Writing Excuses 13.22: Character Arcs
Key points: A character arc is the emotional progression of a character. From MICE, a character arc starts when a character is dissatisfied with some aspect of themself, and ends when the character is satisfied. DREAM: deny, resist, explore, accept, manifest. Often, trouble with a character arc means you are trying to skip steps. Use this as a checklist for your character arcs, especially when outlining or diagnosing a problem. You can also use promises, progression, payoff: What promises am I making at the beginning of the story? What does the character lack, where do they want to go? What is the payoff at the end? What are the steps of progress to get there? And parentheses — open, open, close, close. Downward spiral character arcs, or tragedies, may be a heroic arc inside a tragedy. There’s also a style where everything the hero wanted is offered to him, but accepting it is a disaster, while refusing it also is painful. Think of the classic tragic flaw, where the person follows their motivation even as it destroys their life. Pantsers! Try using the tragic flaw, followed by a heavy series of yes-but try-fail cycles. Progress, but everything is getting worse. Watch out for a series of no-and, where no progress is made, and everything gets worse.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 22.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Character Arcs.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] Character arcs! Whew!
[Brandon] This is a great topic.
[Brandon] What is a character arc? Were you laughing because I come up with the topics? So…
[Dan] No, we’re laughing because people don’t think that writers are actually like this, but we do…
[Dan] Sit around and geek out over character arcs.
[Brandon] Oh, man. Character arcs are so cool.
[Dan] We totally do.
[Mary] We could do 15 different podcasts just on character arcs. A character arc, what we’re talking about, is the emotional progression that a character goes through. Their journey, their learning experience, whatever you want to call it.
[Howard] We describe it as an arc because it’s typically graphed the same way the narrative curve would be graphed. That’s because it’s a narrative.
[Mary] So I… Like I’ve… The character arc falls into the category of things that I have mostly understood. If we are talking about the MICE quotient, a character arc begins when a character is dissatisfied with an aspect of self, and it ends when they are satisfied. But I’ve recently learned a new tool that I am super excited about.
[Brandon] Oh, wow.
[Mary] Yes! Okay.
[Dan] Okay, I’m…
[Brandon] You’re so excited about this, this is proving how geeky we are.
[Mary] I know. So Elizabeth Boyle, who is a romance writer, talked about this, and she said that it was the arc… She was like, “This is the structure of a romance novel.” As she was talking, I was like, “Oh, my goodness. This is the structure of every character arc in the history of ever.” So what you have… It’s an acronym. DREAM. So first, you have denial. The character denies that there is a problem. “There’s not a problem, everything’s fine.” Then they resist the problem. It’s like, “I see what you’re talking about, but I have it under control.” Then they explore it. Which, in romance terms, as well may be one date. Then they accept. “Ah. I am in love.” Then there’s… In romance, it’s matrimony, but for everybody else, it’s manifestation. Which is the action that they take after they accept that. When you start looking at other arcs, it’s like everywhere.
[Brandon] It’s… That sounds a lot like the pattern of grief. What do they call it, the stages of grief?
[Mary] She actually got it from an anger management class.
[Brandon] Wow. Interesting.
[Mary] When she was a manager at Microsoft. She teaches this… If you can take her class, I highly recommend it.
[Dan] That’s really cool.
[Mary] But it’s so good. Because it’s like… It’s so… Once she pointed that out, and I realized, “Oh, yeah. That is, in fact, the progression that I go through pretty much any change.” Climate change? That’s not happening. Or… Brussels sprouts? They’re terrible. Well, some people like Brussels sprouts. All right, I’ll try one. This is pretty good. All right, now I’m cooking them at home.
[Brandon] I wish my children would go through that. They just live in denial stage for pretty much everything.
[Mary] This is the thing that was so exciting to me, was that I realized that when I was having trouble with a character arc, that my problem was that I was trying to get them from denial to manifestation without passing through the other steps. Stepping them from denial into resistance, that you have to go through each of these changes in order to get to the next stage. You don’t have to… The amount of time you spend in any of those is going to vary wildly depending on the type of story you’re telling. But they… It’s still a progression that happens naturally.
[Dan] Well, it’s not just that you can’t skip three middle ones. If you skip even one…
[Dan] Stepping directly from denial to exploration. I hate Brussels sprouts, but I’m going to try one. Why? You need that resistance step in the middle.
[Brandon] That is a really good way of putting this.
[Howard] It’s helpful to realize that… This happens to me all the time. You explain this technique and I think, “What? How have I been able to successfully create character arc without knowing this technique?”
[Howard] Because I observe myself, I take inventory regularly. I observe other people. When I write, I’m just kind of naturally, intuitively doing this. You, fair listener, are very likely doing the same thing if you’re writing character arcs. But now that you know how to spell DREAM… ea… Now that you know how to spell DREAM, you have a tool that will let you run a checklist on your arc, so that you know you’re doing it right.
[Brandon] I’ve said this before on the podcast, but a lot of these tools that we come up with, these are not things I actively use while writing. I use them actively when outlining. Or when I’m diagnosing a problem…
[Brandon] And I say, “Something isn’t working here.” The more of these tools I pick up, the better I get at diagnosing these problems. Because every book goes haywire in some way. In the past, I’ve always used kind of the thing we’ve talked about a lot on Writing Excuses, promises, progression, payoff. Right? With me, I ask myself, “What are the promises that I’m making with this character at the beginning of this story? What are they lacking in their life? Where do they want to go? Or where do I want them to go? What is the payoff at the end that I have to earn through steps of progress for that payoff to really feel exciting and wonderful?” We referenced Star Wars a few weeks back. The idea of Luke standing and looking at the… Into the sky and you know he wants to get off this backwater world and do something cool, and your payoff is when he saves the entire galaxy. The progress are those steps in between where you see that he’s earning that payoff.
[Howard] It’s also useful to… The concept of parentheses. The parentheticals. You begin with a character who is unhappy, who desires a thing, and who is in trouble. As you close parentheses, they’re resolving the trouble, they are… They have the thing they want or they have the thing they need, and they’re still unhappy. Or they’re happy. You put that parenthesis there and it completes the arc. I love the fact that you can think about it in terms of parentheses, but they don’t need to be opposites. You can have unhappiness at both ends, and still have a very, very satisfying arc. Especially if it’s one for a side character or for a character who you are planning on pulling forward into another volume.
[Mary] That was one of the things that was exciting… That positive or negative state about the DREAM thing, is that like you can get a character all the way up to the point of manifestation, and the way they manifest… Look, I accept that I have fallen in love with this person, and I am going to do nothing about it. That’s like… Or I am going to send them away, or I’m going… It’s… They can… That’s what a tragedy looks like when the character’s manifestation is in the negative state.
[Brandon] Right. Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Howard, you’ve got a book for us this week.
[Howard] Yup. Another nonfiction book that I really enjoyed. Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, From Atoms to Economies. It’s by Cesar Hidalgo. One of my favorite… I actually had to look it up on Wikipedia. One of my favorite bits in the book was his description of how the physical… The theories that describe the physical process of entropy… The formula, the actual formula was mirrored in information theory, and the people working on these two theories didn’t know about it. The parallels… Once you look at the two parallels, you realize, “Oh. These are necessarily parallel because of an accident. These are parallel because energy is information.” It’s super cool, mind blowing, good fun.
[Howard] Why Information Grows, by Cesar Hidalgo.
[Brandon] So, Mary, you were mentioning kind of tragedies.
[Brandon] Let’s talk about downward spiral character arcs. Where a character is, for lack of a better phrase, falling to the dark side, or…
[Brandon] Descending into madness, or being overwhelmed by depression, or whatever it is where the character is going to be at a worse state at the end of the story than they were at the beginning of the story. How do you write these? Why would you write these? What’s going on there?
[Dan] I actually consider that I write a lot of tragedies. I think most of the Cleaver books are tragedies in some sense. They’re not actually spiraling out of control so much as getting to that endpoint and choosing not to take the thing you want. Because you realize it’s bad for you, or you realize that something else is better, or whatever it is.
[Brandon] So would you say you go through denial, I’m not a serial killer, resist, explore, accept, but then stop at manifest? Or…
[Dan] Well. So, since we’re looking at John Cleaver. There’s kind of this umbrella thing that his life is terrible. Right? He is not happy, he doesn’t know how to interact with people, he doesn’t know how to connect with people. But, with the exception of one of the books, none of the stories are really about him learning how to connect with people. They’re about him solving some other problem. So his thing, he denies in the first book, I am not going to kill anything, because I know that that’s wrong. I follow these rules. Then he basically over the course of the book is forced into a position where killing is the only moral choice, because it will save other people.
[Howard] And he’s so good at it.
[Dan] And he becomes very good at it, and it’s this great thing, but he gets to the end and he realizes this didn’t make me a better person. This saves some people, but it kind of ruined my life. So my life sucks as much or more as it used to. So you kind of get a nice heroic arc folded up inside of a tragedy at the same time.
[Howard] There’s also a style of… One of the many formulas for writing three act narrative curve type stuff where there is a point at which our protagonist/hero/main character… Everything that they have wanted for the first three quarters of this story is now presented to them. If they take it, it’s a disaster. If they refuse it, we get the dark night of the soul, and they go on and progress to something else. A downward character arc is often when we think we are having one of these kinds of stories, and then they take that thing at the turning point of Act III, and we get a different dark night of the soul. Often, those are horror stories. I can’t think of any good examples offhand, but it’s chilling when you see it happen.
[Brandon] Well, this is what Lucas wanted to do with the prequels. You can argue how effect… But he… This was the goal of those, was to show the dissent of a heroic character into… [Inaudible]
[Dan] Now, that thing, that act of taking the thing that you shouldn’t take. What that often comes down to is the thing we all learned about in high school called the tragic flaw. This person, either they are too prideful, or they are too greedy, or they are too selfish, or they love the wrong person too much. They are going to follow that motivation as far as they can, even though it burns their life down around them.
[Mary] One of the tools that you… For those of you who are pantsers rather than plotters… This works for plotters, too, but for those of you who are pantsers who are sitting around going, “I don’t want to come up with each of these DREAM steps.” Or… So you figure out what that tragic flaw is. Then, when you’re following it, as you’re stepping through, if you use something that we’ve talked about on previous podcasts, which is the idea of yes-but, no-and. If you do a lot of yes-but, your character achieves their goal, but it makes things worse. This is a downward spiral because everything that they tried to do that should work, makes things worse. That’s what… A lot of times I will see people do, is that they will do a ton of no-and… No-and means that the character did not succeed and things get worse. While you should absolutely have some of those in there, if the novel or short story is nothing but no-and, it’s going to make it feel like there is no forward progression. Whereas if you have a lot of yes-but, it’s just continuous failure when they should be having success. Which is one of the things that will make people unhappy.
[Dan] That’s one of the ways that Extreme Makeover is structured, is with a constant stream of yes-but. Which shows this thing I shouldn’t be doing is working. I’m getting rich. I’m getting famous. I’m getting all these things that… Even though I know that my methods are wrong. So it’s just kind of building on top, until you know that it can’t sustain itself.
[Howard] You look at that with the first Captain America movie. There is yes-but for about the first third of the movie. Then it’s just yes. Everything he is doing is making things better. He hasn’t beaten the bad guy yet, but he’s always moving closer to the objective. That film often comes under fire for that exact problem. The big thing that the character wanted… Well, he got all that in the first third of the film.
[Brandon] Great first half of the movie and kind of boring second half of movie.
[Brandon] We’ll go ahead and stop here. I’m giving you guys some homework. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot when designing this particular podcast and things was the idea of sideways character arcs. This is like when the character isn’t necessarily learning something new, they are just becoming something different. Not necessarily better. It’s an arc, where obviously the arc where you learn to be a more generous person is a positive character arc. Or the arc where you end up murdering Jedi children is a downward character arc. What about that sideways arc? That sideways arc where you’re just becoming someone new, and it’s not necessarily better or worse. See if you can come up with one of those and apply this DREAM aspect to it. Those steps for DREAM are denial, resist, explore, accept, manifest. Right? See if you can apply that to a sideways character arc. I don’t even know if this works. I want you guys to try it out and tell us about it, if it does. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.