Mastering the Character Arc in your writing

The final instalment of an exclusive 3-part series written by Sreedhevi Iyer for Booksoarus on how to incorporate the Character Arc in your writing – the journey your character will go on.

Here are the first two:
Part 1: 12 Stages of your Character Arc: The Hero’s Journey
Part 2: Character Arc examples for your writing

If you’ve missed either of them, read those first before moving on.

How to use the Character Arc in your writing

Character Arc examples

8. Ordeal / Confrontation

Description: In terms of character arcs (as opposed to plot) this is the most important stage. Plot-wise this may not have a great impact, but this is the highest point of change for the protagonist.

This is where the big character flaw comes to fore, where the protagonist has to confront it, and see which of the two, metaphorically, come out of it alive. This is what is meant by the ordeal being a matter of life and death – not in a literal sense, but in the sense of a battle where the character flaw becomes manifest, and then overcome.

Example: Raj in Shree 420, visits the club, the scene of past revelry, in a completely different mental state. His heightened awareness of himself becomes more acute as he witnesses the revelry inside with growing uneasiness and almost disgust. Instead of joining Maya as he did before, he flings away her inviting arm, symbolically rejecting her and everything she represents.

The environment becomes contemptible rather than inviting, and in a moment of mental crisis, Raj walks out on to the street. Here Raj undergoes his ordeal – he is confronted with his fraudulent identity in the club, feeling an alien in that place, someone who does not belong, and in leaving, chooses to reject that fake self.

In Hamlet, the protagonist confronts his flaw when Laertes accuses him of being uncaring at Ophelia’s funeral. He has said the thing that nobody has – that by whittling away time and distancing himself from others, Hamlet has achieved nothing. His flaw is put to him, that his own action (or inaction) has brought about his miserable circumstances, of losing loved ones and being alone.

Hamlet retaliates, “Does thou come here to whine? To outface me with leaping in her grave? Be buried quick with her, and so will I.” He attempts to prove his love of Ophelia to Laertes – a different stance to before, where he was instead giving impressions of not wanting her around. It is a departure in his tactic – he does care, and shows it.

He finds Yorick’s skull, and literally ruminates on issues of life and death. Since he has demonstrated his emotion and vulnerability, he is able to emotionally perceive and understand the fullness of his responsibility. He now knows his flaw, and he is conscious, in a deeper sense, of what is expected of him.

9. Reborn / The Reward

Description: Through the ordeal, the death that has occurred is actually that of the old, flawed protagonist – therefore what emerges is a new protagonist, reborn and ready. The newness is the reward for having ‘died’ in the previous ordeal. Usually this change can be shown through their actions, or changed perception of others towards the protagonist.

Example: Shree 420 showcases this in very classic ways. Raj runs away from the club and his former self, straight into the lilting strains of Ramaiyya Vastavayya, sung by his old street comrades. In contrast to the decadent festivities of the club, Raj is attracted to the rustic simplicity of the melody, and in a mirror act to the Mud Mud Na Dekh song, he steps off the road and joins in the melody, becoming a part of the street riff raff the way he was when he first arrived in the city.

As the Rajkumar self dies, another Raj emerges, one who is more honestly in touch with his roots, his poverty-stricken street origins. In return, he regains his street mother, and all the buddies who had been absent all this while.

With Hamlet, his rebirth is a new sense of calm, an acceptance of what he has to do. He is no longer in doubt, no longer uncertain, no longer procrastinating. He readily accepts Laertes’ request for a fencing duel – a choice of action, rather than of analysis and indecision. “If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit,” he says.

10. Road Back / In Conflict

Description: After undergoing the transformation of the above two stages, this is where, in order to re-attain their sense of self, the protagonist faces a dilemma – an inner conflict between the want and the need – which in turn externally proves the character’s inner transformation. The protagonist is now in a state of heightened awareness, and therefore conscious of the choices he faces. This complication is the zenith point of where the stakes are in the narrative – the protagonist’s choice decides how the story will resolve itself.

Example: Hamlet makes this choice when he is faced with the possibility of backing out of the duel with Laertes – and decides to go ahead with it. His calmness and anticipation survives even Horatio’s advice that the odds are against him – another sign that he is past finding excuses, and is no longer the previous Hamlet. He wants to kill Claudius, but more importantly, he needs to take action – and now that he’s been transformed and is aware of it, he chooses to do what he needs to do.

In Shree 420, Seth Dharmanand poses a new scam for Raj to undertake, which the newer, wiser Raj rejects. He expressly prefers a peaceful, honest life, which the Seth cannot understand, and instead threatens to expose Raj’s fraudulent ways. Here Raj is faced with a situation where he will have to lose one or the other – his riches, which he will lose if exposed to the public as a fraud, or his conscience (and Vidya) if he decides to stick to the Seth’s rules. It is a tussle between what he wants and what he now manifestly needs.

11. Resurrection / Decisiveness

Description: This is the highest moment of drama in the narrative, the point of crisis where things come to a head, demanding resolution. It’s the climax point where the protagonist fulfils the goal, the task that has been set up since the beginning of the narrative.

In terms of the character arc, what’s more important here is not whether the protagonist achieves the set thing – win over evil, get the girl, become successful – but whether the character has acted in a way that has met his previously unaware needs. So, sometimes, even if a battle has been lost, the narrative can still be satisfying because the protagonist has fulfilled a more private, personal need not visible to others.

Example: Raj in Shree 420 pretends to agree to Maya’s plans to backstab the Seth, and organises the scam in a way that ends up exposing the Seth’s evil ways. His actions constitute the climax of the plot – he fools the Seth and his cronies into thinking he’s running away with a bag of money although they’re just bundles of paper in a bag, and he plants a gun with blanks to fake his death in order to get the Seth to confess.

He is able to execute all this since his character has made the choice he was faced with earlier – he has clearly chosen to meet his now conscious needs rather than his wants. He has chosen to not associate with the Seth and his ways, and instead lets his conscience and honesty drive his actions.

In Shakespeare’s play, this is where Hamlet is at his most serene, in terms of his character arc, which allows all the requisite action of the plot, the climax, to take place. Hamlet participates in a battle that he will lose. At the duel, Hamlet and Laertes both wound each other, and Hamlet finds out he’s been poisoned by the sword.

His acceptance of his task enables him to fulfil it – despite having been poisoned (and therefore lose in the ultimate sense) Hamlet chooses to focus on what’s important to him, what his transformation had been for – he finally kills Claudius, fulfilling his promise to his father.

12. Return with Elixir / Complete

Description: This is the aftermath of the arc – the point in the narrative where there is the post-cathartic rest, and a return to the state of how things were. The protagonist, now transformed, is now in a state similar and yet different to how he/she started out. They still may not be perfect beings, but they now possess better knowledge, better wisdom – the reason for the narrative in the first place.

Example: As such, Raj literally ‘wakes up’ from his supposed death by the Seth’s blank bullets, tells the police the truth, and shows them where the actual money is. He also gives the poor a way out of the scam – an honest way – that benefits the public. These actions prove to us that Raj is no longer a fraud, but the honest man who once won a medal for it. He is now in a state similar to where he was at the beginning of the story, back in his Ordinary World, but is now further equipped with additional knowledge and wisdom about himself.

In the tragedy of Hamlet, the prince is dying in Horatio’s arms. He confides his thoughts to his friend, and settles some royal matters by proclaiming Fortinbras as the next king, but his main concern now is for Horatio to tell his story – he is aware, in a metafictional way, moments before death, of the settlement of the narrative, of its ending, and signals that it should be told.

Concluding thoughts on the Character Arc

As you can see, despite being centuries and languages and cultures apart, both narratives follow the same monomyth pattern in their character arcs. Hamlet may not follow the pattern too closely, but the stages are all there, and Shakespeare employs incredible language to imbue his protagonist with great reader sympathy.

The 12 steps may sound a little daunting, but I suggest you try looking at your favourite stories – from Enid Blyton tales, to Chetan Bhagat novels – and try to spot the monomyth pattern in them. You will very likely locate all 12 stages in all of them.

The stages need not be obvious, they could be something simple as someone just turning around, or saying a line of dialogue, or thinking something to themselves – but they are there. Once you have mastered the 12 steps, you will see them everywhere, and you can trust your main character to lead you through them when you write.

Happy experimenting!

Sreedhevi Iyer was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2011 for her fiction work. She is currently a Fiction Reader for Drunken Boat, one of the oldest electronic journals of the arts. She has an MFA in Asian Writing in English from City University of Hong Kong and will be pursuing her PhD in World Englishes shortly.

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

One thought on “Mastering the Character Arc in your writing”

  1. Shikha

    Hi sameer,
    I must say its a great work you guys are doing here, its helping so many people who are struggling with there queries.

    I have couple of questions:

    1. Writing a book in India on thriller-fiction is a good idea or not? I mean is the response of Indian market good on these kind of books?

    2. How much money does average indian authors make? And i want you to be really honest with the numbers,please 🙂

    Thank you so much:)

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