Creating character arcs comes hard to a lot of writers. We write a character one way for a bit, and then POOF, they’ve changed.
People don’t just change overnight! You know that, but it’s easier said than done.
Strong character arcs are complex and take time to craft, but the core of all character arcs fall along the same few points. There’s a process that’s been proved by science.
Even if the change is fast, there are steps and there’s a certain amount of thought involved if they want to make the change stick. There are exceptions, of course, like that antagonist you have somewhere with a dark and stormy night of tragedy that turned them into a revenge-obsessed murderer (don’t do that).
For the most part, though, if your character changes too quickly, it feels fake. You need to ease them through the process.
The 6 Basic Stages of Character Change
This article is not going to dive super deep into character arcs. Rather, we’re going to break down what’s at the foundation of how people change.
Try to pinpoint each step in your character’s current journey! If you realize you’re missing a step or two, then it’s no wonder that your character arc feels clunky.
For the example, this character arc will be about Audrey learning to stand up for herself.
At this stage, the thought of changing first enters your character’s mind. Maybe a friend mentions something. Maybe they come to some kind of self-realization about one of their character flaws.
Example: Someone tells Audrey, “You’re such a pushover! Grow a spine.” Sometimes people don’t really notice or think about their own flaws, even if they’re obvious to the people around them. It’s very likely that another character will have to bring the flaw to your character’s attention.
Alternatively, Audrey gets tasked with the worst shift at work yet AGAIN, and one of her coworkers gives her a pitying look. Something about this look strikes her and she can’t shake it off. She starts to wonder. Why aren’t the others treated this way? Why am I always given the worst shifts? Is it because my boss knows I’ll always say yes? Am I really that big of a pushover?
Your character start thinking that making the change is a good idea. They start considering the benefits.
Ask yourself how this plays into your character’s motivations. How does it affect the motivation they had before? Does it change their motivation completely?
Example: Audrey starts to think about how nice it would be if she was more assertive. She’d be happy more often and wouldn’t feel like a coward. It’d make her feel better about herself.
Your character starts considering how they’d make it happen, and the steps they’d have to take. This can include removing temptation/unhealthy things from your character’s life that are keeping you from change.
Example: Audrey decides she needs to learn how to say “no.” She starts researching online about self-confidence and how to stand up for herself. She also needs to find a new friend, because the one she has uses her as a doormat (and someone to do her homework).
In this stage of character change, your character DOES something! All that research and consideration turns into a first physical attempt to make the change.
Example: Audrey starts to make her own choices. She tells her ex-friend “no” and refuses to do her ex-friend’s homework. She tells her boss that she’s cleaned the toilets every day that week and would like to take on new tasks and learn new skills. She doesn’t let anyone push her around.
Your characters keeps it up, gets into a groove. They start turning into the person they want to be.
Example: Audrey continues to stand up for herself. She doesn’t let others make choices for her. She gains confidence.
Your character breaks out of habit and lose the groove. When a character relapses, it’s usually to stage 3 (Preparation—falling back to what you should be doing rather than actually doing it.) Sometimes your character will fall back to stage 1 or 2.
Example: Something breaks Audrey from her confidence. Maybe the ex-friend pleads, or says “just this once,” or guilts Audrey into it. The inner voice tells Audrey she’s being selfish for putting herself first. This leads to Audrey giving in letting her friend walk over her again.
So what does it mean?
With a steady progression like this, your character’s eventual success at the end of their character rainbow won’t seem sudden or contrived. At this point, they’ve earned it. They’ve worked for their change and made progress in noticeable steps, and a reader will respect them for that.
And when they inevitably relapse, it’s a point of drama! It might take a few tries until they really break out of it. Think of it like someone trying to quit smoking. Habits are hard to break, and habits don’t have to be a drug to be addictive. It takes some people years to quit smoking, so your character won’t be New and Improved right away, either.
Change isn’t easy, and a lot of people don’t like change. It can be scary. It takes you from your comfort zone, and you won’t be sure of the results.
Characters are the same way. Make them agonize and struggle over this change and make them relapse and lose all hope in what they’re doing. The end result will be so much more rewarding!