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 human being."
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 the failure.
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, because 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 developed arc.
Make it your own.
You don’t 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.
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 www.PlotToPunctuation.com.