Our guest writer, Sreedhevi Iyer writes an exclusive 3-part series for Booksoarus on the Character Arc – the journey your character will go on.
Here’s the first part if you missed it: 12 Stages of your Character Arc: The Hero’s Journey
Character Arc examples: What your character goes through in your Story
It is worthwhile to remember that there’s a rookie mistake of thinking this arc is about the plot of your narrative – it is not. It’s about what your character goes through in your story – which is quite different to what is actually happening in the story.
It’s also worth noting that while most narratives follow the Hero’s Journey in sequence – it may not be completely necessary to do so. However, you need to be an absolute master in order to pull off an effective, satisfying character journey without adhering to the stages in order. And I mean someone like Shakespeare.
For readers who may not be familiar with these narratives, I would advise you to check out a good summary of Hamlet and Shree 420.
The 12 Stages of the Character Arc Demystified
1. Incomplete, Ordinary World
Description: This is the depiction of the hero’s ordinary world, before the rest of the story begins. This is where the reader can get to know the character, where they are in their lives, their likes and dislikes, fears and desires. This is the point where the reader establishes a connection with the character, an identification, and therefore is ready to go on the journey with him or her. The way the character is set up here is really important, as it determines how the rest of the narrative will shape up.
For example, in Shakeapeare’s Hamlet, the eponymous protagonist, Prince Hamlet, is in a situation unusual for a royal heir, but which also immediately hints at what is to come – Hamlet’s father King Hamlet has recently passed away. His uncle Claudius marries his mother. When Claudius asks Hamlet, “How is it that the clouds still hang on you”, he replies “Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun”. He puns on the word ‘sun’, implying his new role as Claudius’ son, showing how it is the cause for his melancholic state of mind. As readers we are set up for impending change, that our prince is not his regular self and that things need to happen.
In Shree 420, the ordinary world is the world of Raj, the educated street tramp, who is on his way to Bombay, singing Mera Joota Hai Japani. He pretends to faint to hitch a car ride, but cannot keep the charade on for long, and is dumped by the wayside. We come to know that he’s in dire straits looking for work, and hopes to find it in the big city. His incomplete self is one that has skills but lacks opportunity.
In addition, the protagonist at this point possesses a flaw, which is an issue that needs to be overcome – Hamlet is indecisive, and Raj wants to be successful at any cost – and this incomplete aspect of the protagonists consists of two different dimensions – something they’re conscious of in the story, and something they’re unaware of (although the reader is very much aware). The incompletion they’re aware of is what they seek to remedy – in other words, what the protagonist wants in the story, something that has to be attained, or fulfilled, or developed – a desire that is manifest in the narrative. While it is important to address this want in the character arc, it is equally important to communicate the character’s unconscious incompleteness – a flaw they’re unaware of. It is the character flaw the readers see and the character himself does not, and has to traverse his arc to understand. We know through the narrative that Hamlet’s indecisiveness works against his plans, and that Raj’s blind search for riches distances him from his loved ones, especially Vidya – but these aspects are unmanifest to the characters themselves until much later in their arcs.
2. Call for Adventure / Unsettled
Description: After the set up, the protagonist receives info that acts as an impetus to set off on a journey or having to solve a problem. This puts into motion the sequence of events that form the plot of the narrative. Some writers simply call this the ‘inciting incident’ – the point where the journey begins.
Example: In Hamlet, the King’s Ghost appears for the sole purpose of telling Hamlet who murdered him, asking to be avenged.
“Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me…the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown.”
Hamlet now has a goal, a duty to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius. It is the main question of the narrative that needs to be answered – will Hamlet do it?
In Shree 420 Raj arrives in Mumbai looking for honest work, and soon discovers he ought to be something other than he actually is, if he is to attain his goal. He meets a street beggar in the city, who tells the innocent Raj the first tips needed to make it in the city. All of them are in opposition to his values, but he employs them throughout the narrative until his own transformation. “Are you educated?” asks the beggar. “Are you honest?” “Are you willing to work hard?” When Raj answers in the affirmative, the beggar chuckles. “This is Bombay. You will not find employment with those qualities.” Raj’s ordinary world becomes unsettled with the knowledge that he cannot attain his goal by being himself, that a change in his values is required of him.
3. Refusal of Call
Description: Initially, the hero refuses to take on the issue, or journey, or opportunity – mainly due to fear – and goes into a phase of denial. The refusal exposes a more human, less heroic side to our protagonist, and endears him further to the reader. The refusal can come in any form, as long as there is a sense of resistance to the impending change, which makes the shifts in the arc later on much more satisfying.
This is why much of Shree 420’s first half is dedicated to Raj’s various naïve but funny shenanigans. Although clear on what he wants – he tells Vidya, who wants to help the tertiary-educated tramp, that he will be rich and famous and rule the city one day –he still tries his hand at an honest job, working in a laundry company, earning paltry wages, and pursuing Vidya with it. He retains a kind of fraudulent nature, selling bad tooth powder, lying to police officers and to Vidya’s father, but does so with nothing more than a sense of mischief, without any sense of moral danger. In a way, the bumbling Raj is slightly directionless at this point, knowing what he wants but not really planning to go after it.
Hamlet, on the other hand, doubts the Ghost’s word, unsure whether he should take the action demanded of him.
In the soliloquy “To be or not to be: that is the question; whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” Hamlet wonders if it’s more noble to deal with the stress of the turn of events in silence, rather than revenge.
He eventually decides to test the Ghost’s words by putting on a play called The Mouse Trap, loosely based on the events of the murder. All of these actions, despite knowing he has a task he has to go about doing, shows something more than hesitation on Hamlet’s part – it’s a procrastination, a way to find other means, to try and not heed the siren call of filial responsibility on a son and heir. His hesitation, his planning on discovering the truth of the murder, all of which showcases the handsome, valiant prince’s weaknesses – it is no small thing that he has suddenly been asked to perform, and we feel the weight of his burden when he dithers.
4. Meeting with mentor/Encouragement
Description: Once the protagonist has accepted the reality of the quest, consciously or unconsciously, there is an encounter with a figure that provides encouragement in the hero’s endeavour. In many cases the figure is a protective one, who provides advice or equipment or training – but that need not always be the case. It does not always have to be a figure, and the advice need not always be wise – the main thing to focus on is that the protagonist is encouraged to take the plunge on his journey.
Example: With Raj, this occurs when he meets Maya in her home, delivering her laundry. We are already aware he is not entirely satisfied with his lot – there is a moving scene prior to this meeting, where Raj feels the humiliation of having Vidya pay for their cups of tea – and although surprised, he goes along with Maya’s plans of dressing him up, giving him a fake identity, and taking him along to an elite gambling den where he excels at playing cards, employing his talent in fraud to reap high amounts of cash. Maya here encourages him to explore the world that will bring him what he wants – lots of money – through means that are available to him. She provides the opportunity for him to venture into a different world, one that is not his ordinary one, but which promises him his dreams.
As Hamlet dithers, it is the King’s Ghost, a figure of authority in Hamlet’s current life, that is able to give him orders that he will listen to. In his uncertainty, Hamlet, instead of killing Claudius when he had a perfect opportunity, goes to his mother and begins an accusatory argument. It is Hamlet’s deepest moment of uncertainty and loss of direction, and the Ghost serves to bring Hamlet back to focus – “Do not forget this visitation is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose”, says the Ghost.
5. Crossing the First Threshold/Commitment
Description: After all the preparation, our protagonist embarks on the journey – there is now no looking back, there is full commitment to what is to come. This is the point in the narrative where the familiarity of the protagonist’s environment falls away. This could be an emotional environment as well, not necessarily just a physical one – as long as we sense that a kind of newness has entered the narrative.
Example: Raj physically enters an environment that necessitates him adorning a fake garb of a non-existent Rajkumar of Peeplinagar. He has been offered a partnership in fraud with Seth Dharmanand, but it is when he takes Vidya to the club, instead of to the temple as promised, that we understand his acceptance of the deal. He tries to run after Vidya as she flees the scene, and is intercepted by the Seth, others in the club, and most importantly by Maya, who very seductively pleads with him to “not look back” (Mud mud ke na dekh anybody?…). While she sings, Raj is visible only in silhouette, lurking in the shadows – but in the second part of the song, Raj steps into the limelight, grabs a trumpet and joins in the melee, which reaches fever pitch by the end. Vidya, her troubles, and his duty to console her has been forgotten, and instead, Raj has committed to his new environment – he is now one of the very people he used to make fun of while on the streets, and he has no plans on looking back.
In Hamlet, the protagonist accidentally kills Polonius, thinking him to be Claudius. It is a rushed, mistaken act, but it signifies Hamlet’s willingness to kill, to perform the task set before him – he has now stepped into an environment of action, rather than mere rumination and melancholy. Blood has been spilled, and he is committed to the goal. Again, like Raj, for Hamlet now there is no looking back.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies / Disoriented
Description: Now that the protagonist is well and truly in a new environment, he or she is understandably disoriented. It’s like the first day at a new job, where nothing is known, and the protagonist has to feel their way through their disorientation. Such a situation usually brings about a test to your protagonist – can they take the heat? Are they going to get through this, and who can they trust while figuring things out, and who should they be wary of? This is the point where other characters in the narrative reveal their purpose – whether they aid or hinder the protagonist on the journey, and how the protagonist comes out of this test of unfamiliarity.
Example: While Hamlet exhibits erratic behaviour that alienates those around him, he finds that allies can turn into enemies. Although happy to see his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he turns against them when he realises their betrayal, that they were spying for Claudius. “When he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again,” he chides them. And instead of making Ophelia an ally, he intentionally distances himself from her as well, so that his only remaining ally is Horatio. His goal is a burden he is not willing to share, which, while isolating, also gives him an idea of how he is going to go about it – in knowing that he has to operate by himself, Hamlet is more sure-footed in the new environment, less disoriented.
Raj faced an early test, when Maya takes him to the club for the first time, and he passes with flying colours. As Seth Dharmanand’s new partner, he has the man who was once his enemy as his current ally, and works for him at the fraudulent Tibet Gold Company. However, he loses his former ally, Vidya, through these very deeds. When they fight, he asks her, literally, to “step into a new world” – to join him in his new environment, to accompany him in his disorientation. She refuses, and her consistency in rejecting him and his new way of life makes her an enemy while Raj is in the new environment, rather than someone who would help him in his state of disorientation. She refuses to speak well of him when they meet at the pawnshop, nor accept his offer to help with her school. All these events force Raj to become more aware of his new role, his place in the new environment.
7. The Approach / Inauthenticity
Description: Now that the protagonist is a lot more confident about what’s happening in the new environment, the narrative can start moving towards the goal of the hero’s journey – which James Campbell labels The Approach – in that the protagonist and his allies begin making their way to their goal. In several ways this can be a tricky thing to pull off, since as a writer you want a sense of suspense to still inhabit the story, and the readers also need a reminder of how important this goal is, to keep them engaged at this point. There is a sense of preparation, of gauging where things are, before the next stage in the arc occurs. Sometimes this reveals the protagonist’s character flaw – the aspect of what the protagonist needs or wants, which has yet to be fulfilled in the journey. This is also why the protagonist at this stage could be doing things that are inauthentic – whether in humour, or in dealing with a love interest, or just interacting with other characters – the protagonist reveals to us a sense of not being fully himself, of still containing unknown, unfulfilled wants and needs.
Example: Raj, in preparation for his ordeal later, has an honest private moment, when he sees an apparition of his former self, the street tramp, in his mirror reflection. He confesses his unhappiness, despite having obtained what he thought he wanted. His flaw is brought to the fore in the narrative – that his fraudulent ways will not fulfil him. He finds Vidya, this time at the street tea shop, where they had their first date, and tries to remind her of those times, hoping to persuade her to join him. She refuses, yet again. Raj here attempts the same thing as before, which is inauthentic – persuasion of others rather than transformation of self, and it brings about a result no different than previous ones. As a result, we see his flaw that he doesn’t see himself, that he cannot remain the same kind of person – the fraud – if he wants a different, affirmative response from Vidya – that he needs to realise certain things for himself first.
Hamlet, when aware that he’s to keep his task a secret and fulfil it by himself, shows his indecision by trying to gauge Claudius’ guilt for himself, and later by not killing him when he could. He reveals his flaw by employing the same approach to a situation – analysing the situations, verifying it to himself, questioning things like the right time and place to perform the deed – and thereby losing the opportunity. He wants to kill Claudius but does not see that he needs to accept this reality for himself. It is not the situation but him that needs to change, and because Hamlet is being inauthentic, and not realising this about himself, he displays a weakness that reduces him a little in our eyes.
In the concluding part of this series you can read about the Act IIA and Act IIB and Act III of the Arc.
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.