Tag Archives: how to create an internal arc

Character Arc, Part 2: Building Your Character’s Internal Arc

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Here’s another lesson from my workshop, Dynamic Characterization, to help you build your character’s growth arc, starting with the flaw or wound, the defining traumatic event, and the stabilizing belief. Mapping your character’s growth arc before you start writing makes it easier to figure out your plot!


The character growth arc is about moving the character from one trait or state of mind to another.

  • From greed to generosity.
  • From hating himself to loving himself.
  • From helpless to powerful.
  • From believing that people who are different are wrong and deserving of scorn to believing that people who are different should be respected and learned from.

If you can’t state you character’s growth arc in “from ____ to ____” format, you might have a problem.

The growth arc starts with the flaw or wound you chose for your character in lesson five. It ends with the character having transformed the flaw into a more positive trait or having healed the wound and no longer feeling like they need to engage in the protective behaviors associated with that wound.

The Structure of the Growth Arc

The basic structure of the growth arc is:

  1. Character has a flaw or wound, but is comfortable with it, and their behavior is shaped by the flaw or wound.
  2. Something changes that makes the flaw less functional or the wound harder to protect (this is usually the inciting incident).
  3. This change creates problems for the character as they work harder to compensate for their flaw or protect their wound.
  4. These problems create internal and external conflict for the character.
  5. The character’s attempts to resolve these new conflicts while at the same time compensating for the flaw or protecting the wound lead to disaster.
  6. This disaster causes the character to question their stabilizing belief.
  7. This questioning allows the character to discover a better belief.
  8. A new trait arises from the better belief (which is demonstrated through new behavior).

The character might go through multiple iterations of steps 4-6 before they finally get to step 7.

Let’s apply this structure to Steve, the greedy stockbroker from yesterday’s post.

Step 1: Character has flaw or wound, but is comfortable with it, and their behavior is shaped by the flaw or wound.

Steve has worked his way out of poverty and is now making half a million dollars each year as a result of his savvy investment skills. He put his sisters through college, and he’s now able to give his wife and daughter everything they could possibly want. His greed has driven him to become one of the best on Wall Street and to constantly seek to improve his skills so that he can amass even more wealth.

There’s not a whole lot of incentive for Steve to change right now, is there? Sure, he’d like to spend more time with his wife and kid, but he feels it’s more important to keep making money so that he doesn’t have to worry about his ability to take care of them. He hates that he doesn’t see his family enough, but he can’t stop pushing himself to make more money.

Remember from the example in yesterday’s post—his trauma is that his mother died of cancer because the family couldn’t afford health insurance, and Steve feels that it was his responsibility to take care of her. As a result of that trauma he acquired the unconscious belief that being poor means he’s doomed to lose the people he loves. So now he’s faced with the choice making money to protect his loved ones vs. spending time with his loved ones but risking losing them because he failed to make enough money to protect them.

Step 2: Something changes that makes the flaw less functional or the wound harder to protect.

Steve is offered a sketchy investment with a huge potential return. He knows he shouldn’t make this investment, and that his wife wouldn’t approve, but the money he’s expecting to make will put his daughter through grad school at Princeton. He justifies the bad decision by telling himself that he’s doing it for her. At this point in time, he doesn’t even recognize that his focus on making money is protecting him from his fear of losing the people he loves.

Step 3: This change creates problems for the character as they work harder to compensate for their flaw or protect their wound.

Oh no, the con artist who convinced Steve to invest ran off with the money and left Steve with a paper trail and an FBI investigation! It turns out that the investment was a Ponzi scheme, and hundreds of retired folks have been bilked of their life savings. All the evidence left behind by the con artist frames Steve as the ringleader.

Step 4: These problems create internal and external conflicts for the character.

For the first time in his life, Steve’s greed isn’t helping him, it’s hurting him. He’s lost his job at the investment firm. He’s humiliated by the news stories trashing him. His friends won’t have anything to do with him. Worst of all, his wife is furious—she can’t believe he would endanger their future like this.

Steve feels terrible. But his intentions were good, he rationalizes. He didn’t mean any harm. He was just looking out for his daughter.

And he’s got connections—he can fix this, right? This is just a temporary glitch, and soon he’ll be trading on the stock market again.

Steve holds back some crucial details about his interactions with the con artist who set him up, because those details would also lead the FBI to the one secret bank account that they haven’t found yet. And Steve’s going to need the money in that account to invest and make back his fortune once he gets out of this mess. His greed is still in full swing.

Step 5: The character’s attempts to resolve these new conflicts while at the same time compensating for the flaw or protecting the wound lead to disaster.

Steve’s not blaming his greed for getting him into this mess—he blames the con artist. And his solution to his current predicament? He arranges a meeting with one of the few friends who’s still talking to him, and through that friend, attempts to bribe the prosecuting attorney to make a mistake that would allow Steve to get off on a technicality.

Guess how that works out?

Meanwhile Steve’s assets have been seized, his wife and daughter have been forced to move in with friends, and jail time looks like a sure thing. No one believes Steve’s “not guilty” plea, not even his lawyer.

Step 6: This disaster causes the character to question their stabilizing belief.

Sitting alone in his jail cell after a demoralizing talk with his lawyer, Steve gets a call from his wife:  she wants a divorce. It finally hits him that he’s been wrong all this time. Money hasn’t protected him from losing his loved ones—not only that, but his greedy pursuit of money has caused Steve to lose his loved ones.

Step 7: This questioning allows the character to discover a better belief.

Steve decides that from here on out, he’s going to do the right thing, no matter what it costs him. He may have lost his family to greed, but he can try to help the people who lost their life savings to the con artist.

Steve calls his lawyer back and asks him to arrange a meeting with the FBI. He divulges the information that leads the FBI to his last remaining stash of money—as well as to the con artist. The real villain is caught, the stolen money is handed over to the authorities to be returned to the con artist’s victims, and Steve is offered a community service sentence in exchange for his help in catching the con artist.

Step 8: A new trait arises from the better belief (which is demonstrated through new behavior).

Steve reunites with his wife, swearing that he’s giving up his job as a stockbroker and begging forgiveness for his mistake.

She forgives him, and together they use the money that was returned to them—the money that Steve gave the con artist months ago—to start a foundation that pays for cancer treatment for those who can’t afford it, which they name after Steve’s mother. Now that Steve is freed from the crippling belief that he should have been able to prevent his mother’s death, he’s free to address that personal tragedy in a meaningful way: by helping others who are in the same situation that killed his mother.

Notice that he’s also demonstrating the new trait of generosity—which is the opposite of the flaw he started with.

Which characters need growth arcs?

Not all characters need a growth arc—if every single person in your story changed like this, the story would feel like a mess. But unless you’re writing fiction that’s completely plot-driven, your protagonist probably needs one. You might want to give your antagonist a growth arc that either contrasts with or parallels with the protagonist’s arc, for thematic purposes. Depending on the story you’re telling, you may decide that one or more other characters would benefit from a growth arc. It’s a judgment call with every character other than your protagonist.


Ready for NaNoWriMo? If you’ve got your character arc but are still struggling with your plot,
The 30 Day Novel Success Journal or The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance can help you figure out what happens at each step of your story.

Character Arc, Part 1: Flaws, Wounds, and the Defining Traumatic Event

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Here’s another lesson from my class, Dynamic Characterization, to help you flesh out your characters for NaNoWriMo.


In order for a character to grow during the story (i.e. have a character arc), she needs either a flaw that she’ll overcome or a wound that she’ll manage to heal by the end of the story.

Flaws

A flaw is a negative personality trait—a trait that causes the character to have a poorer experience of life and that interferes with her ability to become the best possible version of herself. The character may or may not be aware that the trait is negative, and in fact, may actually view this trait as a positive thing.

For storytelling purposes, a flaw is usually a) rooted in a trauma that the character has experienced in the past and b) stabilized by a belief that the character formed in reaction to that trauma.

For example, let’s say our hero, Steve, is a stockbroker and his flaw is greed. Why is he greedy?

Steve grew up in an economically-depressed Midwestern town. His mother’s disability check wasn’t quite enough to keep Steve and his two sisters fed and clothed. Steve worked two part-time under-the-table jobs, starting when he was in fifth grade, but in spite of all his hard work, there was never enough money. And when his mother died of cancer—undiagnosed until it was far too late to treat because she couldn’t afford to see a doctor—he swore he would do whatever it took to get rich. He blamed lack of money, specifically his own inability to earn enough to buy his mother medical insurance, for his mother’s death.

The trauma of his mother’s death caused Steve to form a belief: If I don’t have enough money, I’ll lose the people I love.

Logically, we understand it wasn’t Steve’s fault that his mother died. Teenager Steve wasn’t in a position to hold down a full-time job in order to get his mother medical benefits. It wasn’t Steve’s decision to save money by skipping doctor visits. But Steve is a smart, responsible, loving son who’s been forced to be the “man of the trailer” from a very young age, and to him, it feels like he should have been able to save his mother.

As long as Steve believes that poverty = losing loved ones, he won’t be able to stop being greedy. The second he quits earning money, that terrible fear of losing his sisters and the other people he loves is going to rear its ugly head.

In order to change, Steve is going to have re-examine that childhood trauma and reinterpret the misguided belief that he formed as a result of it.

If we were writing Steve’s story, we might decide that Steve needs to recognize that the local factory where his mother was exposed to carcinogenic is to blame for his mother’s death—and that instead of making millions, his real goal should be to expose the factory’s coverup of its employee’s higher-than-normal cancer rates.

Or we might decide that Steve needs to come to accept that his mother made so many sacrifices because she loved him, and to respect her choice to sacrifice herself for her children. Instead of making millions, maybe his goal should be to honor her sacrifice by doing something meaningful with his life. It depends on what kind of story we’d like to tell about Steve.

But whatever kind of story we put Steve in, he’s going to have to change the belief that stabilizes his flaw before he can fix the flaw itself.

Wounds

A wound is damage to the character’s psyche caused by a trauma that the character has experienced and that hasn’t yet healed. The character’s problems or limitations arise from her need to protect that wound.

For example, let’s say that Harriet slept with her high-school sweetheart Mike and got pregnant at the age of 16. She was so head-over-heels in love with him that she was sure he’d want to marry her as soon as she told him about the baby. But not only did Mike laugh in her face, he told everyone at school what a slut she was and claimed that she was lying about the baby being his. All of Harriet’s friends abandoned her, and she dropped out of school to become a single mother.

You can see how this trauma might cause Harriet to come to the conclusion that Mike is a scumbag. If he was a football player, Harriet might generalize and decide that all football players are scumbags. But Harriet was a tender-hearted teenager in the throes of her first love when Mike humiliated her—the belief she formed as a result of this horrible experience was: All men are scumbags who’ll destroy you as soon as you fall in love with them.

She’ll cling to that belief as long as she’s carrying around the hurt that Mike inflicted on her, because that belief protects her from being hurt in the same way again. If she doesn’t date, she can’t fall in love, and if she doesn’t fall in love, she can’t be destroyed by someone she cares about.

Flaws and Wounds Shape Your Story

A character’s flaw or wound gives rise to specific behaviors. Given the choice between spending the evening with his wife and daughter or researching a new investment opportunity, Steve is going to choose the opportunity, because he believes that he’s risking losing them both if he doesn’t make more money.

A character’s flaw or wound also gives rise to internal conflict. Given the choice between a legal investment with the potential to make a 10% return and a sketchy investment with the potential to make a 50% return, which do you think Steve will pick? Will he go with the safe investment, because he doesn’t want to risk his ability to support his wife and daughter? Or will he give into the temptation to invest in something questionable, because every dollar he brings in makes him feel like his wife and daughter are safer?

That would be a big dilemma for him, wouldn’t it?

When you understand the relationship between a character’s flaw or wound, the trauma that caused it, and the belief that resulted from it, you start to see how your character arc is going to work. Want to make Steve less greedy or get Harriet to go on a date? You’ve got to put them in situations where they’ll encounter evidence that their stabilizing belief is wrong.

Maybe Steve will make that sketchy investment and get caught—and when he does, he starts to see that money isn’t a guarantee that he’ll be able to protect his family. In the aftermath of his arrest, his wife might have a stress-induced heart attack or his daughter might be bullied by her classmates at the ultra-expensive prep school she goes to. The more Steve tries to buy his way out of trouble, the more problems he creates for himself and his family.

What if Harriet is accused of a crime she didn’t commit? Maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe she was framed. It looks like she’s going to jail, unless she cooperates with the homicide detective who believes she’s innocent. We’ll want to make this homicide detective the opposite of Mike, the kind of guy who has a chance of proving to Harriet that not all men are scumbags. No matter how hostile Harriet is to Mike, he’s determined to see justice done.

At the beginning of your story, the belief that is stabilizing the character’s flaw or wound is working for him/her. At first Steve’s greed seems like a positive thing—it’s helped him work his way out of total poverty and send his younger sisters to college. It’s helped him win his wife and to give his daughter every benefit that a parent could give a child. It’s pushed him to become one of the savviest stockbrokers in the history of the market.

Likewise, Harriet’s wound has helped her become the strong, independent woman she is today. She’s never relied on a man for anything, and she’s single-handedly raised her daughter, with whom she’s very close. She knows how to fix a leaky sink, how to make a delicious meal from beans and rice and veggies she grows in pots on her apartment balcony, and how to do her own taxes. She’s worked her way up from the mailroom to middle management—she had no choice but to learn quickly so that she could get a job that paid well enough to give her daughter the opportunities Harriet never had.

So when Steve and Harriet are put into situations that trigger their flaw or wound and challenge their stabilizing belief, they’re going to hate it. They’re going to fight tooth and nail to keep these dysfunctional beliefs that seem to be making their lives better.


Come back tomorrow to see how to turn a flaw or wound into a character arc!