having the character fail
at something important because of his flaws, or experiencing
personal suffering because of them.
Step two: wander in the wilderness.
With the stage properly set, the
character arc itself can begin. It begins with the character's
reactions to the negative consequences he suffered in step one,
and the best initial reactions are confusion or denial. Let the
character experience those consequences, but fail to understand
what's going on. Let him wonder why this horrible thing
happened (or continues to happen) to him. Or, let him see the
problem but deny that it is a problem. Either way, this step
sets the conditions for growth, because the negative
consequences plus the missing or incomplete recognition of the
problem lead to negative emotions: anger, frustration,
resentment, and the like. These are what eventually trigger the
character's willful decision to change; we don't truly decide to
change until we're fed up with failing.
Step three: find a path.
Having decided to change, let the
character overcome the ignorance of step two. Perhaps a kindly
friend clues him in, or perhaps he does some honest
soul-searching and figures it out alone. What you're going for
is a situation in which the character still fails, but
understands why. Understanding is not the same as change; it's
just the beginning of change. This is the natural next step
after getting past denial. They say admitting you have a problem
is the first step in fixing it, but for a novelist's purposes it
takes a couple of preceding steps simply to get to this point.
During this period, the character will still be blindsided by
failure, but after this happens, he will be able to reflect on
the situation and understand how his personal shortcoming led to
Step four: falling into potholes.
That path out of the wilderness is
neither smooth, straight, nor paved. It's rough and twisty,
with plenty of muddy potholes to get stuck in. Step four can be
incredibly frustrating for the character,
his awareness of his problem has grown to the point where he can see
problematic situations coming, but still makes the same mistakes as
always. He's so close; he just hasn't quite figured out what
actual behavior will avoid the problem. He knows what not to
do, but hasn't figured out what to do. He knows he's on the
path, but still walks right into the muddy spots. This step is all
about practice and gaining experience. Trying different behaviors
and strategies, hoping to figure out what works. It's terribly
frustrating for the character, but it's necessary for a believable
and fulfilling character arc. It's also dramatic; you can't have
the arc be too easy.
Step five: success!
Finally, after seeing enough failures
coming, the character figures out new and better behaviors and thus
can intervene with himself to make different choices in situations
that would previously have defeated him. That’s emotional growth.
That’s the culmination of the character arc. And here's a tip: if
you’re clever, you’ll time this moment to coincide with your plot’s
climax, when the stakes are at their highest point. A chain of
failures leading up to success at a critical moment can be a
triple-win: believable, incredibly dramatic, and satisfying to read
all at once. But it only works if you’ve supported it with a fully
Make it your own.
have to follow this blueprint from end to end; just be aware that it
exists. Plenty of great arc-driven novels have started at stage two
or even stage three. Depending on the nature of the personal
shortcoming facing your character, you may be able to skip some of
the earlier steps. Progress does not have to be linear, either. A
character may well slip back to an earlier stage now and then,
especially when situations get really stressful. This can actually
be a great way to show how much pressure a character is under; when
we're stressed out, we are less able to govern ourselves and revert
to old, bad habits.
However you do it, just remember that
a single moment of failure does not teach a character everything he
needs to know to grow. At best, a single failure teaches one little
component of what he needs to know. There’s a journey of many
failures in going from being unaware of a personal shortcoming to
having fully conquered it so it doesn’t cause problems anymore.
Break that journey down into whatever smaller steps—and whatever
sequence of failures—makes sense for your story, and use this
framework to help you show a little bit of growth at each one.
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Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort
out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular
presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a
handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about
Jason or read his blog, visit his website at