Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 2: The Lie Your Character Believes
By K.M. Weiland
People hate change. We may sit around and wish our lives were different, but when the rubber really starts streaking the tarmac, we usually find ourselves wishing we could just hang out here in our safe and familiar haunts.
Characters are no different. They resist change just as staunchly as any of us—which is a good thing. Out of resistance comes conflict; out of conflict comes plot. This is just the first of many ways in which plot and character arcs are inextricable from one another. As Stanley Williams so aptly explains it in his book The Moral Premise:
In other words, the plot is all about the character’s inner journey, whether the connection is immediately evident or not. Plot, in its simplest manifestation, is all about the protagonist’s thwarted goal. He wants something, and he can’t have it right away, so he keeps right on trying.
The Change Arc, at its simplest manifestation, is all about the protagonist’s changing priorities. He realizes the reason he’s not getting what he wants in the plot is because either a) he wants the wrong thing or b) his moral methods for achieving what he wants are all wrong. In Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley point out:
One of the most common mistakes made by authors of every level of experience is to create a problem for their Main Character that has nothing to do with the story at large. The reasoning behind this is not to separate the two, but usually occurs because an author works out a story and then realizes that he has not made it personal enough.
The Lie the Character Believes
The Change Arc is all about the Lie Your Character Believes. His life may be horrible, or his life may seem pretty great. But, festering under the surface, is the Lie.
In order for your character to evolve in a positive way, he has to start out with something lacking in his life, some reason that makes the change necessary. He is incomplete in some way, but not because he is lacking something external. A person in a prison camp can still be entirely whole and balanced on the inside, while someone floating in a Malibu mansion’s swimming pool may be one miserable son of a gun.
Nope, your character is incomplete on the inside. He is harboring some deeply held misconception about either himself, the world, or, probably, both. As we’ll see in next week’s post, this misconception is going to prove a direct obstacle to his ability to fulfill his plot goal. In some instances, it may start out seeming to be a strength, but as the story progresses, it will become your character’s Achilles heel.
Your character may not even realize he has a problem. In the First Act, his understanding of his deficiencies will be vague at best. He may not feel handicapped or even in denial about the Lie, until the Inciting Event and/or the First Plot Point (at the 25% mark) rock his world and begin peeling away his defenses. The First Act gives writers the time and space to introduce the Lie and demonstrate the character’s entrenchment in it via his Normal World(which we’ll also address more in a future post).
What Is the Lie?
Your character’s Lie could take any number of forms. For example, maybe he believes:
- Might makes right. (Thor)
- The only way to earn love is through servitude. (Jane Eyre)
- Kids aren’t worth taking care of. (Jurassic Park)
- The people you love will always lie to you. (Secondhand Lions)
- Your only worth is in being the favorite. (Toy Story)
- Money is to be treasured more than people. (Three Kings)
- The weak must always give in to the strong. (Green Street Hooligans)
- People will only pay attention to you if they think you’re crazy. (What About Bob?)
The Lie is a specific belief, which you should be able to state in one short sentence. It may include some qualifiers, as does Jane Eyre’s. Her basic Lie is that she isn’t worthy to be loved, but it’s qualified by her additional belief that she can earn love if she is willing to enslave herself to others, physically and emotionally.
Symptoms of the Lie
How do you find the Lie? The first thing you’re going to want to do is examine your plot to see if the Lie might be evident in the conflict. (We’ll get into that more next week when we discuss the conflict between the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs.) The second thing you’re going to want to do is look at the character’s actions—and especially his reactions. See if you can spot any of the following:
- Extreme hurt
- Inability to forgive
- Horrible secrets
- Shame over something done or suffered
None of these are the Lie, but they’re often products of the Lie. Your protagonist may be aware of the symptoms of the Lie in his life, even if he isn’t yet able to recognize the Lie itself. More than that, he may be totally willing to shed the negative symptom, but he can’t because he can’t get past his fundamental belief in the Lie. For example, in my historical novel Behold the Dawn, the protagonist Marcus Annan’s Lie is that some sins are too great to be forgiven. His symptoms are guilt, shame, secrets, and a destructive lifestyle. He wants to be forgiven and to find happiness and fulfillment, but he just can’t get past the Lie.
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi do a great job of of offering possible Lie symptoms (as well as some great character arc discussions) in their book The Negative Trait Thesaurus. If you find you’re having trouble coming up with some good symptoms (or even a good Lie, for that matter), take a riffle through their book for some inspiration.
Examples of the Lie the Character Believes
For this series, we’re going to take a look at one popular book and one popular movie (of varied genres), two apiece for each of the three different types of arc. For the Change Arc, we’ll be exploring the following:
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Ebenezer Scrooge’s infamous holiday transformation is rooted in his mistaken belief that a man’s worth can only be measured by the amount of money he has earned.
Cars directed by John Lasseter: My favorite of all the Pixar movies is powered by selfish racecar Lightning McQueen’s ingrained belief in the Lie that life is a one-man show.
Questions to Ask About the Lie the Character Believes
1. What misconception does your protagonist have about himself or the world?
2. What is he lacking mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, as a result?
3. How is the interior Lie reflected in the character’s exterior world?
4. Is the Lie making his life miserable when the story opens? If so, how?
5. If not, will the Inciting Event and/or the First Plot Point begin to make him uncomfortable as a result of his Lie?
6. Does your character’s Lie require any qualifiers to narrow its focus?
7. What are the symptoms of your character’s Lie?
The Lie Your Character Believes is the foundation for his character arc. This is what’s wrong in his world. Once you know what’s wrong, you then get to set about figuring out how to make it right.