Monday, August 19, 2013

10 Ways Plot Structure Influences Character Arc

by K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland)

I’m sometimes asked which is more important: plot or character. This is a misleading question, at its foundation. Not only are plot and character equally important, they’re also interdependent upon one another. The term “structure” has become almost synonymous with “plot.” But the truth is this: structure is as much about planning your main character’s arc as it is crafting a solid beginning, middle, and end. In my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, I talk about the structure of plot, but today, let’s take a peek at the structure of character.

1. Your Character’s Arc in the Hook: The beginning of your story is where you must not only hook readers with an interesting premise and plot development—but also with the protagonist’s fundamental dramatic problem. You will be introducing your character’s personality and “normal world” via a characteristic moment. This normal world and your character’s mindset within it will be defined by the Lie He Believes.
     This Lie will be holding him back from the Thing He Needs (e.g., he may need love and acceptance, but believe he is unworthy of it). This conflict will define the entire course of your character’s arc. You will also be introducing your character’s overall story goal via the Thing He Wants Most—which will either be inhibiting him from gaining the Thing He Needs or will be impossible to gain until he rejects the Lie.

2. Your Character’s Arc in the First Act: The First Act (which encompasses roughly the first quarter of your story) will be all about reinforcing your character’s belief in the Lie. You will also want to indicate that the character has the potential for enough personal growth to eventually overcome that Lie.

3. Your Character’s Arc in the First Major Plot Point: As the First Act comes to an end and your narrative approaches the First Major Plot Point, your character will still be deeply entrenched in the Lie. But he will be in the beginning stages of rebelling against its foundation. His belief in how he serves the Lie will begin to evolve (e.g., he will still believe he is unworthy of love, but he may determine to do something to at least be worthy of respect). Then the First Major Plot Point will hit, changing your character’s normal world forever and giving him just a glimpse of what life might be like without the Lie.

4. Your Character’s Arc in the First Half of the Second Act: This section (which generally spans from the quarter mark to the halfway mark) is all about your character’s reactions to the First Major Plot Point. During this time, you will lay the first stone in the protagonist’s ability to defeat the Lie (often, this will come in the form of another character’s “mentoring”). The character will be getting closer to the Thing He Wants (although he may not realize it), even as he gets farther away from the Thing He Needs.

5. Your Character’s Arc in the Midpoint: The Midpoint will present another dramatic incident, this time forcing your character to abandon his reactions and begin a series of strong actions in an attempt to gain the Thing He Wants Most. The Midpoint will prompt the character to move away from the effects of the Lie, if not yet the Lie itself.

6. Your Character’s Arc in the Second Half of the Second Act: Thanks to the lessons learned in the First Half of the Second Act, the character will now be able to act in ways he wouldn’t have been able to in the First Half. For the first time, he will begin to move away from the effects of the Lie and toward the Thing He Needs, even though that may ultimately mean moving away from the Thing He Wants Most.
     Toward the end of the Second Act, the character will be close to getting the Thing He Wants Most. But he will be conflicted, since claiming the Thing He Wants Most will mean putting himself entirely under the power of the Lie once again. His inner conflict will ramp up as he convinces himself his inner need is not an obstacle to his outer want.

7. Your Character’s Arc in the Third Major Plot Point: The Third Plot Point will once again be an event that changes everything for your character. This time, that event will be a point of crisis within your character’s arc. The Thing He Wants will now be within his reach, but to gain it, he will have to totally sacrifice the Thing He Needs. That’s where the Third Plot Point comes into play: something must happen to force him to realize he can’t surrender the Thing He Needs. At this point, he can no longer hide himself from the horror of the Lie. He must wrench himself into action by rejecting the Thing He Wants Most. In a sense, this action signifies the character’s dying to his old self.

8. Your Character’s Arc in the Third Act: Immediately, after the Third Plot Point, your character will find himself at a low point—either physically, emotionally, or both—as he realizes how much he lost when he rejected the Thing He Wants Most. The character must choose between surrendering to his pain and continuing the fight. This is the moment in which the character will be remade. This is where his new self will begin to rise.
     The character must realize that the price he paid to gain the Thing He Needs was worth the pain. At this point in the story, he will have recognized the Lie, but he will not yet have completely forsaken it. The Third Act is about helping him grow into his new paradigm.
     Throughout the Third Act, your character’s belief in his new paradigm will be under siege. As the Climax approaches (roundabout the 90% mark), this attack will intensify. This attack may come from the main antagonist, a minor antagonist, an ally, or the protagonist himself. The Lie will be flung into the character’s face, and he will totter as his weak point is punched. The greater the character’s peril of relapsing, the higher the tension. He will be off-balance and unhappy as he doubts whether he made the right choices earlier. His doubt is a sign he hasn’t completely overcome the Lie.

9. Your Character’s Arc in the Climax: The Climax begins as the character finally and fully rejects the Lie and acts upon his new Truth. In the climactic moment, he will use this Truth to conclusively destroy the antagonistic force. If appropriate, he may yet gain the Thing He Wants Most as well.

10. Your Character’s Arc in the Resolution: The Resolution will provide an illustration of the character’s new life, free from the Lie.

Once you understand how the structure of both plot and character work together to create a seamless, powerful story, you can use these basic tenets to raise your stories to the next level.

K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring YourNovel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.