Episode 165: Required Elements – Character Arcs

On November 6, 2021 Kasie and Rex took on character arcs and how a protagonist’s journey is the reason we tell stories in the first place. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Character Arcs

Agenda

  • SCWA Upcoming events and goings-on
  • What is a Character Arc?
  • Does your book have to have one?
  • How to plot and write a character arc
Photo by Ben Mack on Pexels.com

Segment 1

Next week is Indie Author Week and there are at least two events you should be aware of and try to attend if you can. The first is Kasie presenting “Writing About Your Hometown” via Zoom to the Fairfax County Library in Northern Virginia (register here). This, of course, is where Herndon is located and that’s where After December takes place. I’ll share the slide deck and video link with Patrons of the show; go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC to become a supporter.

The second is the U of SC Center for Lifelong Learning at the Aiken campus Book Fair next Saturday. Here’s the press release info:


The Center for Lifelong Learning at the University of South Carolina cordially invites the public to its first annual Book Fair on Saturday, November 13. The Fair will open to the public, with registration beginning at 9:30 a.m., and will conclude at 3:00 p.m.

The Fair will feature more than forty regional authors offering their books for sale and will also have a full program of talks on writing and publishing topics. It is scheduled for national Indie Author Day and will celebrate the contributions of independent authors.

The keynote speaker is Dr. Kasie Whitener. She hosts the “Write On SC” radio program on Saturday mornings, serves as board member to the South Carolina Writers Association, and was a 2021 recipient of the Fresh Voices in the Humanities award. Dr. Whitener is a business owner and instructor at the University of South Carolina. Her first two novels, After December and Before Pittsburgh, have won critical acclaim.

The Fair will be held in the Business & Education building, which is adjacent to the Etherredge Center and the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center. Free parking will be available and refreshments will be served. We are asking a $ 5 voluntary donation to help support our scholarship funds.

Please come join us for a day of enjoyable browsing and informative talks. This is the perfect time to purchase books for those readers on your gift list.


We’re in board recruitment mode at SC Writers Association so if you’re an SCWA member and excited about all the work we’re doing and want to lend a hand, consider joining the Board of Directors for a two year term beginning in January 2022. Send Kasie a note — kasie@clemsonroad.com — and let her know you’d like more information.

SCWA’s next “Diversity in Publishing” event will take place November 16th at 7 p.m. and feature Felice Laverne, Agent, Author, and Editor. Register here. So much happening (all digital and distance and covid-friendly) at SCWA. Find a local chapter. Get your work critiqued. Join a professional organization. Admit you’re a writer and want to be an author.

We’ve got a new interview up on the YouTube channel. It is with Jackie Capers-Brown, award-winning corporate manager and executive leader, keynote speaker, high-performance trainer, leadership workshop facilitator, and mastermind coach. Jackie Capers-Brown has a new book! Learn more about Jackie here and get her book here. Jackie’s a South Carolina native and resident in the Columbia area. She’s a great gal and she had me on her podcast in 2020 as I was finishing Before Pittsburgh and I just loved talking to her. Here’s a link to that (it’s longer than our video).

So it’s NaNoWriMo this month and while Rex has a bad attitude about one’s ability to generate 50,000 words of coherent first draft in a single month, I’m a big fan of the NaNo frenzy. Admittedly, I’ve not committed this month. I have three novels needing revision and I’m coming off a disappointing showing in the Watty’s on my summertime serialization effort, so I’m not in the “create new 50k manuscript” mode right now. I’ve got some new short stories and I’m working on an essay series. But no room for new novels right now.

Even so, as we have a lot of beginning writers in our midst and Rex is actually working on the second novel in his series, we’re going to Go Back to Basics in November. Here’s the topic line-up:

  • Character Arcs (live this week) 
  • Dialogue Dos and Don’ts (a replay of episode 121 from a year ago) or possibly the Core Wound — depends on which episode Kev and Brian queue up for us 🙂
  • Exposition and Where to Put it (some stuff from episode 120 on iceberg theory but a brand new show) or possibly Tension because let’s be honest, boring stories suck
  • Happily Ever After and other denouement concerns (live Thanksgiving weekend)

This should get all of our #NaNoWriMo listeners buttoned right up.

Segment 2

Let’s get into this Character Arc thing. So I found this tweet and YouTube clip that talks about Rick’s character in Casablanca and how at each point of the character arc, one character comments on how Rick is changing. Sometimes it’s even Rick himself. And I thought, “Have we ever done character arcs?” and the answer is, “no.”

So here we go. What is a character arc and what are some examples of types? This link will be of use.

The character arc is how the character changes over time and is linear — it has a beginning, middle, and end — but does not have to follow the plot arc.

Four basic types:

  1. Positive change (moral ascent) 
  2. Transformational (hero’s journey — might include ups and downs)
  3. Negative change (moral descent)
  4. Flat
  5. Open-ended 

The lie your character believes about themself will be the thing they fight against and ultimately overcome to end the story. We covered this extensively in the core wound episode

Character arcs are the whole purpose of fiction. The change that a character makes is the reason the story exists. Without change, there is no story. And change creates drama (tension) and that creates meaning.

Let’s start with the positive change and use Rick from Casablanca as an example. Rick’s character arc is clear: from only caring about himself to sacrificing his own happiness for Ilsa and freedom for Victor Lazlo.

  • Step 1: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” 
  • Step 2: “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
  • Step 3: “Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.” 
  • Step 4: “Where I’m going you can’t come, what I’m doing you can’t be any part of.”
  • Step 5: “Welcome back to the fight.”

The character believes a lie about himself, the character encounters the truth, then has to accept the truth to overcome the lie. The lie will usually be the result of the character’s ghost — something in their past that haunts him, or the wound.

Other examples of positive arc characters (link):

  • Han Solo
  • Scrooge
  • Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Elizabeth Bennett (Pride & Prejudice)

Segment 3

The flat arc starts with the character knowing and believing the truth. The character’s faith is tested, but in the end, the truth prevails. Hence, “flat.” It’s in the testing that the tension and drama create the story worth experiencing.

Since stories are still about change, the characters around the protagonist change. Katniss Everdeen is a flat arc character. She knows the truth — the central government of Panem is oppressive and tyrannical — over the course of the Hunger Games, she convinces others of this truth and imbues them with the courage to rebel against the government.

This blog gives a step-by-step for the flat arc character. This blog categorizes the flat arc into three specific groups:

  • Little to no doubt about the truth and works to change those around him (Charlie Bucket)
  • Doubts applying the worldview, or thinks it shouldn’t be their job (Peter Parker) — is she the right person for this big job? (Moana)
  • Doubts the worldview itself (Simba in the Lion King) — may act in opposite to the worldview for a while (hakuna matata), almost gives up on the worldview when it’s tested (Wonder Woman / Diana Prince)

Other examples of flat arc characters:

  • Luke Skywalker
  • Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Neville Longbottom (struggles with disobedience, thinks the kids can work with grown-ups)

The disillusionment (or negative change) arc, the character also believes a lie, is confronted with the truth and is able to overcome the lie, but the new truth — existence after accepting the truth — is tragic.

This is Michael Corleone. He believes himself to be good, to be righteous. But he is a criminal, a ruthless loyalist to his corrupt family. When he accepts this about himself, he is tragically doomed to lead the family after his father’s death.

This video calls this the “corruption arc” wherein the character has the truth, and is very aware of it, but as he is tested, he decides to exchange the truth for a lie — i.e. the Corleones must kill their enemies.

Wow. We could have done one type of character arc for an entire episode, huh?

Segment 4

Let’s get to how to do this before we run out of time.

This link actually has a worksheet included. It starts with a place we’ve already covered and that’s motivation:

  1. What does your character want and why do they want it?
  2. Who is keeping them from it?
  3. What personal flaws or challenges are complicating the thing?
  4. What inner struggles will he have to overcome?
    1. How does he react when the going gets tough?
    2. What keeps him awake at night?
    3. What’s his blind spot?
    4. What’re his secrets?
    5. What embarrasses him?
    6. What passion drives him?
  5. What is he willing to do to reach his goal?
  6. What (if any) heroic qualities will emerge in the end?

This link is from masterclass and might be more instructive (the previous one was pretty general).

  • Think about genre — what’s the convention? Superhero stories rarely have negative arcs, Indiana Jones and other adventurer genres (Pirates of the Caribbean?) often have flat arcs
  • Consider the character’s role in the story — what must they contribute to the plot? Think of Lt. Renault in Casablanca. He has to become an accomplice for Rick to win Lazlo’s escape, but what does Renault stand to lose if he becomes an accomplice?
  • Have a strong outline — know where the story is going and then you can better determine what the scaffolding will need to be including those juxtaposed arcs that create tension and intrigue.

Guess that wasn’t much more specific, was it? Oh well. We’ll have some good discussion anyway.

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