Solving the Character Arc

I love to deconstruct story (fiction and film) to figure out how to deliberately incorporate the important elements that make a story “work.” Here’s a straightforward method to create a powerful character arc. Despite popular opinion that the character arc is a mysterious alchemy of emotions, careful writing, and hope, it can be done by simply inserting a few key plot points at the right places in your story.

These points will sound formulaic. They are like cartoon lines of a picture that, if you use them with some subtlety, will blossom in your narrative. See what you think.

Here are the elements:

1. A Hidden Need. You solve one and only one emotional problem in your story. The hidden need belongs to your protagonist, and is usually something that damages relationships: how the protagonist deals with other people. For example, your protagonist may love money more than doing the right thing, or may be afraid to trust others.

2. Within the opening scenes of your story (ordinary world) you demonstrate in one or a few ways how this hidden need is hurting your protagonist and others.

3. Again at the beginning, you have someone tell the protagonist straight-up what is his problem. “You are so selfish you are never going to see that saving puppies is good for your soul!” The statement you make will probably be more subtle, but you get the idea. Having the hidden need explicitly articulated tunes in your readers to watch for the character change.

4. In the third quarter of the book (Act 2/2), after the midpoint but before the climactic set-up begins, you insert a “hidden need triplet” that solves the protagonist’s hidden need. This triplet consists of:

a. the protagonist clearly demonstrates his hidden need
b. the protagonist realizes he is doing something wrong
c. the protagonist shows that he’s now “got it right”

5. Finally, around the climactic scene the protagonist often uses his solved hidden need as part of his arsenal to win against your bad guy.
I’ve found this pattern in story after story. Try it! You’ll be surprised how well this works.