Creating a Character Arc: Fire Up Your Stalled Novel – Part 2

    creating a character arc

    Want to create characters that burrow their way into a reader’s heart? The key to devising unforgettable protagonists is creating a character arc.

    More about character arcs in a moment. Let’s step back for a moment and take a birds-eye view of creating novels.

    The four burning question most aspiring novelists have are:

    How can I work out what to write about?

    How do I create compelling characters?

    How can I know whether my plot is viable or not?

    How to I  go about the process of writing the novel?

    I wrote  PART 1 of Fire Up Your Stalled Novel is in answer to the first question: How can I work out what to write about.  It’s about how to figure out the story of your fledgling novel, starting from your first, fleeting idea.

    The key is to start with the Idea, and then develop the Concept, the Premise, and the Theme.

    Here’s a quick recap:  the Idea is the initial seed of your series or novel. The Concept is a fleshed-out idea that already indicates conflict. As I explained in Fire Up Your Stalled Novel – Part 1  Think of the Concept as an elevator pitch you would use at a writer’s conference if someone asks about your series. Your answer is the Concept of your series.

    The Premise is what your particular story is about. It introduces the protagonist and gives a short preview of the plot,  highlighting the external conflict.

    The last piece of the puzzle of finding what to write about by starting with an idea and then elaborating it is to match the Concept with the Theme. Remember, the Theme is the internal conflict of the protagonist.

    I’ll talk more about Theme in a moment.

    If you are confused about these terms, please read Part 1 before continuing.

    In this Part 2 of How to Fire Up a Stalled Novel, the focus is on the second question, How do I create compelling characters?

    The three books I’ve found most useful for this topic are: 

    Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure by K. M. Weiland,

    Take Off Your Pants: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker, and 

    Nail Your Story: Add Tension, Build Emotion, and Keep Your Readers Addicted by Monica Leonelle.

    If you are serious about writing a novel, I suggest dipping into all of these books. I riffle through them every day.

    Leonelle, Hawker, and Weiland all recommend basing a plot on the character arc of your main protagonist. In this way, the plot rests on the internal development of your main character.

    The Finesse of Creating a Character Arc

    When I first started writing my novel, I strung together external events because I thought that was the heart of plotting. However, after reading books by Monica Leonelle and Libbie Hawker, I realized that creating a character arc is the key to a great plot. 

    John Truby, who wrote the excellent book, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller calls the character arc the dramatic code which lies at the heart of all compelling stories.

    All stories are a form of communication that expresses the dramatic code. The dramatic code, embedded deep in the human psyche, is an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve.
    From: John Truby – The Anatomy of Story

    The character arc is a way you protagonist moves, grows, and changes within a story. According to Leonelle, every character needs to go through a transformation, and this transformation starts off with what she calls the Fatal Flaw.

    The Fatal Flaw

    Every protagonist needs to be flawed.

    Flaws serve to add depth and conflict, establish empathy, and make the character more memorable.
    MJ Bush, Writing the Perfect Flaw 

    As Monica Leonelle explains, the Fatal Flaw is the BIG THING that’s wrong in your character’s life. To overcome the obstacles in their path, the protagonist must learn, grow and develop to overcome their Fatal Flaw.

    The Fatal Flaw is a way of looking at the world that will change by the end of the story.
    Monica Leonelle, Nail Your Story

    Here is how I worked out the Fatal Flaw of Kat, my protagonist in The Brazilian Incident:

    Kat can’t forgive herself for losing the daughter who was abducted and now can’t see the good in herself or others. Her Fatal Flaw is that she can’t forgive herself and distrusts everyone.

    If you compare the Fatal Flaw with the Premise of my novel, The Brazilian Incident, you can immediately see how this Fatal Flaw can play out:

    Kat Sylvester, whose young daughter disappeared without a trace, is reluctantly persuaded by her ex-husband to find out whether her father-in-law, David Faring, actually died seven years ago, or whether it was a cover-up and he is still alive. As she digs deep into his life, she receives mysterious threats.

    To complete her quest and find out the truth about her father-in-law, Kat will have to learn to trust again and heal from her grief and guilt. As this is going to be the first novel of a series, Kat will not overcome her Fatal Flaw fully by the end of this novel, but she will have overcome some of her false beliefs and will have started her journey of healing.

    You see, the way the Fatal Flaw keeps on tripping the protagonist up is by her or his False Beliefs. These are the small beliefs that hold the protagonist back from breaking through the Fatal Flaw.

    Protagonists, like most people in real life,  can’t see their own flaws. So they think the resulting beliefs are correct and logical, even though they are the product of their Fatal Flaw. Here are the False Beliefs of my protagonist, Kat:

    ‘I’m not good enough.’

    ‘You can’t trust anyone.’

    ‘You can’t get hurt if you keep your distance.’

    The term ‘character arc’ implies that there is a development in play. At the beginning of the novel,  the protagonist is still stuck in their Fatal Flaw but, as the story progresses, they learn to let go of some or all of the False Beliefs and finally go through a transformation which releases them (at least in part) from their Fatal Flaw.

    Every character in your novel needs a Character Arc.

    The Character Arc is closely allied to motivation.  The outer motivation is the Big Goal, i.e., what the protagonist wants. For example, in my novel Kat wants to find the truth. She wants to know whether her father-in-law she loved is truly dead, or whether it was a cover-up and he is still alive. 

    The inner motivation is fuelled by unmet needs. (You can read more about this here.)

    In The Brazilian Incident, Kat must heal from the trauma of losing her child. She needs to rejoin humanity by allowing herself to feel emotions again.

    One of the best resources for creating character arcs is K. M. Weiland’s book Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure. Below is her infographic on how characters change in famous stories:

    character arc

    In all of this, let’s not forget about the Antagonist!

    Who is the Antagonist in Your Story?

    Every story needs an Antagonist, a person or forces the protagonist has got to struggle against to complete her or his quest.

    According to Libbie Hawker, the antagonist is the person who is most heavily invested in achieving the same external goal as the protagonist.

    Once you’ve determined your Antagonist, create a character arc for him or her as well.

    What to do next

    After reading this article, work on your characters. Take each one in turn and determine their Fatal Flaw. Remember, the Fatal Flaw impedes the character in reaching his or her goal.

    Once you’ve determined a character’s Fatal Flaw, list the resulting false beliefs.

    It’s best to make a list of all your characters and write down the Fatal Flaw and Wrong Beliefs.

    Then take your Protagonist, your secondary characters, and the Antagonist, creating a Character Arc for each one.

    You guiding question should be: How does my protagonist’s character need to develop in the story?

    In PART 3, I’ll set out exactly how to work up a compelling plot, based on your protagonist’s Character Arc.

    According to Libbie Hawker, when you have a detailed, well-crafted plot outline, the actual writing of your novel can be done in weeks, not months or even years. 

    Remember the key to success is to read each article in this series slowly, assimilate the information, and then put it into action so that you develop a clear plot outline that will make writing your novel fast and easy.

    If you have questions, please ask in the comment section below.

    Fire up a Stalled Novel – Part 1: From Idea to Concept and Premise

    Elements of Plot Structure: The Sure-Fire Way to Create Your Story – Fire Up Your Stalled Novel, Part 3

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at WritetoDone.com. Grab her latest all new course Blogwriter's Bootcamp 2.0 or a copy of her free report, How to Create an Irresistible Lead Magnet in Less Than 5 Hours. In her “spare” time, Mary’s also the brains behind AlistBlogging.net. and GoodlifeZEN.com, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • CM Porter says:

      A good place to start, but I have a question: how necessary is it for an “invisible” antagonist to have a full arc? I’m thinking about–and planning–a mystery novel, where the antagonist is unknown until the climax. Obviously there needs to be some progression as s/he responds to the protagonist, but how does that work into a full arc? Or is that enough to be considered an arc in itself? I kind of feel like the character needs to be somewhat better established throughout the story in order to actually have a full arc, or even most of one.

      • This is an interesting question, CM. I think that we write differently about a character if we get a sense of their arc–even if the character only appears at the end.

    • Sue says:

      I’m new to writing cozy mysteries and learning a lot from your series. When I read your article about character arc, I had Agathie Christie’s Miss Marple in mind to answer the questions regarding fatal flaw and transformation. Some critics say there isn’t a character arc for Miss Marple. What is your opinion? If I write a mystery with an amateur sleuth, must there be a character arc for my protagonist? Thanks for your time.

      • That’s a very interesting question, Sue. It’s a long time since I’ve read Agatha Christie. I think the only way to check would be to read the first Miss Marple story and compare it with the last one to see if there is a change.

        Even if there isn’t much character development, I think that a character arc adds another dimension to the story.

        Take, for example, Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series. Lynley is traumatized by the murder of his wife Helen, to the point where he is incapable of working. I find the Inspector Lynley series more emotionally satisfying than the Miss Marple series.

        I think you can’t go wrong by using a character arc in your cosy mysteries. You may find that your readers get pulled into the series because of the emotional tension (as well as the pull of the mystery).

        Thinking back to Miss Marple: The emotional tension arises from her fight against the male-dominated establishment. For the police, she is just an elderly, nosy female and she has to fight to have her voice heard and her keen intelligence and sharp intuition acknowledged.

        • Sue says:

          Excellent points. Thank you. I will read more of your suggested articles about character arc. And I just purchased Libbie’s “Take Off Your Pants!” as mentioned in Part 3 of your series.

    • Taide Rodríguez Gabarrón says:

      Me parece muy interesante, ademas de ser clave para una novela

    • Laszlo A. Voros says:

      Great advice but you make it sound so easy. But when you’re mentally stalled for a couple of weeks then it’s not so easy.

      • I agree, Lazlo, it’s not easy if you’ve stalled for a while. I stalled for over 6 months but I’ve got my novel growing again by following the steps I suggest in Part 1 and Part 2 of my series, How to Fire Up Your Stalled Novel

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