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Over the last six months and three series, youve gotten a pretty good idea of

how to structure your characters arc--whether its positive, flat, or negative. But
what you may still be wondering is how to figure out which arc you should
choose for your character.
Choosing your characters arc is every bit as important a decision as choosing
the right plot. Get it wrong in the beginning, and, at best, youll be facing
massive rewrites. Some stories will pop into your brain with an obvious character
arc already in tact. But other stories will require a little more forethought.
Fortunately, picking the perfect character arc for your story requires nothing more
than the answers to three questions.
Whats Your Genre?
Genre wont always be the deciding factor in the type of character arc you
portray, but it should definitely be a consideration. As Harold Crick learned in
Stranger Than Fiction, stories follow certain patterns: Tragedy you die. Comedy
you get hitched. Positive arcs get happy endings. Negative arcs get sad
endings. In The Moral Premise, Stanley D. Williams goes on to explain:
Genre films create certain audience expectations for the protagonist.
Often the protagonists arc is known by the audience before the
movie begins. Such expectations about the construction of the
genres may predetermine how the protagonist reacts to the storys
moral premise and conflict. This is because, as Thomas Schatz
explains in Hollywood Genres, genre movies deal with fundamental
cultural conflicts that can never be ultimately solved but yet offer a
solution, if only temporary and idealistic.
Broader umbrella genres such as fantasy, westerns, and historicals can tell just
about any kind of story. But most romances, for example, are going to require a
positive or flat arc.
Where Does Your Character's Arc Begin?
Character arc is always the final sum of your storys ending minus your storys
beginning. If you can figure out who your character is in the beginning of your
story, youre already halfway to writing his arc, much less knowing what it is.
How to Figure Out What Your Characters Arc Should Be
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Is he in a comparatively good place in the beginning? If so, then hes either in a
flat arc (in which hell have to leave that good place and fight for it when it is
threatened) or a disillusionment or corruption arc (in which he will leave the
good place and never return).
Or is he in a less-than-good place? If so, hes either in a positive change arc (in
which hell journey toward a better place) or a negative fall arc (in which things
get even worse).
Even more importantly, what does your character believe in the beginning? If he
starts out believing a Lie about himself or the world around him, then hes either
at the beginning of a positive change arc (in which hell overcome the Lie and
reach a positive Truth), a negative disillusionment arc (in which hell overcome
the Lie and reach a negative Truth), or a negative fall arc (in which hell never
grow into the Truth, but instead embrace an even worse Lie).
If he believes the Truth, then hes starting out on either a flat arc (in which hell
use that Truth to transform the world around him) or a negative corruption arc
(in which hell fall away from that Truth).
Where Does Your Character's Arc End?
This brings us right back to the old happy ending or sad ending? question. If
you know your character starts out believing a Lie, but ends up happy, then you
know hes going to be following a positive change arc. In Plot vs. Character, Jeff
Gerke writes about figuring out this type of story:
Now its time to imagine what the alternative [to the Lie] could be. If
you are Fate in this story and youre not going to let [your character]
remain in her miserable stew, what are you going to try to get her to
change to? What is the happy other possibility youd like her to see
and possibly seize?
In other words, a story with a positive change arc will always end with the
character in the opposite situation to the one in which he found himself in the
beginning. The character will have changed, and the world around him will reflect
Same goes for a negative change arc, but in reverse. Characters in
disillusionment and corruption arcs will end in a place thats a darker reflection
of their beginning, while characters in fall arcs will end up in a place thats the
same as the beginning, only worse.
Flat arc characters wont change themselves, but the world and the characters
around them will be drastically different from how they were in the beginning of
the story.
Double Check Your Character's Arc
Based on your answers to these three questions, you should be able to identify
which arc you want your character to follow and start plotting accordingly. But
before you rev your engines too much, stop a moment to double check yourself.
Is the arc youve identified your strongest possible option? Do your storys
beginning and ending contrast each other strongly enough? If your protagonist
had to face the events of the climax in the beginning of the story, would he
react to them in the same way he does at the end? If he would take pretty much
the same action at both the beginning and end of the story, you know his
change arc isnt strong enough.
This holds true for flat arcs as well. Although the characters personal Truth and
integrity may hold fast throughout the story, he shouldnt have the motive or
understanding to act in the same way at the beginning as he will in the end.
The general question of which character arc is every bit as important as the
specific story details of the arc itself once you start plotting. Before you ever put
pen to paper, take a moment to figure out your characters arc and make it as
strong and memorable as possible.
About the Author: K.M. Weiland is
the internationally published author of
the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your
Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as
well as the western A Man Called
Outlaw, the medieval epic Behold the
Dawn, and the epic fantasy
Dreamlander. When shes not making
things up, shes busy mentoring other
authors. She makes her home in
western Nebraska.