Character Arcs…and Donuts?
WINGS OF FURY was chosen for this month’s Scribbler Book Box, a monthly subscrition book service for professional writers. They asked me to speak on character arcs: “We’d love if Emily could teach our writers about Character Arcs. This could include tips on how to
choose which type of arc a main character will endure (positive change, negative change, or static), how to outline characters while mapping out the larger narrative, or general tips on how to craft compelling character. We thoroughly enjoyed Althea’s arc and transformation, despite the various setbacks she experienced. We also loved Theo’s character; it was interesting how Theo blurs the line between protagonist and antagonist throughout the narrative.”
Here’s the letter that I wrote to go with the February book box.
Dear Writing Comrades,
I appreciate this rare opportunity to speak to my peers about one of my greatest passions: the art of storytelling.
I first fell in love with writing in ninth grade Honors English when my teacher assigned our class a two-page descriptive essay on a setting of our choice. I selected a donut shop, where I had formed some of my fondest childhood memories. That afternoon, I started on the essay at home. I worked for hours, considering every possible word that could describe my imaginary array of yummy, deep-fried treats. Writing the essay was so fun that I lost track of time and spent the evening working on it as well. Those two pages were easily the best thing I had written, and it was the only homework assignment I had ever received that I had savored. I proudly turned in my essay, and the day after that, I was anxious to get to class and see “100%” scrolled on the top of my paper in crisp navy ink. Well, there was ink on my paper, but it wasn’t blue. My teacher returned my essay covered in red. Initially, I was dismayed that I had worked so hard on something that was garbage. All I could do was revise the essay and turn it in again. My teacher handed it back before the end of class with less red ink, but my fictional donut shop was still sprinkled in critique. Part of me wanted to give up—it’s not like I had enough talent to become a writer anyway—but I loved the process of writing that essay so much that I steeled myself and resolved to do better.
Steadily, over the course of the school year, I did just that. My essays came back with less and less red ink, but the notes were not about word choice or sentence structure. My teacher began asking broader questions: What does your character want? What are the stakes? Is this the best ending? Could your first sentence be stronger? All of those questions made for much more difficult and lengthy revisions than dozens of little red squiggles. By April, I was distraught. Would I ever write anything as good as how it had felt to write it? Finally, my last essay was returned to me. No red ink. Not a single note. I was certain my teacher hadn’t read it, so I waited until class was over and approached his desk. He said he had, in fact, graded it. I had finally earned that 100%. Elation washed over me, but as I floated out of the classroom, my walk became a trudge. I didn’t know what to do now. My teacher’s notes had compelled me to improve, and I had embraced the opportunity to do better.
That was the moment when I discovered that I might be a writer. That was also the moment when I decided I would never quit striving to learn about storytelling.
To this day, one of the biggest draws about writing is that I’m always growing in my craft. I have eight books published (and a ninth on the way) and to some extent, I have to relearn how to tell a story every time I start a new book. The growth is endless, and the expectation I have of myself to stave off stagnation and achieve my personal best is knowledge I project on my characters.
Writing a compelling character arc, no matter the type, is an ongoing process. I tend to choose main characters that go through a growth arc, but I have written other characters, usually minor ones, who have flat arcs or experience a negative change. When a protagonist overcomes external obstacles and internal flaws in order to become a better person, this is a positive arc. First, I begin by giving the protagonist a goal—something they really desire—and then I hinder them from achieving that goal with some sort of lie. The lie could be about the protagonist, something they believe about themselves, or a misconception about their world. Well-known examples of a growth arc are Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, and Bilbo Baggins. Take Bilbo for instance. His goal is to help the dwarves reclaim the treasure Smaug stole. He believes the lie that Hobbits belong only in the Shire, and the outside world is for braver men who know how to
sword fight and take on goblins. A growth arc shows the protagonist rejecting the lie and discovering the truth by developing skills and strengths that transform them. By doing so, they undergo a change for the better. The more drastic the change the more satisfying the ending. Bilbo discovers that heroism is as much about following your own moral compass in the face of adversity as it is about facing down danger.
Positive Character Arc Map Example: They believe the lie that they are unworthy of a journey –> They are overcome by obstacles on this journey because they cling to the lie –> They finally confront the truth about their inner strength –> They believe the truth and they win.
A character with a negative arc, or a fall arc, will also have a goal, but instead of their goal being hindered by the lie, that lie drives them. The character will either knowingly or unknowingly embrace the lie, which leads to the truth that the lie is self-destructive. An example of a negative arc is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He wants to experience high society without being controlled by it. His lie is that the rich and beautiful are happier than anyone else, but what he discovers is that all that glitters isn’t necessarily gold. Dorian Gray and Hamlet are also examples of a negative arcs.
Negative Character Arc Map Example: They believe a lie about the world –> They leave their normal life and enter a world that reinforces the lie –> They are confronted with the truth that the world is not what they thought –> They are disillusioned by the truth and they lose.
A quick note on flat character arcs. There will be minor characters that don’t go through change, leaving progression for the protagonist and other main characters. But don’t confuse a flat arc with a lack of development. Sometimes when a character appears static, they are
underdeveloped, and their journey needs to be more compelling. Perhaps the lie they believe establishes weak stakes, or the truth that undoes that lie isn’t enough to transform them. The difference between a stagnant character and one who grows is how much they’re willing to push themselves to discover the truth. They allow their ideals to be opposed, and this opposition reshapes them. As readers, we wish to see a character embrace the unknown and be rewarded for their bravery. We want to see them do hard things, and we cheer them on. Satisfaction comes when they succeed.
In the growth arc, the character undergoes an internal change, which is directly proportional to how much they sacrifice. They take a risk, sacrificing the comfort of their ideals, and push themselves to discover more. Isn’t that what we writers do? Book after book, we start over with a blank page, sacrifice our ego, and rediscover how to tell a story. We are always growing, and the moment we rest on our laurels, that development ceases. With each new book I expand into the writer of my potential. I’m giddy when my editors send back my manuscripts covered in red. Looking back, as a ninth grader, I had told myself a lie. I believed I was not talented enough to become a full-time writer. In my mind, writers were lawyers and doctors and teachers who wrote in their spare time. I couldn’t conceive that all my hard work might lead to a career choice. It wasn’t until I was twenty-five that the truth came to me. I had written stories off and on for years between school, and marriage, and motherhood. That wasn’t enough. I was not satiated by those stolen moments, and so I realized the truth: writing wasn’t peripheral, but my passion. So I reevaluated my writing dreams with honest conviction, and I made a goal to become published, no matter how long it took. I made writing a priority and worked until I succeeded. My journey wasn’t linear, but I kept at it. I might not have always felt like a real writer, or that my imperfect manuscripts were worth my time, but you know what’s great about a lie? You can always discover the truth if you go looking for it.
I’m wishing you all the best in this very strange time. It may feel as though we’re living in The Upside Down some days, but could that be a lie? While we’re sheltering in our homes, could this be an opportunity to seek out our truth and write about it? I’m sending you clarity of thought, joy in inspiration, and a courage of conviction as you travel down your path and continue your growth as a storyteller. Maybe someday, when we can gather safely again, we will meet in a donut shop. The apple fritters are on me.
Emily R. King