Episode 168: The Moral Ascent Arc

On December 4, 2021, Kasie and Rex continued their critical elements lessons for NaNoWriMo’ers with a deeper dive into the moral ascent character arc. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Character Arcs — the moral ascent


  • Character Arc review
  • Does your book have to have one?
  • History of the moral ascent arc
  • How to plot and write a moral ascent character arc
Photo by Tobias Aeppli on Pexels.com

Segment 1

Some of our area writer friends will be at the Lexington library on December 11th to talk about how to become a published author. Authors making presentations: Tom Poland, Halina Schafer, Ralph Jarrells, Jay Schabacker, Alysia Kehoe and Cat Fitzgerald. 

Our SCWA Columbia II chapter friends Johnny Bloodworth, author of Gift and Listen to the Children, and Bonnie Stanard, author of Master of Westfall Plantation, Kedzie, Sonny, and other historical fiction novels will be on hand. 

Friends of the show John Starino and Art Turfa will also be there. The event runs from 1 to 3 p.m. and is at the Lexington County Library Main Branch (5440 Augusta Rd, Lexington, SC 29072). 

Rex and I won’t be there. We’re at the Florence City Center Market on December 11th selling our own books and enjoying some holiday time with FloWriters and SCWA’s Florence chapter. That event is at 200 Sanborn Street in Florence from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. on December 11th.

Okay, today’s episode is part of a three-part set on character arcs. Today we’re doing the moral ascent — how a character becomes less selfish, more noble, self sacrificial, etc. over the course of the story — and next week we’ll run our “Do you have to like the Maint Character?” episode from last year. Then, on December 18th, you’ll hear us do the moral descent — the character in a downward spiral making bad choices until their despicableness is undeniable.

So let’s get to it.

Moral Ascent. We’ve talked before about the old morality-based stories and how they laid the framework for modern tales and whether writers are bound to tell those stories (Ep 108). Morality stories are Biblically-old and they are meant to be instructive. So it makes sense that a “pro-moral” story arc would show a character making good choices and receiving good benefits while the character who makes bad decisions gets the damaging outcomes.

Here’s that reminder of what character arcs are (link) and specifically the moral ascent definition: 

There are two shapes for the moral ascent character arc:

The v-shaped arc — the character begins in a neutral position, the conflict causes them to sink to their lowest point (where they might make some bad choices), and then they dig themselves out and begin to ascend toward their previous state, sometimes even exceeding it (link).

Great for heroic stories — they show the character’s weakness

Great for showing moral fortitude

The slow ascent on an X-Y chart — beginning in the neutral position (again) but climbing toward enlightenment without the downward plunge or valley of the V arc (link).

Segment 2

This link by Weiland (yes, we’ve used her before) talks about using the theme of the story to craft the arcs. For example:

  • The thematic premise’s primary argument — i.e. Dorothy Gale’s “There’s no place like home” wherein she doesn’t feel this way in the beginning, but ultimately comes to appreciate what she has in Kansas with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Or The Godfather’s question “does defense of one’s family justify murder?” — wherein our negative arc says yes (and downward spirals Michael) but a positive arc might come to a “No” conclusion and have Michael refusing to do illegal things.
  • Inner conflict 1 — lie vs. the truth — the character is working to disprove the lie s/he believes about themselves. Don’t lecture your readers on the lie, long passages of ceremony text will bore them. Show them the lie. For example — Scrooge believes money is the measure for a successful life, then he sees Crocket’s poor family enjoying the holiday with love for one another and he’s shown the truth.
  • Inner conflict 2 — want vs. need — the lie/truth conflict translated into the physical conflict of the story: the character’s pursuit of what they want, ignoring what they need. Michael Corleone wants to protect his criminal family, what he needs is to distance himself from them.
  • Inner conflict becomes outer conflict — the character is forced to choose between the lie/truth or want/need outcomes. In the moral ascent arc, the character chooses the truth and the need, leaving behind (or becoming stronger/happier/better without) the lie and the desire for something that isn’t morally acceptable.
  • Change within the character , change within the plot — does the character have an epiphany (a la Lisa See’s ending-story reveal?) or does the plot force the character away from the bad choice? The promotion is given to someone else, the conditions for the lie/want no longer exist?

Segment 3/4

So how’s it done?

This link from Self Publishing School offers a good framework and an exercise. Questions to answer:

  1. Who are they? — who is the character in the beginning of the story? This might also be a “where” question in terms of where are they on the moral spectrum? What do they value? What do they envy? 
  2. What do they want? — the character has a gap, a lack in their life (or so they believe) and the want something to fulfill it. What is that thing?
  3. What are the obstacles? — if there weren’t any, they’d already have that thing they want. So what’s keeping them from taking it?
  4. How will the character change? — and this is where the flaw has to directly relate to the character’s want and their willingness to adjust to be worthy of it. Bella Swan being clumsy has nothing to do with attracting the hot vampire guy. And she never stops being clumsy, so it’s not really a flaw.

The exercise is to put your character in imagined scenarios. So let’s brainstorm some:

  • In a convenience store when a robbery occurs
  • Getting a drink at a bar when a fight breaks out
  • Walking into a job interview after lying on their resume
  • Has to tell mom that dad is having an affair
  • Has to tell dad that mom is dead
  • Catches older sibling doing something they shouldn’t

The link above has some more. The idea is to imagine them — write them — working out some difficult circumstances. Then deciding whether they can live with the decision they’re making.

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