At their heart, a character-driven story is a journey of self-discovery. These begin when a character is dissatisfied with an aspect of self and end when the character solidifies their self-definition. This can end in a positive or negative state. Either the character achieves the self-definition they were going for, or they recognize that they never will. Basically, they either like themselves at the end, or they don’t. Happy ending or tragedy.
Now, a lot of people think that in order to have a character arc you must have a deeply flawed character in order to give them room to grow. That is an option. But this is often really heavy-handed and, honestly, not the way people generally work. It can lead to fiction that feels flat or contrived. So let’s look at how to avoid that, shall we?
Let’s start with their self-definition. This is how we view ourselves. We hold onto our self-definition with everything we have. The most sacred part of our being. But, and this is where people screw up early on, our self-definitions exist on multiple axes.
*Role — Defined by career. Am I a puppeteer, a voice actor, an author.
*Relationship — Things defined by duty. A wife. A daughter. Sister. Mentor.
*Status — Defined by class/hierarchy — aspirational vs. Inherited vs. Lived. So you can have someone who was born middle class, living poverty level, aspiring to wealth.
*Competence — Defined by abilities. That moment when the smartest person in the room isn’t anymore. If someone calls you stupid. If you think you aren’t smart enough. If you think you’re too smart.
The places where the disparate aspects of their self-identity come into conflict are natural stress points. So you don’t have to make your character deeply flawed to have conflict. All you have to look for the cracks and pry on them.
When you start forcing that character to redefine themselves, it begins your character story. Your job is to challenge that self-definition every step of the way. So in a character story, you’re looking at interior conflict. Your story probably has other elements, but those are external struggles that can inform and shape the choices your character has to make while they are on their internal journey. So the choice a character might make at the beginning isn’t necessarily the same one they make at the end.
There’s a natural progression, which I picked up from Elizabeth Boyle
D - Denial
R - Resistance
E - Exploration
A – Acceptance
M - Manifestation
This is the story of every character change. (It's also the structure of romance.)
D – Denial – No. We'll never wind up together.
R – Resistance – Shit. There might be something there, and I cannot allow there to be.
E – Exploration – Well... one date won't hurt.
A – Acceptance – Love!
D – Denial – No. I’m totally not an asshole. You’re the asshole.
R – Resistance – Shit. Maybe I was a little bit of an ass, and so were they!
E – Exploration – Well... maybe I provoked them. I could apologize and see what happens.
A – Acceptance – I apologize. I’m an asshole.
M — Manifestation — Hey! Don’t be an asshole.
Now that you have those building blocks… Look for the failure points on the way to the next level. These are the proverbial try/fail cycles that we talk about for action. They work just as well for changing of self-definition.
*Denial — Your character is in denial. What do they try, as a way to reinforce their self-identity that fails? Why does it fail?
*Resistance — That failure carries you into the resistance stage. Your character has begun to recognize that there might be some truth there, but are still trying to cling to the old self-definition. This is often more desperate. What do they try? Why does it fail?
*Exploration — Here’s where they are trying on the new self-definition. This often leads to over-compensating — though not always. Sometimes they don’t dive in all the way. There’s still a conflict between the dictates of the old self-definition and the new one. What goes wrong with the exploration?
*Acceptance — Often, whatever goes wrong there propels them into acceptance. They can see very clearly what they have become.
*Manifestation — Now that they accept who they are, how do they act upon it? What has changed about their relationship with the world?
Got it? Great. Now, one of the problems that happens with a lot of character arcs is that it becomes very navel-gazy. It’s all broody introspection and that can get, frankly, a little dull. So what you want to think about is how each of these stages is going to manifest with action. To paraphrase a Regency thing about manners… “Manners are the outward expression of your opinion of others.” In this case, what we are looking at is for an outward expression of their opinion of self.
*What action represents denial?
*How is their resistance embodied?
*When they explore, what do they do?
*What changes when they accept?
*And what’s the final materialization of that acceptance? You can accept something and not act on it. How do they act now that they are in this new self-definition?
But the tl;dr version is this:
1. Character is unhappy with identity.
2. Character tries to change.
3. Character's identity solidifies.