Use Character Arc To Improve Your Story

15 Feb
Not all characters change for the better...Al Pacino in Scarface

Not all characters change for the better…
Al Pacino in Scarface

“A character arc is the status of the character as it unfolds throughout the story, the storyline, or series of episodes.”


“In real life we each regard ourselves as the main character.”

~ On Writing, Stephen King

As part of our workshop series, I wanted to take a look at the concept of Character Arc, and how it can enable us to write characters that:

                                    * Make the story better

                                    * Are plausible

The Character Arc, explored in Chris Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey, is a framework. Are there flaws? Yes, I believe so. Characters don’t always need to change to grow. Some grow in their resolve. They remain steadfast in their beliefs.

When I first committed to writing, the only book on craft I’d read was Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s an excellent book, and I referenced it a few times for today’s post. So, I dove into writing my first book. I had great fun, and only a vague vision of where my story would go. But I got stuck. When a girl from mudding and four-wheeler country says she’s stuck, she means mired in muck up to her elbows.

The second book on craft I read was Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Here’s what using the framework did for me:

It enabled me to learn to ask the right questions of my characters, and move the story forward. I began to understand how to connect-the-dots. Using the Hero’s Journey, as Vogler suggests, as a guide to creating a realistic Character Arc, helped me create a cohesive beginning (Act 1), middle (Act 2), and end (Act 3). 

I still write the first, even second draft from an organic mindset. One of my great pleasures in writing is the feeling of awe and adventure as I listen to the whisper of my subconscious. I live a safe life with my remarkable husband and children; writing is my great road trip.

It’s awesome to hit the road and words in the spirit of spontaneity and telling the story as honestly as we can, but if we get lost, there’s nothing wrong with referencing a map.

 I encourage you to further research character arcs, the three- act story, archetypes,  as well as  steadfast characters. I’m using my notes taken from The Writer’s Journey. I’ve broken down the Arc into three acts. The words in parentheses reference the Hero’s Journey.

Act One:

1. Limited awareness of problem (Ordinary World)

2. Increased awareness (Call to Adventure)

3. Reluctance to change (Refusal)

4. Overcoming reluctance (Meeting with the Mentor) 

Act Two:

5. Overcoming reluctance (Crossing the Threshold)

6. Experimenting with first change (Tests, Allies, and Enemies)

7. Preparing for big change (Approach to Inmost Cave)

8. Attempting big change (Ordeal)

9. Consequences of the attempt (Reward)

Act Three:

10. Rededication to change (The Road Back)

11. Final attempt at big change (Resurrection)

12. Final mastery of problem (Return with Elixer)

Here are some examples of questions using this framework can help us ask:

* How does the character become aware of conflict/ problems?

* How will the character initially react to the conflict?

* Can the character turn to anyone for advice and honesty?

* What motivates the character to a.) change or b.) remain true to their belief system?

I would love to hear your thoughts on character arc, the Hero’s Journey, or the three-act story structure. How have they affected your writing and storyline, or have you found another system that works for your manuscript?

Thank you for participating.


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9 responses to “Use Character Arc To Improve Your Story

  1. Vaughn Roycroft

    February 15, 2013 at 11:01 am

    “One of my great pleasures in writing is the feeling of awe and adventure as I listen to the whisper of my subconscious.”

    That line, in and of itself, is awesome. It’s one of the reasons, no matter how much story structure I study and adopt to my process, I will always be a pantser at heart. Great tips and prompts, Tonia.

  2. Tonia Marie Houston

    February 15, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Ah, yes, a mutual hybrid. I feel just the same way, but will continue to study and define the craft.
    Thanks, Vaughn. Three cheers for plantsers, ha. 🙂

  3. Jamie Raintree

    February 15, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Great post! I love to see the breakdown of the structure. It makes me feel that even when we’re slogging through the first couple of drafts, as long as we stick to it, we’re walking the right path–even if we have to go over it a few more times to clear away the brush. 😉

    • Tonia Marie Houston

      February 15, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      Organizing this post helped me understand structure even more, so I wholeheartedly agree. They’re great checkpoints. Thank you, Jamie. 🙂

  4. ddfalvo

    February 15, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    I’m an organic writer, too–and it sounds a lot nicer than pantser. After listening to the whisper of my subconscious (Loved that, Tonia!) I reverse engineer later to solve anything whatever’s needed. But it’s the not knowing exactly where I’m going to go that sparks all of the fun. 😀

    • Tonia Marie Houston

      February 15, 2013 at 7:41 pm

      Thank you, Denise. I think it will always be my favorite part of the ride. Although I’m getting the hang of this revision thing. There’s something to whittling down and putting a polish on the story.

      I do like the term “organic”. It classes up our daredevil process. 😉

  5. Lara Schiffbauer

    February 15, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    Wonderful explanation of the character arc. I am always trying to understand better subplots and character arcs, so this was wonderful.

    • Tonia Marie Houston

      February 15, 2013 at 7:42 pm

      Thank you, Lara. I am in that boat with you. As I mentioned to Jamie, researching and organizing my notes for this post helped me better understand story structure as well, and I have more ideas to apply as I edit.

      It’s always good to see you here. 🙂

  6. Connie Cockrell

    February 15, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    My first effort was after reading Engineering Your Story (I’ve forgotten the author’s name). He used a 4 act method but very similar to what you just portrayed. That got me through the 1st book. Then I used Holly Lisle’s plotting method, no acts, but the process has the author think about the end first, then the middle, and finally the beginning. This method allows for the inclusion of those hints about the character, foreshadowing of events to come and so on. I use this method now, it seems to work for me and allows me to bring in everything you address.

    Glad you found the method that works for you!


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