11 days, 11 Ways to Plot a Novel is a series! If you’d like to begin at the beginning, start here:
Crafting a good character arc that is seamlessly woven into the structure and theme of your story is a fundamental skill that every author should perfect.
When done well, a character arc can highlight your character’s journey through the tests and trials that they must face to overcome their central problem. Character arcs pinpoint the inner conflict that your protagonist must confront at the climax and gives you the foundation you need to show your reader how they will overcome it. Romances, in particular are greatly improved by a strong charcater arc. The bad boy gets redeemed. The shy virgin claims his sexuality. The alphahole gets his ass handed to him and falls in love with an equally alpha woman. The tropes are favorites because the reader knows that they can expect a journey from who the character is in the beginning to who they become in the end. Readers open your book because they want to see that growth.
And for the kissing, of course.
Story structure & your character’s arc
The character arc of your protagonist should influence the plot. In a three-act plot structure, the midpoint marks a turning point in the external conflict, it should also be the culmination of your character’s first series of tests and the big truth that changes their goals. Without this shift, your character and your plot won’t move forward. This isn’t confined to the midpoint. Every plot point should correspond with a test or conflict in your protagonist’s character arc. If your heroine is tested by a difficult task at work and is reprimanded by her boss, her reaction should correspond with some shortcoming or long held belief she thinks defines her. This is true for your secondary characters as well.
There are three types of character arcs: positive, negative, and flat.
Positive and negative arcs are sometimes known as “change arcs” while flat arcs feature a character that doesn’t have any big internal shifts, but seeks to change the world around them.
Let’s start with positive arcs.
Positive arcs provide your protagonist with a story of success, overpowering the odds, and growing past their flaws. Your reader will root for this protagonist and want to see them succeed, and when they close the book, they’re left with warm and fuzzy feelings.
This one of the most common arcs and with good reason!
Positive Arcs in a Three Act Structure
Act 1: Your protagonist is introduced to the reader with a glimpse of their “normal day.” Your character begins the story in a state of discontent because they refuse to deal with or even acknowledge their central problem.
The external conflict forces your protagonist to acknowledge their central problem—either consciously or subconsciously. The inciting incident and the first plot point initiates the first initial shift that signals your character’s path to growth.
Act 2: This is where the bulk of your story (all of the kissing and sexy times) and your protagonist’s character arc occurs. A series of tests and trials, they reveal the big truth that contrasts their central problem. They can’t succeed and your story can’t move forward if your protagonist doesn’t accept it.
At the midpoint obstacle, your protagonist convinces themselves. that they’re capable of handling the central problem without acknowledging the big truth because it seems easier than confronting it. The third plot point pitches your protagonist into their dark night of the soul—the moment when the internal conflict and the external conflict conspire to break them all the way down to nothing. The antagonist seems to have won, and your protagonist is forced to choose—accept their big truth and win the day, or go back to their life of discontent, trapped by their central problem and doomed to fail at life.
Act 3: The Final Act of your story and the culmination of your protagonist’s character arc reaches its crescendo. To win the day and complete a positive character arc, it’s time to accept the big truth. The climactic moment is the final test that pushes them to overcome their central problem, shows that they have grown, and then triumph over the antagonist.
The resolution marks a new stage your protagonist’s character arc. The end should contrast the beginning of their journey and demonstrate how your protagonist’s arc has impacted their life and those around them.
Negative Character Arcs in a Three-Act Structure
The negative arc is meant to illustrate our protagonist’s unwillingness to grow.
Act 1: Your protagonist’s central problem is revealed. They struggle against it and they are presented with an opportunity to resolve it.
Act 2: This act begins the divergence of positive and negative arcs. In the positive arc, your protagonist would discover the big truth that contrasts with their central problem, in the negative character arc, your protagonist is unable or unwilling to do so. Each failure makes them retreat deeper and deeper into the the flaws and wounds that they are trying to escape.
The midpoint is the incident propels them toward the big truth, and seem to find a solution. They act on this “solution” but because they have ignored the truth. They meet a dark moment and that darkness is permanent.
Act 3: In the third and final act, your protagonist fails to triumph over the antagonist. Unable to accept the truth, they succumb to the flaws and wounds they had when they began the story. There is no chance for redemption and they embody the central problem as if it has become the only thing that defines them.
Use of positive and negative character arcs can tie important parts of your story together so that it feels cohesive. As a result, your protagonist will be an active participant in your story and feel relatable.
Flat Character Arcs in a Three-Act Structure:
Flat arcs don’t focus on character growth or change, but they serve a purpose nonetheless. The flat arc focuses on a character who has already discovered their big truth, overcome their central problem, and learned to accept it. The difference is, she must hold on to her inner truth, act on it, and share it into the world around her.
Act 1: The beginning of a flat arc introduces the community that your protagonist lives in. They often seem separate from their world. The people around them don’t understand and won’t accept the truth, which makes your protagonist’s actions foreign to them as well. Your protagonist may hide or deny the truth to shield themselves from judgment.
Act 2: This act progresses pretty much the same as a positive arc with your protagonist struggling through tests and trials. Instead of overcoming the central problem, they are putting their truth to the test and using it to resolve a variety of conflicts in order to reveal the central problem of the world around them.
The midpoint proves your protagonist’s truth by revealing key information. That doesn’t make believing this truth any easier. The third plot point is still a dark night of the soul for your protagonist. In this moment, it appears that all they worked toward is lost and they are forced to either give up or risk everything and continue. This is not an easy decision and choosing to continue means that they must make a great sacrifice.
Act 3: The flat character arc ends much the same way as the positive arc with your protagonist face to face with a final conflict based on the central truth plaguing their community or environment. Upholding this truth will move them past this problem and help them to overcome the external conflict.
The resolution focuses on the effects of your protagonist’s sacrifice and success, often offering a glimpse of how the community has healed because of your protagonist’s influence. This gives the reader an opportunity to appreciate the change.
Flat arcs are a powerful way to convey themes and alternate perspectives in the world that you have created.
Well, that’s the last 11 Days & 11 Ways entry.
It’s been a journey (pun intended) and I hope you all found some sort of benefit in it and have decided on a way to plot your book for #NaNoWriMo2018!
Did you enjoy this blog post? Researching and crafting these articles for you guys is fun, however it does take a bit of time and effort to do! If you found this useful, drop a dollar in my coffee cup!