Building Character Arcs

Building Character Arcs

Crafting a realistic character is tough. It may be one of the toughest parts of writing. If you’re anything like most writers, you discover as much about your characters by writing the story as your readers do by reading it. However, even if you’re not one who typically outlines a book ahead of time, knowing what your characters want, what their weaknesses are, and what they need from the very beginning makes this process much easier. And as master story instructors like John Truby in The Anatomy of Story, James Scott Bell in Write Your Novel from the Middle, and Alexandra Sokoloff in Screenwriting Tricks for Authors teach, establishing these essential parts of your characters early gives you a clear throughline on which to hang their entire character arc, culminating in their ultimate transformation.

Starting Point: Wants, Weaknesses, and Needs

Before you can start building a character’s arc, you need to know their “want”—their desire or motive. “The external desire will be a selfish want: something the protagonist wants for him or herself” (Sokoloff), usually presented along with the character’s initial introduction in the form of a goal they’re trying to accomplish. It’s recommended that each character have at least one basic want. The character’s want may shift or they may gain additional wants as plot events happen, but the important thing is that their wants are made clear to readers so they know what accomplishments to root for. 

Since a perfect character is unrealistic, you also need to give them weaknesses. Your character’s weakness is “the fundamental internal flaw that is destroying the character’s life” (Truby). In other words, the thing that is preventing your character from achieving their want or finding happiness. This is usually something inherent to their personality that they are either unaware of or unable to control that gets addressed as a result of what happens in the story.

A character’s need is a little trickier to pin down. Alexandra Sokoloff defines it as, “something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character [. . .] the character will know that s/he wants that outer desire, but will probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.” Generally, the need is tied to overcoming their weakness in some way, and Truby recommends that characters have both a psychological and moral need. Their psychological need is a weakness hurting only themselves that they have to face in order to become happy and whole. Their moral need is a weakness hurting at least one other person that they must face in order to become a better person to others.

End Point: Self-Revelation

Character arcs happen when wants and needs—or outer and inner desires—come in conflict with each other. The hope is that their needs win out over their wants as the story progresses. The best way to do that is to know the ultimate goal of their arc, which means looking to the end at the self-revelation. 

In every good story, the main character should have a revelation at the end where they recognize that they’ve changed from who they were at the beginning and decide who they want to be from that point on. It typically involves a recognition of their weakness and a fulfillment of their need. This is then followed by the character performing an action that showcases their transformation. As James Scott Bell believes, “Transformation is about change, and change needs to be proven. [. . .] Change does involve an inner realization. But then, to prove itself, it must work outward in a visual form.” Or as Truby states, “By starting with the frame of the story—self-revelation to weakness, need, and desire—we establish the endpoint of the plot first. Then every step we take will lead us directly where we want to go.” Our job as authors, then, is to figure out who we want our characters to become by the end of the story and how we can best demonstrate that change.

Center Checkpoint: The Midpoint

With the end of your character’s arc in mind, James Scott Bell advocates that authors look to the midpoint of the book to create the groundwork for that growth. It’s common to see an important external event happen at this point in a story, but Bell suggests it’s just as crucial to have the character experience a pivotal, internal moment here that he calls “The Mirror Moment.” This is when “the character looks at himself. He takes stock of where he is in the conflict anddepending on the type of storyhas either of two basic thoughts. In a character-driven story, he looks at himself and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming? If he continues the fight of Act II, how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome his inner challenges? How will he have to change in order to battle successfully? The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. It’s where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him.” This understanding of a need to change is the starting point for the character’s transformative arc that leads to their self-revelation at the end.

According to Truby, “Self-revelation, need, and desire represent the overall range of change of your hero in the story. [. . .] this frame gives you the structural ‘journey’ your hero will take,” because you have to know who they’ve been to know who they’ll become. This might sound simple, but your characters are carrying around heavy loads, and it’s up to you to figure out what those external and internal struggles are and what experiences they need to have in order to deal with those issues. However, if you can pinpoint the type of transformative character arc you want them to have and the events that need to happen in order to get them there, your characters will plant themselves in the hearts and minds of every reader who meets them.

Written by Jessica DeLand

Jessica DeLand is a YA contemporary fantasy writer from McKinney, TX. She graduated from Brigham Young University–Idaho with a B.A. in English and is a full-time mother of four young children. Her hobbies include art, car karaoke, watching movies, sewing, crocheting, and co-op gaming of all kinds with her husband and children. Follow her writing journey on Twitter or Instagram @delandjessica or learn more about her at

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