13. The Hero’s Journey in 5 minutes
Are you confused about how to write a character arc? Of course you are! They can be more confusing than Sylvester Stallone’s face!
We’re here to give you a breakdown of what character arcs to consider when writing your story in order to give it maximum impact when you unleash it on the unsuspecting public.
The three types of character arcs
There are three main types of character arc:
The most common character arc is the positive change arc. Most stories play off it, as it’s the easiest to understand. The positive change arc appeals to mass audiences because everyone loves to go to the cinema and feel good. We adore putting themselves in a fictional character’s shoes and going on a journey with him or her, overcoming odds and changing for the better spiritually.
Think of Eleanor Shellstrop in The Good Place. After leading a morally questionable life, she has to learn to be a good person to make it in the afterlife.
Another popular character arc is the flat arc protagonist, who possesses a pretty static personality. A flat arc protagonist changes the world and people around them through their actions, however. In a sense, the world is the protagonist of a flat arc storyline, and the main character just nudges it along.
Think Diana Prince in Wonder Woman. She starts her story with the firm belief that only love will truly save the world. Throughout her adventure, she changes the views and life of Steve Trevor.
Another example of a flat arc protagonist is Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Newt’s morals and principles are extremely stable from the outset; it is the world around him that’s broken. The wizarding community believes all magical creatures are dangerous and need to be killed or imprisoned, and Newt manages to prove to them the beasts are usually just misunderstood, and in fact outright helpful.
Easily the most difficult type of character arc to pull off is the dreaded negative change arc. It’s hard to write a protagonist who starts off good then twists and warps into a really bad person – all the while making the audience root for them regardless.
Think of Walter White in Breaking Bad as he devolves into a hardened criminal kingpin. Walter begins as a gentle science teacher, but eventually becomes a twisted underworld drug lord with no moral compass other than some vague idea about securing his kids’ future after he’s gone.
The writing is so devilishly clever that this thin rationalization is enough for us to want him to win, even through his destruction of everyone’s lives around him. (Our hearts are with you, Jesse!)
Your character arc defines your story
Watch The Good Place, Wonder Woman, and Breaking Bad to see how these three extremely different characters develop through the acts. With the character arc most relevant to your story idea, use one as a rough framework for molding your structure.
Having knowledge of character arcs is imperative for assembling the building blocks of your story. You need to know exactly where your characters are headed so you can construct your story accordingly.
This information is vital for your development as a writer; whenever you see any film or TV series, you’ll be able to analyze how the story utilizes its character arc to enrapture the audience.
You’re about to witness first-hand how a character’s want and need are the secret to storytelling. Without these two seemingly simple ideas, you have no story – So don’t go skipping this homework!
You want to write. You need discipline.
Come up with a need for your protagonist. Now come up with something they want badly.
You have come up with the back bone to your story. This is what will be driving your character from start to finish.
Watch your favorite film. (This task is easier when it’s a film you know well). Identify the protagonist’s want and need and see how they relate to each other.
Do this with everything you watch. It’s good practice to train yourself to think in this way about stories.
Going in circles – not a bad thing?
Once you’ve completed Task 1, apply Dan Harmon’s story structure theory to it:
“Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.
Draw a circle and divide it in half vertically. Divide the circle again horizontally.
Starting from the 12 o’clock position and going clockwise, number the 4 points where the lines cross the circle: 1, 3, 5 and 7. Number the quarter-sections themselves 2, 4, 6 and 8.”
- A character is in a zone of comfort
- But she wants something
- She enters an unfamiliar situation
- Adapts to it
- Gets what she wanted
- Pays a heavy price for it
- Then returns to her familiar situation
- Having changed
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