Understanding Inner vs. Outer Character Arcs

by Jason Black

We all know what a character arc is, right?  It’s when a character ends the novel wiser, more mature--somehow better--than before.  But did you know there are two basic kinds of arcs, which you can mix-and-match into four distinct character arc strategies to employ across your whole book?

The first kind is the typical “inner character arc.”  This is what we most often think of when we think of character arcs.  It’s when the character learns to overcome, through the experiences he has during the novel, some kind of flaw.  It’s Ebenezer Scrooge learning the value of charity in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  The conflict in the novel comes from the problems created by the character’s initial flaws.  Inner character arcs are well-trodden ground, so I won’t spend a lot of time explaining them.

The other kind of arc is an “outer character arc.”  These do not involve changing the character’s inner self.  Outer character arcs are based on character traits which may look like flaws, which may still cause conflict and drama, but which are in fact strengths.  Outer character arcs spring from character traits which do not—and in fact should not—change.  In an outer character arc, the conflict comes from the character’s view of herself versus how others see her.

Imagine you have a protagonist who is an introvert, someone who is so shy it causes problems in her life. She isn’t respected at work because she’s so reluctant to speak up. The guy she thinks is cute isn’t interested in her because he thinks she’s a wallflower.  The problems her introversion causes are real, and can create as much conflict and drama as the story needs.

But ask yourself: is this a personality trait she really needs to change?  Maybe not.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with being an introvert.  According to the Myers-Briggs system, about half the population scores on the introvert end of the scale.  The knee-jerk authorial choice to reach for an inner character arc, one in which the protagonist reaches a better place in her life by altering the deepest elements of her being—by becoming a different person—may not feel emotionally truthful.  It buys into our society’s pro-extrovert stance, and thus may also deeply offend about half of your potential readers.

The problems in this heroine’s life stem from conflicting perceptions: other people mistake her quiet, reserved, thoughtful nature for shyness, insecurity, stupidity, timidity, et cetera. The central conflict in this outer character arc is this difference between the character’s true self and how others perceive her.  The key to resolving both the conflict and the outer character arc is not for her to change, but for her to confront people’s mistaken ideas about her.  It is their perceptions that need to change, not her nature.

She must help her boss understand that when she’s quiet in a meeting, it’s because she’s listening intently and processing everything. She needs to help the cute guy see more of who she really is than is evident on the surface.  Just as with an inner character arc, the outer character arc still brings her to a better situation in her life.  It simply does so without changing who the character herself is.

No one is ever exactly how they seem.  That’s the key to unlocking an outer character arc. No person is ever perceived by others as they truly are, way deep down inside. No one sees you exactly as you see yourself.   The clever writer turns this fact into an outer character arc by making the character see this difference. Give the character a moment of epiphany in which she realizes it. Then show us how she fixes her life while staying true to herself.  That’s a pure outer character arc.

There are also two hybrid character arc structures you can work with: inner-to-outer, and outer-to-inner.

The inner-to-outer character arc can be summed up as “no, I don’t actually need to change.”  This structure starts as “inner”--the character thinks she has a flaw--but changes to “outer” when she realizes that her ostensible flaw is in fact a strength she doesn’t want to change.  In our example, this would be the introvert thinking that she needs to become an extrovert in order to succeed, but discovering along the way that it’s not true.  She can then figure out what to do about it: confront those misperceptions, or maybe do something else with her life that’s better suited to her true self.

The outer-to-inner character arc is exactly the other way around, and can be summed up as “I guess I do have a problem after all.”  This is when a character starts off aware of the difference between his self-perception and how others see him, but along the way discovers that other people’s perceptions of him are actually more accurate than his own.  The obvious example is the alcoholic who knows everybody else thinks he drinks too much but doesn’t believe he has a problem.  As with a pure outer character arc, an epiphany moment wakes him up to the truth and puts him on a path towards true inner change.  Outer-to-inner character arcs can work particularly well in first-person narratives where the character really is clueless about something. The character’s behavior shows the flaw to the reader, while the first-person style shows the character’s self-perception contrasting with the flaw.

I am a firm believer that a solid character arc can elevate a novel from good to great.  I hope understanding these four character arc structures helps you find the arcs that best fit your characters’ situations.

Jason Black is a book doctor who has helped over 50 novelists improve their work in the past two years, has appeared at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference in 2009 and 2010, and is writing a book on character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.plottopunctuation.com

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