Figure Out Your Character’s Arc
“How do I figure out my character’s arc?”
This is a question I receive commonly—and with good reason. Not only is your character’s arc central to all your other story choices—plot and theme foremost among them—character arc can also seem like one of the most daunting parts of story. Mostly this is because of its very integrality. In so many ways, your character’s arc is your story.
As we’ve discussed lately, character arc is particularly essential to your development of theme. If you don’t develop your theme and your protagonist’s character arc as two halves of the same whole, the story is likely to feel inorganic. Central to this relationship is your main thematic Truth, along with the character-specific Lieobstructing your character(s) from benefiting from a more realistic and holistic perspective.
Over the years, I’ve created quite a few resources for helping authors (me too!) understand how to organically evolve a character’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of a story’s central thematic Truth. My blog seriesand book Creating Character Arcs offer an act-by-act, plot-point-by-plot-point examination of the relationship between character arc and plot structure. If you’re new to the idea of consciously constructing your character’s arc, I definitely recommend starting there for a big-picture view of the subject.
Today, I want to share a new tool, one I’ve refined for my own use while writing the sequels to my portal fantasy Dreamlander. I’m calling this tool a “Truth Chart.” It’s a fast, one-page beat sheet designed to help you get your head around the big picture of theme and character, so you can see at a glance if everything is holding together and progressing realistically.
Thematic Truths (and, to a lesser extent, Lies) often seem unwieldy in their abstract vastness (for example, the thematic Truth underlying your storymay be something as titanic as Love). Because these universal subjects can be accurately expressed in so many ways, they’re often difficult to pin down. Over the course of your story, you may find yourself expressing the same core Truth in a dozen different ways. When trying to create a thematically cohesive story, the abstract nature of the subjects with which you’re dealing can often be bewildering. After all, we all want complex thematic premises, right?
Several years after writing my book Creating Character Arcs, I decided I needed a standalone post that addressed the Truth, so I wrote this one, using Marvel’s Black Panther as an example of how the thematic Truth can be developed act by act. While in the middle of outlining the (still-untitled) third book in my Dreamlander trilogy, I found myself referring to this post over and over again to help me ensure my plot and character arc were thematically sound at every beat. Somewhere along the road, this practice turned into a exercise all its own—the Truth Chart.
What Does a Truth Chart Look Like?
In a minute, we’ll define each of the specific parts of the Truth Chart, but first off, here’s what it looks like:
Story’s Big Truth (Main Theme):
Story’s Big Lie:
Character’s Specific Truth:
Character’s Specific Lie:
The Thing the Character Wants:
The Thing the Character Needs:
1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”:
1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth:
2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth):
3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie:
3rd Act—Climactic Truth:
Building Your Thematic Truth Chart—Line by Line
For the entire picture of what each of these elements are and how they should interact with your story, you’ll want to check out both Creating Character Arcs and the previously-mentioned post “How the Truth Your Character Believes Defines Your Theme.” For now, here’s a quick overview of each piece.
Story’s Big Truth (Main Theme): This will be your story’s thematic premise. It should be a universal principle (e.g., “hope gives people a reason to go on living”) rather than your character’s specific Truth (e.g., “hope will help you survive and escape an unjust prison sentence”). It’s also best if you can create an intentional statement, rather than just a single-word principle (e.g., “Hope”).
Story’s Big Lie: This is the Big Lie standing in opposition to the Big Truth. Like the Big Truth, it is a generalized version of the specific Lie the Character Believes. This is the Lie that will affect every part of your story, including supporting characters, the world around the protagonist, and the antagonistic force.
Character’s Specific Truth: This your character’s specific version of the Truth, as found in the circumstances of this specific story. Many stories offer a “Big Truth” about “Redemptive Love,” but the manifestation of your story’s specific Truth can be as vastly different as Jane Eyre is from Logan.
Character’s Specific Lie: I positioned the Big Truth (and Big Lie) at the top of the chart because that Truth is your story’s defining principle. However, your creative process will more likely discover your story’s thematic premise via a specific Lie the Character Believes. This Lie is at the root of the plot problems. The character believes something about himself or the world that is untrue—and his lack of understanding will create consistent obstacles (aka, conflict) between him and his ultimate plot goal.
The Thing the Character Wants: Although often representative of a larger, more abstract desire (e.g., “to be loved”), the Thing the Character Wants will manifest specifically in her plot goal. Often, the Thing the Character Wants is at least partially misguided, based on the character’s mistaken (Lie-based) reasons for wanting it or methods for gaining it.
The Thing the Character Needs: The Thing the Character Needs is ultimately an understanding of the Truth. Usually, the Need will also be represented by a more concrete and specific outer-world objective. Sometimes the character will run away from the Need in the beginning, but in many stories, he may consciously “want” the Need, which exacerbates the inner conflict between his Lie-based Want and the Truth-based Need.
Ghost: The Ghost (sometimes referred to as the Wound) is a motivating event in your character’s past, which represents the moment and the reason the Lie first took root in her life. Often the Ghost is a traumatic event (e.g., the death of one’s parents), but it can also be a “good” occurrence (e.g., receiving too much praise for a specific accomplishment) that led to a misunderstanding about life.
1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”: In the First Act, the story’s Big Lie will initially manifest in a specific message that is either urging the protagonist toward the Want and/or presenting a direct obstacle to the protagonist’s ability to move forward toward the Need and/or the Want. It is usually a mindset or belief presented by the Normal World around the protagonist (even in most Negative-Change Arcs). The character will likely take this manifestation of the Lie for granted without questioning it much, if at all.
1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth: Although the protagonist will spend most of the First Act in a comparative state of tranquility in which the Truth does not proactively contradict the Lie, the Truth will still be present via a “small” introductory version of the story’s larger thematic premise. This will often be the thinnest edge of the spear, the first tiny prick of Truth that begins to slowly wedge open a Change-Arc character’s awareness of the Lie (which, in a Negative-Change Arc, will prompt still greater resistance to the Truth).
2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth): After the setup of the First Act, the Second Act will represent the protagonist’s full-on immersion into the conflict—and, as an extension, her full-on immersion in her inner conflict between Lie and Truth. Throughout the First Half of the Second Act, events will conspire to grant her a growing (if often unconscious) awareness of the Truth.
This finally manifests in the external conflict at the Midpoint, when the character experiences a Moment of Truth. How the character reacts to this revelation will depend on what type of arc she is following. Regardless, the Truth she finds here will not be the complete Big Truth. Rather, it will be a “halfway” Truth of sorts. In order for this thematic revelation to flow properly with the external plot development, the Moment of Truth should be framed as an “antidote” to the specific Lie the character believed in the First Act.
Throughout the subsequent Second Half of the Second Act, the character will not fully reject the entire Lie (or embrace the entire Truth), but the Lie and Truth in which she believes are now modified versions of those with which she started out in the First Act.
3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie: The Third Act can be a tricky time for character arcs. The character needs to have completed most of his growth by this point, but the biggest revelations should remain in order for the Third Act to feel properly climactic. This is why it’s important to retain the “biggest” chunk of the Lie for the character to confront in the Third Act. By this point, the character will have embraced most of the Truth. But there’s a big mote still in his eye. There’s still a crucial bit of Lie that he (or the world around him) hasn’t seen past. This will be the Lie’s final “argument” within the story.
3rd Act—Climactic Truth: Combating the Third Act’s “big chunk of Lie” will be the climactic version of your story’s Truth. In essence, this will be the Big Truth of your thematic premise (see above). But it’s helpful to refine that Big Truth into the very specific Truth needed to resolve your story’s main conflict. You can see various ways in which your character will interact with this final Truth, depending on what type of arc she is demonstrating.
How to Find the Right Answers for a Character Arc
You almost certainly will not (should not) fill in the blanks on this Truth Chart right at the beginning your story-creation process. Discovering the proper Truth, Lie, theme, and character arc(s) for your story will be an organic process. You won’t know the right answers until you first (and simultaneously) have accumulated enough knowledge about your story’s plot and your characters’ journeys within that plot.
To work well, your story’s thematic Truths must emerge organically from every other mechanical piece within the overall structure. Once you’re far enough along to know the general shape of your story, you can start looking for its emergent Truths.
Consider what questions your story is asking. Some thematic questions I recognized in my WIP included:
- Why am I here?
- Who am I supposed to be?
- What is my destiny in this life?
- What is my responsibility in this life?
- What is Life’s narrative?
Just talk to yourself on the page. What themes do you see emerging? What themes do you want to explore in this story? Start trying to sum up the theme in a single Truth. You may find several. Keep going, keep refining. Always check yourself against the Truth that emerges in the Climax. How does that Truth tie in within the characters’ struggles and misconceptions earlier in the story?
Eventually, you should come up with the single best option for summing up your story’s Truth. Hang on to all the other Truths you may have written down, because some of them may turn out to the be the “smaller” Truths your character has to work through in the First and Second Acts, on his way to overcoming the Big Lie and accepting the Big Truth in the Climax.
Truth Chart Examples From My DreamlanderSeries
To help you see what the Truth Chart looks like in action, here are examples from my outline for Book 3 in the Dreamlandertrilogy. (For those of you interested in the series, I suppose this might be a little spoiler-y, but only on an abstract level. Plus, the book won’t be out for several years, so you’ll probably forget all about this in the meantime. :p )
I’m including two different versions of the Chart. The first is for the protagonist and therefore represents the story’s main theme. The second is for the most prominent supporting character. You’ll see how her chart riffs off the main Lie/Truth but explores some ancillary angles.
Story’s Big Truth (Main Theme): What you do matters (and you know what to do).
Story’s Big Lie: Destiny is a lie; your life has no narrative, no meaning.
Protagonist/Main Theme Truth Chart
Character’s Specific Truth: Responsibility to my truth is my greatest destiny.
Character’s Specific Lie: I am not destined to to save the worlds; my actions are all random and some are mistakes.
The Thing the Character Wants: To save the worlds—and live happily ever after with Allara.
The Thing the Character Needs: To live a meaningful life.
Ghost: The apocalyptic consequences of his mistakes.
1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”: There’s no guarantee my actions will turn out for the goo
1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth: I can’t give up; I have to act.
2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth): What I do matters because only I have the abilities, as Gifted, to do what must be done.
3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie: Either Destiny is a set narrative, or life is meaningless.
3rd Act—Climactic Truth: Destiny is inscrutable but still accessible if I am willing, no matter the cost, to listen to my inner truth.
Supporting Character/Subplot Truth Chart
Character’s Specific Truth: My destiny is bigger than my understanding of a narrative.
Character’s Specific Lie: The narrative is true, so it must be just me messing it up.
The Thing the Character Wants: To fulfill her narrated destiny.
The Thing the Character Needs: To surrender into the faith and freedom of a larger, more complex acceptance of reality and her place in it.
Ghost: Realizing the narrative she had believed in, regarding her destiny as a Searcher, was not what she always believed.
1st Act—Specific Manifestation of the “Big Lie”: My destiny is found in my identity: Queen of Lael and Searcher.
1st Act—The Story’s “Small” Introductory Truth: I must stop denying the truth about reality and my place in it.
2nd Act—An Aspect of the Truth Acting as an Antidote to the Specific Lie (Moment of Truth): If I want to fulfill my destiny, I must give up my stubborn grip on my own identity and my own limited narrative.
3rd Act—Remaining “Biggest” Chunk of the Lie: To fulfill my destiny, I must understand it.
3rd Act—Climactic Truth: The only thing I can do that matters is act in faith.
I hope you’ll find this Truth Chart as useful a tool as I already am. Go forth and write powerful themes!