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Compelling Character Arcs in 4 Easy Steps

Compelling Character Arcs in 4 Easy StepsI’ll let you in on a secret: readers want your character to change.

They know, deep down, that your character is unhappy with the status quo at the beginning of your book.

Something is terribly wrong in your character’s life, and things can’t keep going on this way.

Something’s got to give.

Readers fervently hope that your character will rise to the challenge and become a better, happier person.

In other words, what your readers want is a character arc. But how do you create one?

Believe it or not, there is an easy way. Here’s how to create an arc in any story.

1. What’s wrong with this character?

First, you need some raw materials to work with. The best way to create them is by brainstorming.

Open up a blank page or document and jot down at least ten problems in your main character’s life. Not the main plot problem of the novel, but some kind of trouble that your character would have to deal with even if the main plot wasn’t happening.

These could be personality flaws, toxic relationships, a bad living situation, a lousy job, anything that needs to be fixed in order for this character to be happy.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What is lacking from this character’s life at the start of the story?
  • Why are they in this situation?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What self-defeating belief are they carrying around that’s holding them back?

Jot down anything that comes to mind. These could be problems that are already there in the story, or they could be ideas for new problems. You don’t have to use all of them. Just pick the single most dramatic or compelling problem, and start there.

Here’s an example. In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, the main character desperately wants to be a crystal sorceress, but she doesn’t believe in herself. So she settles for opening a crystal shop instead.

“I have just a smidge of talent. That’s it,” Dru said. “I never developed any real powers, no matter how hard I tried. And I tried super hard.”

“I know. I was there.” Rane made a face, apparently reliving some awkward memory.

Dru sighed. “All I’ve ever been able to do is a few crystal tricks. That’s it. Maybe brew up some potions that never ever seem to work right. So I decided to open up a crystal shop. I figured if I can’t fight the bad guys on my own, then the least I can do is help the real sorcerers any way I can.”

2. Make it a scene.

Now, write a scene near the beginning of the story where the character has to make an important choice—and they choose wrong.

Most importantly, make sure that they do the wrong thing because of their flaw.

What are the consequences of that? How does it make this character’s life worse? Show the complications that come out of that choice.

Be careful with this scene. You don’t want to lose the reader’s sympathy. Use all of your writerly skills to make it completely believable and understandable why the character chooses a path that is about to make them horrendously unhappy.

Here’s what happens in the first Dru Jasper book, It Happened One Doomsday:

She was a little nervous, leaving a safe cubicle job and opening her own business, trying to run it all by herself. But the work was exhilarating.

Curing magic-hangover headaches and nausea. Finding the right ingredients for a good luck charm. Helping the occasional B-list sorceress track down a long-lost book, decode an ancient inscription or identify an errant creature that had strayed too far into civilization.

Working with a real sorceress was like being invited backstage by a rock star. Every time, Dru had to resist the urge to squeal.

3. Now, make the right choice.

Let’s fast-forward to the far end of the character arc and see how it all works out.

Imagine that your character has grown past the flaw that used to hold her back. (Because by the time we’re done, that’s exactly what’s going to happen in your book.) Picture this character as a whole, happy, competent person.

Now, write another scene near the end of your story where the character digs down deep inside and finds the strength to make the right choice.

This scene can parallel the earlier scene, or it can be something totally different. The intent is to show that your character has learned something important. They are stronger now. They are better than they used to be.

And voila. Your character has just transformed.

Bonus tip: After the character has made that pivotal choice, have someone else point out this character’s newfound inner strength.

Here’s an example from It Happened One Doomsday, after Dru has finally found the strength to believe in herself and use her magical powers to defeat a malevolent creature of darkness:

Dru shook herself. She still couldn’t believe what had just happened. The concept of actually being a sorceress was just too big an idea to handle.

Rane punched her in the shoulder. “Welcome backstage, rock star.”

“Ow.” Dru rubbed her upper arm. “Thanks. I think.”

4. Build that arc throughout your novel.

Basically, what you’re doing here is showing the “before” and “after” versions of your character. It’s kind of like one of those late-night infomercials, except that instead of showcasing some dubious exercise gadget, you’re revealing your character’s transformation.

Neat, right? But don’t stop there.

Go back through your book and look for places where you can show your character struggling with the same issue. Put in a couple more scenes in the middle where your character is trying to change, and gets closer every time—but doesn’t quite make it.

When someone reads your book straight through from beginning to end, they will see a character who starts out flawed and living a troubled life, who strives to do the right thing and eventually—after much struggle and heartache—becomes a better person and finally triumphs.

Now, that’s a character you can really root for!

How miserable can you make your character?

The more troubles you give your character, the more challenges you force them to overcome, the more dramatic their character arc will be. So don’t hold back. Make your character miserable. And then when they finally succeed, your readers will stand up and cheer.

What’s the biggest problem you can think of to give your main character?

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