13.22: Character Arcs

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

When Mary says we could do fifteen different episodes on character arcs, she’s being conservative. Notwithstanding, we set out to talk meaningfully about character arcs in one episode rather than in fifteen (or fifty.) We look at the shapes of these arcs, how they progress in our narratives, and the tools we use to get them to function properly in the context of our larger works.

Notes: Elizabeth Boyle‘s DREAM tool for plotting character change is easier to remember when written out. So here it is!

  • Denial
  • Resistance
  • Exploration
  • Acceptance
  • Manifestation

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson


Let’s apply DREAM to plotting a sideways character arc in which a character changes, but the change is neither triumphant nor tragic.

10 thoughts on “13.22: Character Arcs”

  1. Could you really do 50 episodes on character arcs? I wouldn’t mind a year focused on that. I suppose a lot of it will already be covered in this year’s season, though, considering that you are focusing on characters. But if there is more that you would like to say specifically about arcs, I would really LOVE a year focused on that.

    Another question for the cast. Any thoughts on this news article?

    Would love an episode on your thoughts on this subject.

  2. Hi Guys! I just recently started listening to your podcast, and I just wanted to say that it is the thing I look forward to in the morning! I really loved this episode. I am an English major in college entering my junior year. I am taking a creative writing course next semester, and I think your discussions will help me there as well as in my attempts to write a novel. Thank you so much for helping me get over my excuses!

  3. Thank you!! This was amazingly helpful for one of my main characters who has a sideways arc. I have been so stuck trying to figure out how to keep a sense of progression with her and now I’m set.

  4. And the original foursome, Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard, debated the DREAM of a character arc! You can’t deny it, you want to resist it, but you start to explore, and then you accept it, and… manifest it! It’s your destiny! Well, no. They also talked about promises, progression, payoff, using parentheses, and going down, down, down, with a tragic flaw, and plenty of yes-but or no-and to pave the way… Anyway, read all about it in the transcript, now available in the archives and over here:


  5. Thanks for the homework. I heard it and it went perfectly with something I’d started. I’m still working that way, but just an observation: it’s pretty hard to write in a character change that isn’t at least a little positive or negative, even if it’s as simple as a job change, because if that change is enough to inspire some kind of resistance, the outcome is going to be progress of some kind or another.

    Even simpler story: an old curmudgeon who’s always gone with the same menu item at his favorite fast food place deciding to whether or not try something new is not going to make headline news or change the course of history, but if he decides to do it, that’s going to be at least a little satisfying, and if he decides not to do it, depending on how you play it, that could turn out to either be a tragedy or really hilarious (especially if it’s some bossy friend or other party trying to get him to change).

    Thoughts, anyone?

    1. This is a good point. Lateral development is still change, and being able to change is widely regarded as a positive thing. Note, however, that resistance to the lateral development need not be resistance to change, per se. It can be resistance to whatever’s on the other side of the fence, or some obstacle (like, y’know, the fence.)

      1. Hmm, good point. Come to think of it, a lot of my own resistence to change is based on the fence or what’s on the other side (especially if I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like)

  6. Thank you for this podcast. I have learned more from you four (and guests) than I would like to admit. My writing has greatly improved, thanks to the couple years I have listened to your wisdom. Latest example: character arc. My protagonist was doing it all backwards. Now, armed with your advice and the DREAM tool, I can rewrite most of my book. You are helpful, on point, and funny. Thank you.

  7. So Howard mentioned the “The Last Temptation” trope, where the protagonist is offered his deepest desire, but then has to choose not to take it because it would screw up something that turns out to be more important.

    That’s been done enough that I decided to play with it in one of my Paul Twister stories. At one point, Paul has almost achieved what he’s always wanted. It’s right there within his grasp, and then he’s handed evidence of what the price would be if he takes it, and like a good protagonist, he decides the price was too high and goes back… only to discover, too late, that he was deceived and the “evidence” he saw was carefully crafted by an enemy to manipulate him. It would have been better (for him at least; not for the story because then it would be over) for him to have just taken his reward and been happy with the rest of his life.

  8. What you’re calling a sideways arc I’ve heard referred to as a flat arc. In a flat arc, a character starts out in their already final state. They are manifesting that truth. Their arc is about overcoming issues that make them question that truth. These stories are often about overcoming self-doubt, external oppression, etc as well as creating external change in the world.

    Examples of a flat arc might be MLK Jr. during the civil rights movement and all of the oppression he continually faced and still did not bend from his principles.

    A lot of Westerns where a hero rides into town, saves it, and then leaves, are flat character arcs. The main character doesn’t really change who they are, but they stick to their principles and improve the world around them as a result.

    You can also have a flat arc where a character is in a negative state. They have a lie they’re telling themselves, but they aren’t able to overcome it in order to grow and the world around them are worse for it. This is probably more like a tragedy, and I can’t think of any examples of it, but I’m sure it’s a character arc that could work in a story.

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