SMC: Character Arcs

This fun panel was brought to us by Jordan McCollum who also made access to her Prezi (like Powerpoint but cooler) via her website. So if my notes don’t make any sense, you can always check out hers. Plus she’s got links and sources. Nothing but the best for all of you peeps.


Your character needs to have made some change by the end of your story. This can be many different types of change. Examples:

  • Mystery to truth
  • Fear to courage
  • Ambition to destruction
  • Doubt to decision

The internal journey is a major part of the elixirβ€”the process of fixing what’s wrong in his/her life. Sometimes this can be more compelling than the external prize he/she can gain.

What if you don’t know your characters well enough yet? Are you trying to find a good internal conflict, or you still can’t figure out how the external events of the plot are going to affect them internally?

Focus on what motivates your character. Is it her:

  • Profession
  • Hobbies
  • Journey & changes in the story

What compels her to go on this journey with you? What are her values? What does she prize above all else?


Let’s pretend our MC is going on the show “Perserverer” (think Survivor, but since that’s copyrighted, we’re using this title instead). Why would our MC be going on the show? Money is the obvious reason, but it’s got to be more than that to be a compelling story.

The external events of the story directly influence the character’s emotional journey. A well-executed internal character journey is intertwined with the external plot. The events of the plot show the characters’ starting and ending points. But the external plot’s events also force the change and show the stages of the journey throughout.

When your writing the conflict, you’ve got to take it way back. The starting point 1) must be shown and 2) it must be bad. You must have it on screen. You can’t have people tell the reader about it nor can you just tell the reader about it.

Michael Hauge says there are plenty of ways to create the starting point. It can be:

  • Longing
  • Wound (something that’s really affected them)
  • Belief (start wrong, lead them to assume a mask)
  • Mask (not who they truly are)
  • Essence

An example of this for character arcs can be Shrek. He believes that because he is an ogre everyone will run away from and fear him and so he wears that mask making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But when you’re writing these arcs, don’t forget character sympathy! If they just let life keep kicking them, it’s hard to sympathize with them. Make sure they have struggles AND strengths.

The emotional starting point must be BAD, so bad that the character must fix it. They’ve probably already learned how to cope with it, but when the story begins you must weave something in so that when they face it this time they have to do something more to overcome it. And the more ingrained this is the harder it is to change.

Go back to Shrek. He’s so convinced about his mask of being “the ogre” he’ll even travel to Lord Farquaad’s kingdom to have him order people away when secretly what he wants is acceptance. He’ll do everything he can to keep people away, to hide his vulnerability.

“Save the Cat” is a great book on story telling. Some pieces of advice from this book is to make sure you take a step back. We must show the audience everything, and sometimes you have to make it worse for your character.

Character-driven fiction is about internal change. -Alicia Rasley


Sometimes in between the starting point (or inciting incident) and the climax, our stories drag in the middle. Our character may retreat into the familiar and failure.

  • link the external events and internal arc in stimulus/response units (I think you could also call it action/reaction).
  • character should try to maintain their world view most of the storyβ€”doesn’t want to change.
  • character is presented with real choices, stacked choices
  • they may make a wrong choice, and slowly they’ll learn their old world view isn’t working.
  • choices hurt him until he has no other choice or realizes he needs to make better choices.


Make every response somehow different, and then assemble them in order of emotional risk. -Alicia Rasley


In the ultimate moment of character change, show that the character has learned his lesson and can defeat the bad guy.

Set up the bad guy (internal, external, weather, whatever) the right way. Align the bad guy with the mask. Going back to Shrek: I’m a big scary ogre, the bad guy believes the same.

Show how the MC is (or has been) like the bad guy. Make the MC choose and affirm the choice.


We want the internal and external climax to come as close together as possible. Readers will only believe the internal change if they see it on an external level. -Alicia Rasley

So how do you have a fulfilling ending, even if your character doesn’t achieve his/her external goal? (Hint: it’s the title of this notes post…)


Each charcter in the main relationship needs their own arc, needs their own wound, and/or their own mask. The love interest must be able to see past the mask eventually to the character’s true essence. The MC will have problems with their love interest when they retreat behind their mask. The MC’s wound should somehow match the strength, personality, etc. something about the love interest/buddy. This trait helps heal the character’s wound. (Think Donkey and Shrek. Donkey is good at talking and relating to people. He helps Shrek gather the courage to share his true feelings with Fiona, something he wouldn’t have done before.)


Yes. They are often seen in series. They already have larger than life qualities and often go on larger-than-life adventures. (James Bond, Indiana Jones) This isn’t as common as it used to be with readers. Most these days like being with a character that arcs. You know, like Harry Potter.

Or this guy:


Character arcs in fiction show the power of transformative experiences. Watching that tranformation, rooting for it, and growing the character are the major reasons we read fiction.

What do you think? Do you plan character arcs into your stories? What tips do you have for those trying to figure out their character arcs? Do you miss David Tennant? Anything else you would add?


29 thoughts on “SMC: Character Arcs

  1. I miss David Tennant, and I’ve never even watched the show. He’s adorable. πŸ™‚

    This sounds like a brilliant talk, and I’m going to have to check out the not-powerpoint show. I’m also sighing with relief, because this mirrors what I already do, but I’ve never understood it this clearly. *Whew* I’d never thought about characters in romantic relationships complimenting each other’s strengths/weaknesses like that )mostly because I think “you complete me” is the worst basis for a relationship ever), but it’s so true regarding weaknesses. I want my characters to be complete people on their own (and I’ll rip them apart for a while if they’re not, until they get their acts together), but they still have weaknesses that can be helped by other people.

    Also… Harry Potter. OH THE ARCS THAT THERE ARE!

    • I’m surprised she didn’t just get up and say, go home and read Harry Potter. The end. Class dismissed. πŸ˜‰

      Trust me, if you do watch the show (and you should) you’ll die a little inside every time we switch from David to Matt Smith. Not that Matt sucks or anything. It’s just not quite the same, though Matt has his moments too.

        • There’s got to be some local Whovians nearby. Only other options are Netflix and Amazon. If you can plow through all 6 available seasons in a month, Amazon prime is free to try for a month. πŸ˜‰

      • πŸ˜€

        I miss David Tennant and his energy. That gif made me flail. Is it from The Shakespeare Code episode?

        • Yes’m, that’s the episode. I just know the 50th anniversary special will be super bittersweet. But at least we’ll see 10 again.

  2. I’m very focused on character development, so I use character arcs a lot. Even though I’m writing a series, it really helps flush out a character when they have a long-term goal. My main character wants to be a great hero, so it’s easy to throw various obstacles that cause him to doubt himself. Utter failures can help him with his story arc too. It really does help for a long-term project if your characters fall back in their goals every now and again. It makes them more interesting and human because a reader would want to see how they recover, which is another internal arc.

    A trick that I do is I write the character’s arcs during my planning period and list various ways he/she can succeed or fail. Trying to become a hero? He can save/fail to save a friend, get betrayed, accidentally betray someone, lose to his rival, kill an innocent by accident, etc. There really is no limit to the obstacles you can throw at your characters.

    Yes. I do miss David Tennant, but I swear I’ll make the ropes tighter next time I get my hands on him. πŸ˜›

    • Uh, creepy… But at the same time, did you get a tardis key off of him? πŸ˜‰ That’s a great idea to do character arcs while planning. Do you ever feel like you have to get to know your characters a bit first though? When I’m not busy editing the novel I’m querying out, I have a side project I’m working on that’s newish. I had to discovery write a part of it and now I feel like I know the characters a bit better so I can outline it now. But I’ll definitely have to put in character arcs in the beginning. Great idea!

      • Sadly, all I got was a Harry Potter-style wand. 😦 In my defense, he was supposed to be a gift to the wife. πŸ˜€

        I write character profiles during the planning stage and use test scenes when I’m not sure. I also played several of the characters in role-playing games, so that gave me a really good insight.

  3. Adding to the missing of David Tennant… sigh. At least there’s Netflix and the 50th anniversary special coming up… in over 100 days.

    As I read this, I realized that one of my main characters has a character arc midway through the story – and her emotive context in the rest of the tale is her proving she’s not a crazy fanatic, making up for being a crazy fanatic and being the support for her cohort as he experiences his own character arc. I can’t decide if it messes with the climax aspect, or if it is simply a smaller climax on the way to the bigger one. Thank you for getting my brain working this am!

    • You’re welcome. It’s interesting how even if you kind of know all this stuff, hearing it again from different people gets your brain going on ideas for the novel.

      And I’m excited for the 50th anniversary special, but I do think it’s just going to kill me all over again. So cruel… But I’m still willing to go through it just to see #10 again. πŸ˜₯

  4. “Make every response somehow different, and then assemble them in order of emotional risk. -Alicia Rasley”

    I like this quote. I think it can help.
    When I finished my previous draft of my Great Novel/WIP, my sister pointed out the MC never really changed – the character never dealt with the issues. Also, the things that happened were not organic to what the character would choose to do. This has been part of what I’ve changed in the current, tighter draft.

    And, while I like David Tennant, and I look forward to the 50th anniversary special, I don’t miss him as the Doctor. Every Doctor has his time, and Matt Smith is a lot of fun.

    • Sacrilege! πŸ˜‰ I always missed David Tennant, but I was okay with Matt Smith until season 7. Not sure what happened to him, but blah. But I guess that’s why it’s good to shake it up. One Doctor appeals more to another and we can understand the universe better with a different perspective.

      Ooh, glad the quote could help. πŸ˜€

  5. Jordan has a great last name.

    …Back to your article, very nice! I have to say, I had a really hard time grasping plot until I viewed it through character arc. The idea has really helped me figure out what to put in that ‘sagging middle’.

  6. “Do you miss David Tennant?” I don’t watch much TV, so I can’t relate, but the question made me laugh. I know many people who miss David Tennant.

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