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So You Wanna Write A Book: The Art of Arc (Part Five)

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It seems so simple, right? Invent a compelling character, develop a problem he or she needs to solve, and then solve the problem. Preferably in three hundred pages or less. But what if you could intensify tension, create graver conflicts, and surge suspense in your story? What if you could keep your reader on the edge of his or her seat by upping up the stakes using character and plot as your main tools?

Let’s try this today. Right now. No excuses.

*I will be using “they” and “them” to signify “he” and “she,” “her” and “him.”

What is a character arc?

Think about a rainbow. It begins somewhere in the distance, out of sight. Although the beginning may seem indistinct, it exists. Consider this spot as your character’s background: all of the events in their life that brought them to this moment in the story.

The rainbow in the sky is the part of the character that we see. The character travels along the story’s plot, its color blending with the story arc’s color. The crescendo of the rainbow is the climax of the story, where change must occur for the character to continue their journey.

And finally, the dip into an indistinct location because we can only imagine where the rainbow ends. The part we can see is in the story itself. We have a good idea where it ends, but the pot o’ gold lies within the imagination.

The rainbow’s hue is constant from one end of the arc to the other. This should remind you that the character must remain vibrant and memorable. The person in the beginning should be as interesting as the person at the end. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a negative outcome or a dead protagonist. But the character must keep the reader engaged all the way through.

Writing Exercise: Who is your character at the beginning of your story?

Jot down:

  1. Strengths and weaknesses

  2. Likes and dislikes

  3. Who do they trust/distrust?

  4. What are they not scared of? What do they fear?

  5. What is the one thing your character believes about him or her self that is NOT true?

Example: Chase Kennedy

  1. Great with numbers; efficient and smart

  2. Protective of his ego; thus not easy to get along with

  3. Likes reading business magazines and drinking coffee outdoors

  4. Hates being wrong or criticized

  5. Trusts his brother, who is his best friend

  6. Distrusts beautiful but flirty girlfriend

  7. Not afraid to be loud, egotistical, and persistent in the boardroom

  8. Very afraid of losing girlfriend to a “better” guy

Belief: that he should be the Vice-President of the company he works at, but he continues to be turned down for management positions because everyone is against him. They’re all afraid he’ll do too good a job and show them up. So no one wants him to get ahead.

Belief: That his brother cares about him and is out for his best interest. That he can depend on his brother.

Writing Exercise: Who is your character by the end of your story?

Jot down:

  1. What has changed?

  2. Why has he or she changed?

  3. What lesson(s) have they learned?

  4. What emotion do you wish to evoke from the reader?


  1. Chase realizes that in order to be respected as a leader, he needs to rely on the help of coworkers.

  2. He understands that his insecurities make him unlikeable, especially to himself

  3. He discovers that the person he has looked up to all these years (brother) is a manipulative, insecure man, and Chase runs the risk of becoming the same type of person if he doesn’t change.

  4. He knows that love is about trust and respect, and if he does not have that in his relationship with his girlfriend, then the relationship is doomed.

Relating to Character:

Why is important for your reader to relate to your protagonist (and in some cases, relate to the antagonist)?

Ex: to make the character likeable, so the reader can feel empathy, human connection to the character, even if the character does something we would never in a million years do.

In what ways can we help the reader identify with this character?

Ex: Give the character a psychology we can understand, allow the reader to “hear” the character’s thoughts as they muse over problems, show the readers how the character feels through allowing them to observe recognizable traits such as wringing of the hands or snapping of the fingers.


Chase Kennedy: how to make him likable when he comes off as a pompous ass.

Ex: show him feeling self-conscious. Maybe he looks into the bathroom mirror and criticizes some part of himself. Show him taking car of a pet, maybe this may show his loneliness if he puts the pet ahead of even himself. Almost as if it might mirror a best friend or spouse. Show him trying to do the “right” thing, only it does not bode well for him.

External Conflict vs. Internal Conflict

External Conflict: Caused by an outer problem and the solution is blocked by the internal conflict

Internal Conflict: Caused by the inner problem and the solution is blocked by a misguided goal and made worse by the external conflict

  1. Why is your character incomplete on the inside?

  2. What needs do they have that they aren’t aware of?

  3. What are they aware of wanting?

  4. Do their “wants” interfere with their “needs”?

Internal driving forces may include:

  1. A need for personal fulfillment (ex: looking for love or friendship)

  2. Fear or peer-pressure (ex: living up to the expectations of others)

  3. Guilt or insecurity (ex: wanting to be forgiven)

  4. Curiosity (ex: exploration of unfamiliar territory)

Ex: think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

1. Biological and physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.

2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, etc.

3. Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, trust, and acceptance, receiving and giving affection and love. Affiliating, being part of a group (family, friends, work). The need for interpersonal relationships motivates behavior.

4. Esteem needs – which Maslow classified into two categories: (i) esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and (ii) the desire for reputation or respect from others (e.g., status, prestige). Maslow indicated that the need for respect or reputation is most important for children and adolescents and precedes real self-esteem or dignity.

5. Cognitive needs – knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability.

6. Aesthetic needs – appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.

7. Self-actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences. A desire “to become everything one is capable of becoming”(Maslow, 1987, p. 64).

8. Transcendence needs – A person is motivated by values which transcend beyond the personal self (e.g., mystical experiences and certain experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences, service to others, the pursuit of science, religious faith, etc.).

Fundamental needs!

Writing Exercise: Identifying with Character

Jot down:

  1. Why is your character incomplete on the inside?

  2. What needs do they have that they’re not aware of?

  3. What are they aware of wanting?

  4. Do their “wants” interfere with their “needs”?

Example: Chase Kennedy

How to help the reader identify with Chase?

Why is your character incomplete on the inside?

  1. Alienates people through his behavior towards them

  2. Low confidence stemming from competing with his older brother all his life

  3. Introverted personality trying to be an extrovert

What needs do they have that they aren’t aware of?

  1. To have his own identity (self-esteem)

  2. Love and mutual trust and respect from a female partner (intimacy)

  3. To see his brother’s imperfections: the womanizing, the greed (cognitive)

What are they aware of wanting?

  1. Sexual gratification (biological)

  2. Attention and respect from others (Safety and esteem)

Do their “wants” interfere with their “needs”?

  1. Chase has a difficult time distinguishing his true self from his brother’s persona

  2. He wants to be like his brother, but he’s much too sensitive and introverted

What we know about Chase:

  1. Envious of his brother who seems to have it all – beautiful wife, fascinating career, charm, charisma, money

  2. Chase is NOT like his brother in personality

  3. Chase doesn’t really like his brother; therefore he doesn’t end up liking himself

Types of Character Arcs

  1. Positive Change Arc

  2. Flat Arc (Static Character)

  3. Negative Change Arc

  4. Disillusionment Arc

  5. Fall Arc

  6. Corruption Arc

Positive Change Arc: Character believes lie à overcomes lie à new truth is liberating

Flat Arc: Character already has strong sense of self, they don’t overcome a core flaw or fear, they don’t realize a necessary inner truth or fall victim to a limiting belief

  1. Brings transformation to the world around them (detective solves crime)

  2. Face conflicts and stakes that test their rooted beliefs; inner journey is more about resistance than change (Harry Potter’s adventures)

Negative Change Arc:

  1. The Disillusionment Arc: in which a character overcomes a false belief but finds the truth to be tragic.

  2. The Fall Arc: in which a character desperately clings to a false belief despite the presence of a positive truth, thus leading them further into tragedy and sorrow.

  3. The Corruption Arc: in which a character lives in close proximity to the truth but ultimately rejects it in order to willingly embrace a false belief.

Example: Chase Kennedy

How would these look with Chase’s arc?

Positive Change – (ex: Chase believes it’s in his best interest to follow in his brother’s footsteps à Chase realizes he is not like his brother, and it’s a good thing à Chase accepts his shortcomings and flaws but realizes his strengths and gifts.)

Static Change – (ex: Chase accepts who he is, however, seeing his brother has had more success, begins to wonder if he should change à Chase listens to his brother’s advice and ends up in hot water à returning to his own ways, Chase fixes everything he screwed up)

Negative Change:

  1. Disillusionment – (ex: Although Chase’s brother ends up in jail from his wrongdoing, he tells Chase that the only mistake he made was getting caught. Chase vows to continue his unethical, immoral ways, but promises to be smarter than his brother.)

  2. Fall – (ex: Certain that the path to enlightenment is to see things through, even knowing it’s all going horribly wrong, he continues with his goal and like a captain on a sinking ship, he goes down.)

  3. Corruption – (ex: Chase has to make a decision between getting what he wants — the climb up the career ladder, power and prestige – and what he needs – the loyalty of his girlfriend and friendship from people without materialistic desires. But watching his brother once again receive accolades from his family, he rejects the girl and friends for a “promise” of success and the complete acceptance of his manipulative brother.

Act One (The Beginning)

  1. First 15-25% of book

  2. Introduce protagonist in their normal, daily life

  3. Throw in a minor conflict that integrates us immediately into the story

Psychologically speaking:

Let’s get into the character’s head. Whether you write in first, second, or third POV, the reader needs to understand your character and what drives them to do what they do.

Writing Exercise: Ch-ch-ch-changes

  1. What is your character’s every day life like? Jot down some ideas. You won’t use all of them in your story, just brainstorm for now.

  2. What is it your character wants to change?

  3. What is it your character needs to change in order to get what he/she wants?

Example: Chase kennedy

Chase Kennedy…scenes can include his interactions at the office where we see that he has been vying for a managerial job that he ultimately doesn’t get. We see his frustration. Maybe he takes this bad news out on a lower colleague.

Key to this: still has to be likeable.

How to do this: make him someone people can identify with.

Other additions: He can be kind and caring to his mother. Or have a great sense of humor. Or tons of optimism. The important thing is that we root for him!

Other scenes can include a conversation with his girlfriend. Or a night out at the bar with his brother. In all of this there should be a HINT at a change about to occur.

Example with girlfriend: He calls her to say he can’t wait for their date that night. He’s had a bad day and he’s looking forward to unwinding with her. Minor conflict: But then she backs out of the date, apologizing that she has a huge deadline and needs to finish up a project for work.

Example with brother: He’s out at the bar, drinking, explaining how he didn’t get the promotion, his girlfriend blew him off. His brother is busy flirting with the cute bartender, he’s not completely listening. But our character doesn’t notice. He looks up to his brother. When his brother gives him a half-hearted suggestion, Chase is more than ready to accept it, even though the reader can tell this won’t be a great idea.

Things we know about Chase…he trusts his brother. He thinks his brother has it together, and he wants to be that way, too. He’s a little envious of his brother’s success with his job and with women. He doesn’t understand why his brother has gotten so “lucky,” and he’s the “same ol’, same ol’.”

Act Two (The Middle)

  1. Runs through the 75-90% mark of the story

  2. Character is learning and growing through obstacles and challenges

Psychologically speaking:

If something happens to your character, make sure they have a reaction to it, both externally and internally. What they think and what they say may be in contrast to one another. What someone says and then conveys through body language may contradict each other.

Writing Exercise: Obstacles and Challenges

Jot down:

  1. What obstacles will your protagonist face?

  2. How do they think they can handle these challenges?

  3. How do they really handle these challenges?

  4. How do they want to be perceived? Why? What will they do and how far will they go to appear more in control than they really are? Or will they pretend to be weak and modest? What is your character’s motivation in each scene?

Every scene must have a reason to be there, either to show conflict or characterization. And we must understand the character’s motivation regarding every step they make.

Example: Chase Kennedy

Chase confronts his boss with the opinion he has been deserving of a management position. On the half-hearted advice of his brother, he threatens to leave the company if they don’t give him the promotion he’s seeking.

Sooooo….they let him go.

Let’s up the stakes here:

  1. He’s just purchased an expensive sports car

  2. His girlfriend expects an engagement ring

  3. He’s already a month behind on rent

Things he can do:

  1. Move in with his brother

  2. Sell the sports car (for a loss) or lose it to the bank

  3. Avoid discussing engagement/wedding with his girlfriend

How can these make more problems for him? The more complications, the better for your character development and storyline.

  1. He moves in with his brother and sees that his brother and his wife have marital problems that his brother is desperately trying to hide

  2. He depends on taxis or Ubers to get him place to place, and this can be a great place to add characters that help give him hope or give him more problems

  3. His girlfriend decides he’s not serious about her and so she leaves him (or maybe she discovers he’s lost his job and she was looking for a man with money, not someone broke, so she leaves)

Now he is lonely, jobless, angry, and is beginning to see the world from a different angle. Remember to keep his psychology in mind. He won’t change his views overnight simply because he realizes his girlfriend is a gold-digger and his brother is an asshole. He has to have a personal reason to change.


  1. Occurs at the middle of the book

  2. Protagonist realizes true danger or threat from antagonist or antagonistic force

  3. Protagonist shifts from reacting to conflict to actively pursuing it

Act Three (The Conclusion)

  1. Runs through the rest of the story (last 25-10%)

  2. Reveals how the character overcomes their flaw or fear

  3. Rights the wrongs they’ve committed along the way

  4. Achieves goal (or learns lesson after failing to achieve the goal)

  5. Defeats the antagonist (in a series, the antagonist is defeated for the time being)

Psychologically speaking: Your character may not be consciously aware of the changes they’ve made or how they’ve grown as a person. But their actions should show these changes so that the reader is aware.

Writing Exercise: Writing the end

  1. How is your character different from the way they were at the beginning of the story?

  2. What does the character learn about their self?

  3. Is the character aware of their personal growth? If not, why not?

  4. In what ways can the reader notice this change?

Example: Chase Kennedy

Climax of story:

  1. Chase’s brother pursues ex-girlfriend

  2. Chase discovers the manager who fired him is mentally unstable

It’s at this point Chase now sees these people for who they really are. As he saves his ex from getting involved with his manipulative, womanizing brother, he shows his ability to stand up for himself and his principles.

As for the manager, he finds a way to get even for the unjust firing, however has a change of heart when he realizes the manager suffers from paranoia and identity issues. He shows empathy and discovers he prefers to be kind and tolerable versus angry and show-offy. Because of this, the company’s CEO replaces the unstable manager with Chase.

He’s able to discuss the issues with his girlfriend and apologize for not admitting his flaws earlier. She forgives him and they get engaged using a plastic ring he wins from a bubble gum machine.

In Conclusion:

This is just a brief overview with examples. I’m sure your story line and character arc will be much better than Chase Kennedy’s. And my apologies to anyone named Chase Kennedy who thinks this character is a sad use of his name.

The takeaway is this:

  1. Your protagonist (and antagonist) need a goal.

  2. Something must get in the way of achieving this goal.

  3. Every scene must have a reason for being in your book, whether as a catalyst for the next scene (moving the plot along) or to show characterization.

  4. There are several types of arcs your protagonist’s story can fall under.

  5. Make sure your ending ties up your character’s story, even if it is part of a sequel.

Happy writing! And this concludes our “So You Wanna Write a Book” series.

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