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Creating Character Arcs | Writing 101

People interested in the functions of writing and storytelling struggle with the how's and why's of writing. Not people who just read -- they just enjoy the stories. And not people who just sit and write from the hip -- they just write as it comes. But there are a large swath of people who actually consider how story works. A lot of the Lit Theory courses I took in university can be boiled down to the question: "Is there a Universal Field Theory of Story?"

And the answer is: no. The answer is no because the limits of story are imagination, and the second anyone comes up with "a list of rules all stories must adhere to" then some smug fool will purposefully write a story that doesn't adhere to those rules. Any theory worth its salt still doesn't last longer than the time it takes the next author to grab a pen.

But there is a theory -- a method to writing -- that works most of the time. It's been called the Story Circle, Joseph Campbell's Wheel, the Harmon Circle, a thousand things. It feels like every few years someone takes a new stab at it, and I've done the same. I've made some tweaks to make it more efficient, at least in my eyes.

I hesitate to "name this" because that will make it seem like my slight alterations are enough to make it original, and I honestly don't believe that that is the case. Nevertheless, this is the Story Circle that I teach in my virtual writing classes.

  1. Show who your character is. This is the step that I overhauled the most, because in every version I've seen it's just called "Introduce your Main Character" with little explanation as to how. So I break this up into two scenes: One showing your characters at home, and one showing your character at work. And in one of those, show them interacting with someone they love, and in the other, show them interacting with someone they hate. With just these two, you've learned what your character does, what their home life is like, what their economic life is like, and the boundaries of their emotional depth. Everything.

  2. They Want Something. Characters are defined by their wants. By desires, by obsessions. It can be simple or complex, but once you've established who your character is in the first two scenes, you need to show what they want that's different from that.

  3. The Enter an Unfamiliar Situation to get what they want. If you hear a writing instructor complaining about agency, this is why. Characters, to work and be appealing to the audience, have to take steps towards their goals, they can't be dragged into them kicking and screaming. They have to actively make the choice to say: "I am going to get what I want."

  4. They adapt to that new situation: This is actually THREE scenes, much like Step 1 is two scenes. In these scenes they: meet friends, meet enemies, and overcome a minor obstacle. Basically they're learning the ropes of their new environment.

  5. They Get what they want: Whatever they were after in step two? They get that, now.

  6. They Pay a Heavy Price for it: Actions have to have consequences.

  7. They Return to where they started,

  8. Having Changed: To me these two go together, it's the Compare/Contrast of the literary world. How do you SHOW that your character has changed? You put them in a similar situation as at the start, and you have them act different. Like an A / B test. If things went differently the second time, but all other factors were the same, then it must have been them that changed. It's like proving it to the audience.

So for the next little while, I'm going to be deep-diving into movies, television shows, and books to find examples of all these things for people. If I think this is a Universal Field Theory of stories, let's prove that out!


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