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Character Study Part II: 4 Tips to Create An Intriguing Character Arc

December 11, 2020
3 min read time

In Character Study Part I, we talked about three kinds of character arcs: the change, the growth, and the fall. Seems simple enough; create a journey for your character to go on that ensures they follow one of those trajectories and you’ve got yourself a script! That’s why we’re storytellers to begin with, isn’t it? To explore what makes characters tick. But therein lies the excitement. A simple change, growth or fall does not an intriguing story — or character arc — make. As with life, it’s the curveballs that make it interesting.

So how does one go about creating such an intriguing character arc?

  1. Know your characters inside and out
    This is very much a chicken-or-the-egg process. You can derive the type of arc you need to write for your character from a deep dive into said character’s history, or you might already know the arc that best suits your story and can characterize them based on the steps you need to follow the arc.

    So what’s the best way to interview your character? Why, speak with the voices in your head, of course … Just kidding (but not really). In practical terms, make a list of as many personal questions that you can possibly think of to ask your character. For example, what is their greatest fear to greatest hope, who was their childhood idol, what’s their favorite food, and most importantly; what is their biggest flaw? That last one will inevitably be their driving force, so it’s in your best interest to find out what it is. Then, answer as if you were your character. Set a timer and free write, letting whatever your subconscious has stored out onto the page.

  2. Choose your own adventure (or character arc)
    Alternatively, if you want to use the type of character arc as a starting point, you’ll need to ask slightly different questions of your character. Writing a change arc? Think about your character’s current set of beliefs and what it would take to shake them. How does their reaction lead your character to transform? For a growth arc, pivot that to asking how your character can stay essentially the same while adopting a new perspective on their world? And for the fall arc, how far can you push your character before they break mentally, physically or both? For this character arc it’s also important to keep in mind whether you want your audience’s sympathy, as it will change whether the character is merely making bad choices for what they perceive to be the greater good, or whether they’ve gone full-on evil.

  3. Create story scenarios
    Once you’re done interviewing your character and decided on the character arc trajectory, create some scenarios where they have to make a decision. For each scenario, plot how your character will change or grow either positively or negatively as a result of that decision. Depending on the outcome, the result might also solidify whether you’re writing a change, growth or fall arc. The more you make a character suffer by backing them into a corner, the more extreme their response is likely to be; and as a result, the more exciting your story will get. String enough of those decision-making scenes together, and you’re well on your way to a story outline with an overarching character arc.

  4. Know where you’re going
    Before you put your characters through hell for no particular reason other than simply, “What if?” however, it’s good to know where you’re going with your story. A script is only as strong as it’s ending (and sagging middle). What kind of story do you want to tell? If it’s one of triumph, a positive change arc is probably the way to go. If it’s a villain’s origin story, you’re probably on the fall trajectory. You could also really throw the audience for a loop and combine more than one kind of arc, based on your character’s decisions when faced with obstacles … and we’ve circled back to how well you know your character determines how well your plot twists will work out.

    Spend some quality time with them; your script will benefit from the extra attention — even if no one ever sees those pages, the audience will feel it in how lifelike the characters are.

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What about secondary characters, franchise characters, and ensemble casts? Stay tuned for Character Study Part III.

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