Had you come to be at 9 am on Sept. 25th and asked me, “Holly, what is a character arc?”, I would have given you a fairly confident response. But if you asked me the same question at 5:45 on that same day, I would have told you that my response was crap. And why would I have said that? Because I had just spent 9 hours with Michael Hauge and his lesson on building a character arc blew my mind.
According to Hauge, before you can create an arc, you need to identify two things:
1) Your character’s identity. The identity is the false self that the hero presents to the world. The MC creates this identity in order to protect herself from a fear that grew out of a belief that was created by a wound that happened before the story begins. The MC MUST BELIEVE this is her identity and the fears and beliefs that go with it MUST be ones that will make the character’s outer goal impossible to achieve unless they are abandoned. For example:
Fiona’s first boyfriend dumped her because she was too fat (wound) so she now believes no one can love her (belief) and is thus afraid to go on a date (fear). Fiona’s outer goal in the novel is to get information from Jake but she is too afraid to get close to him. If she wants to achieve this goal, she will have to abandon her fears.
2) Your character’s essence. If you stripped away the identity above, this is what would be left. This is the person your character has the potential to become. In the example above, this would be a confident Fiona who believes she deserves someone like Jake’s love.
The character arc is, quite simply, the MC’s journey from #1 to #2. But to make it even easier, Michael Hauge actually tells you what goes in each of the five stages of the character arc:
Stage One: The MC is living fully in identity. This is not the place to give the reader the wound but is the place to give the fears and beliefs.
Stage Two: The MC is still living fully in identity, but gets a glimpse of what living in essence might be like.
Stage Three: The MC is vacillating between identity and essence. She steps into essence but gets scared and goes back to identity. The point of no return is when MC tries to live in essence, even if not successfully at first. Using the example above, this might be Fiona kissing Jake and realizing what she is missing.
Stage Four: The outside world is closing in, making is more difficult for the MC to live in essence. Using the example above, maybe Fiona runs into the ex-boyfriend. The major setback occurs when the MC does something that’s more identity driven, but the MC knows it isn’t right now that she has lived in essence. Often, it is a supporting character who comes in and says THIS IS NOT WHO YOU ARE! For example, after Fiona runs into her ex, Jake asks her for another date and she refuses because she believes he will dump her just like the ex did, even though Jake has given her no reason to think that. Her sassy gay friend finds out, slaps her across the face and sends her on her way.
Stage Five: The MC pushes to the outer goal and to living in essence. For example, Fiona realizes that she’d rather try to win Jake than live the rest of her life with fifteen cats, so she goes after him.
AND NOW FOR THE UNAUTHORIZED PLUG:The Michael Hauge seminar I attended was probably the most useful thing I have ever done for my writing career. If you can attend one of his seminars, I’d highly recommend it. But even if you can’t, you can always buy them on DVD or Audio CD.