December 29, 2014

The Character Growth Arc in 6 Steps

At a recent seminar I attended, bestselling author Michael A. Stackpole discussed the six steps to a character's growth arc.  If you include these six steps in your story, your character's growth arc will seem logical, believable, and complete. I found this to be a very useful approach, and wanted to share.

The five steps are:
  • Show the problem.  At this point, the character isn't aware of the problem he needs to fix, but the reader is now aware of it.

  • Show the character learning that he has a problem. The character isn't necessarily ready to fix the problem yet, but he knows, and the reader knows, that he has one.

  • Show the character finding a reason to change things.  At this point, he knows that he has to solve this problem to improve himself, his life, etc.  He hasn't taken action yet, but he now realizes he needs to.

  • Show one or more scenes of the character developing the resources to solve the problem.  Maybe he's gathering information on a target, or selling things he owns to raise money, etc.  He is gathering the tools, information, and resources he'll need to meet the problem head-on.

  • Show one or more scenes of the character trying to solve the problem, using the resources gathered earlier.  If there are multiple scenes, some may succeed (or partially succeed), and some will fail.

  • Show the character solving the problem, and in essence saying to himself "I see why I had this problem before, but now I know how to solve it.  I won't let that happen again."
These six steps can be adapted to other elements of a story arc or plot.  For example, if the story is a hunt to destroy a dangerous monster, the steps would change to:

  • Show us the monster. Give us an idea that it's pretty dangerous.

  • Show the characters encountering the monster, but not taking action against it.  Perhaps they see it terrorizing a small animal and are afraid to intervene.

  • Show the characters having a reason to stop the monster.  Perhaps it's coming after them, licking its chops and salivating.

  • Show the characters gathering weapons, making plans to ensnare the monster, or researching ways they might be able to kill it.

  • Show one or more scenes of the characters battling the monster, mostly failing to kill it.  In some cases, perhaps the monster actually eats some of the characters.

  • Show the characters defeating the monster, and reflecting on how they managed to do it, and the cost (e.g., the lives of their friends).
I realize that this is probably starting to sound a little formulaic. We all know that formulaic stories can be really terrible, and I'm in no way suggesting that you should follow these steps like some kind of literary robot.  You might decide that for your story, it would work best to combine the second and third steps.  Or maybe your story requires that you cycle through the fourth and fifth steps several times.  You're the author, and you need to do what works best for the story you're trying to tell.  But if you're not including all these steps, it's worth at least asking yourself honestly, "Do I have a good reason to skip this step, and does the story work fine without it?"

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