The 8 Steps of a CHARACTER ARC
You know that moment as a writer, when you’ve been charging through the story, high on how fantastic it is, and then suddenly…it all STOPS. The next scene doesn’t form in your head. You’ve got nothing.
Behind your characters, a string of bright and captivating scenes mark the trail of that rocket of inspiration; ahead of your characters, a foggy expanse, stretching to who-knows-where, a few shapeless blobs that should be scenes floating in the nothingness. The rocket is dead, and not refueling any time soon.
Well, to everybody who’s suffered this, or is currently suffering it, there’s a way to navigate through that fog. A map. Directions and a destination.
Or, more specifically, events that form the underlying structure of the story.
This post is going to focus on one facet of story structure: character arc. Structure is something people subconsciously recognize and expect, and if the story doesn’t match those expectations, they feel cheated (though usually can’t explain why). Every good story follows a structure. So if you know structure, you’ll always know where to go next, and won’t get lost in the fog.
So here are the 8 steps of a character arc:
1) Hero: Strength, Weakness, and Need
This happens in the setup of the story, when the main character’s ordinary world is being introduced. First, the main character’s strengths must be displayed; we must be given a reason to like them, or if not exactly “like” them, empathize with them, and be fascinated by them. The reader needs to bond with the character, feel concerned about how it all turns out for them. Or in other words, feel that the main character is worth experiencing the story. There are easy traits that do this: courage, love, humor, being in danger, being unfairly treated, being highly skilled at something, having a powerful noble goal. (Courage is the one they all need. If the character doesn’t have the gumption to actively pursue what they want, they are automatically a background character.)
After this, still in the beginning of your story, let the character exhibit what needs to change. Show their weaknesses of character and self awareness.
And lastly, hint at what they NEED to learn. Sometimes this is even stated to the character, and they don’t understand it, refuse to believe it, or condemn it. Like “A Christmas Carol”, when Scrooge’s nephew says his speech about Christmas and how wonderful it is, and Scrooge replies “Bah Humbug!"
2) Desire: This is the moment when the character knows what they need to pursue, in order to obtain what they inwardly want. It is not the inciting incident or catalyst, the event in a story that disrupts the ordinary world and calls the hero on an adventure. This is a separate step entirely, occurring after that catalyst has shattered life as the main character knows it. They believe obtaining this goal will calm whatever inner turmoil or conflict they’re battling. And always, they’re not quite right.
Think of Mr Fredricksen: His goal is to get the house – a symbolic representation of Ellie and the life he shared with her – to Paradise Falls, which he believes will heal his grief and guilt. It won’t. Once he obtains it, the achievement feels hollow. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So on we go!
3) Plan: Once in Act Two, the character is going to scramble for a plan of action. The inner want has solidified into a tangible goal, but they need a strategy to achieve it. This also spells out for the reader what to expect in that second act.
4) Conflict: What’s going to try stopping them? A hero with a goal is one thing, but to make it a story we need something that stands in the way. An obstacle. A force of opposition. If we didn’t have obstacles, books would be as interesting as "Harry Potter and the Trip to the Grocery Store.” (Although honestly, I’d probably read that.) After the catalyst has changed everything, after the character crosses the threshold into Act Two, everything from here on out will be laden with conflict. This is usually when enemies, or more accurately forces of opposition, begin to appear. Everything is accumulating to complicate the main character’s pathway to achieving what they want. The forces of opposition come from not only the villains, but from the actions that have to be taken to achieve the desire. Whatever this action is, it’s exactly what the main character is not suited to do, an action that pressures their flaws, exposes them to exactly what they need to become but can’t right now.
Like Stitch being forced to be the family dog. He’s not suited to this task.
5) Battle: The forces of opposition are amping up, growing stronger, fighting with greater intensity. The main character is taking the punches and working around them, relentlessly plowing forward. Hero and allies are usually punching back too.
6) Midpoint: This is the event where they first encounter what they need to learn, what they need to become. Something happens that forces them to behave in this new, life-saving way. But once they’ve seen it, they don’t know what to do with this knowledge.
7) Dark Night, Revelation, Choice:
This is always the darkest point in the story, where all seems lost, and death – of a literal or spiritual nature – is in the air. And in this moment, something usually happens that makes the main character wake up to what is wrong, and what they need. More often than not, this revelation will arrive from the “love story” or relationship of the plot, and will be the thing that helps them pull themselves out of despair and see the light. And once this is uncovered, once the revelation of the truth about themselves is recognized, they are faced with a choice. Of course, they’ve been faced with choices in every beat of every scene, but this is the big choice that is going to determine if their story has a happy ending or a tragic one. The choice is this: “You are being faced the truth that you need to heal. Are you going to choose what you need, let your old self die, and become someone better?” And always, always, always this is a hard choice. The revelation must be significant to them. And it’s never easy. It can’t be. We don’t write stories about heroes who make easy choices. Villains have it easy. Are you going to adopt this new way of living, adopt this truth, and let your old self die? Or are you going to stay the way you are (which feels safer and is much less challenging) but end up stuck in a sort of living death? Most of the time, of course, they choose the right thing.
This moment is usually always the saddest scene in the thing. Like this scene with Stitch.
8) New Life: This is their changed life. After experiencing the trials of the story, after realizing what they need and choosing to be reborn, they are going to be different people – and are going to live a different life. This is what follows the statement “And every day after …” What has changed? Show the audience how things are different, how things are better, because they want to see that. This is the resolution, the wrapping up of everything we’ve been through with the main character, and having this in the story is often what gives that feeling of satisfaction after seeing a really well-told story.
So! To show off how this works, I’ve chosen the character arc of Carl from Up.
1) Hero: Strengths, Weakness, Need
Strengths: Reasons to like Carl are packed into that heartbreaking opening sequence. By the end of it, we love him, love Ellie, and are crying our eyes out.
Weaknesses: Now Carl is curmudgeonly, grumpy, cold, and won’t pay attention to a living soul. He’s also plagued by grief, regret, guilt, and loneliness. (Which we are all 100% okay with, because we already like him.)
Need: He needs Russel. The statement of what he needs to learn isn’t outright said (as it will be later) but Russel represents it.
Step Two: The catalyst was when a truck knocked down Ellie’s mailbox, Carl hit a construction worker in the head with his cane, and for this a judge declares him a public menace and orders him to go to Shady Oaks Retirement Village. The DESIRE is this moment.
Carl escapes in a flying house, thousands of balloons lifting him skyward. He even says the desire of the whole story out loud, “So long boys! I’ll send you a postcard from Paradise Falls!” The tangible goal is “live out the rest of his days in his and Ellie’s house, on the edge of Paradise Falls, South America.” (“It’s like America … but South.”)
Step Three: The plan and the conflict overlap, as they are wont to do. We have a scene where Carl is unfurling sails, setting a compass, and settling back in his chair for a smooth journey. But later on, after some conflict has arrived, we have Russel figuring out how to actually make it there. And after even more conflict has arrived, we have him telling Russel “We’re going to walk to the falls quickly and quietly, with no rap music or flash-dancing.”
Step Four: The moment he settles back into his armchair, high above the city, and here’s a knock on the front door, nothing is going to be easy for Carl. First, we have opposition in the form of Russel. Then we have a storm. Then the house lands miles away from the Falls, so they’ll have to walk it. Then we have Kevin, the giant bird. Then we have Dug. Which means they’re also being chased by a legion of talking dogs. Which brings us to Muntz, the main villain, and Carl’s shadow – the representation of Carl’s flaws, and the consequences of refusing to let go of the past.
Step Five: This is the trek to the Falls. It’s also the battle with every complication that arises. And it’s also exactly what Carl is not suited to do. He’s a curmudgeonly old guy, bent on living out the rest of his life alone. Well, the story says “Nope, Carl, that’s not how it’s going to be” and promptly gives him a surrogate grandson to take care of, a dog who adores him, and even a giant mythical bird. And he has to lead them all, if he’s going to get to the Falls.
Step Six: The moment when Russel invades Carl’s heart. Which is what he needs, but he doesn’t understand. (I have the scene beated out in the previous post.)
Step Seven: Finally, he gives in to the worst of himself and chooses his goal of living in his broken house on the edge of Paradise Falls. But somehow this doesn’t feel like victory. He’s still alone, next to Ellie’s empty chair, and she is still beyond his reach.
He picks up her adventure book, and leafs through the photographs, missing her; he pauses on the page scrawled with the words “Stuff I’m Going To Do”, lets his hand rest on it, grief and regret overwhelming him. He begins to close the book, and the page shifts … revealing the edge of another picture. Surprised, he turns the page. It’s their wedding picture.
Ellie added picture after picture of their happy marriage, the whole wonderful life they shared, all the things she did. And on the bottom of the last page is her last message to him: “Thanks for the adventure! Now go have a new one! Love, Ellie.” Exactly what Carl needs. He doesn’t need to be guilty, he doesn’t need to regret the past. The past was beautiful, and she will never truly leave him.
Choice: So, Carl can make the choice to throw everything out of the house to go save Russel.
New Life: Sitting on a curb, eating ice cream with Russel.
In the credits, we see a whole new life – or new adventure – with Carl, Russel, Dug, and even a bunch of new puppies.
So, it’s actually pretty simple. And once again, it’s fun to develop your own stories like this, but it’s surprisingly fun to analyze movies and books with it too. It improves your storytelling ability, I’ve found. Practice makes perfect.
I hope this post helps somebody out. It’ll make the ten times I cried while writing it, while watching scenes from Up, worth it.