There are only two or three human stories, but they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.–Willa Cather
The many different approaches to story theory break down the number of “human stories” into different categories. Perhaps there are just two—comedy and tragedy. Perhaps there are Vonnegut’s eight “shapes.” Today, I’m going to argue for five—the five basic types of character arc.
These include the two Truth-driven or heroic arcs—the Positive-Change Arc and the Flat Arc. And the three Lie-driven or Negative-Change Arcs—the Disillusionment Arc, the Fall Arc, and the Corruption Arc.
I’ve talked about all these arcs extensively, beat by beat, both in my series of posts and my book Creating Character Arcs and its companion workbook. But as someone recently pointed out in an email, I’ve never compiled a basic structural beat sheet of what all the arcs look like at a glance.
As of now, I’m remedying that with a two-part series that puts the basic principles and types of character arc all in one place. Today, we’re going to start by talking about, first, the basic ingredients necessary in any type of character arc, followed by a detailed but at-a-glance look at the two “truth-based” heroic arcs.
The 6 Foundational Ingredients of All Character Arcs
Let’s get started. All five arcs share several commonalities, beginning with their foundational structure (which I prefer to break into three acts and ten beats, as you’ll see below). Beyond that, they also share the following six foundational ingredients, which can then be mixed to the author’s needs according to whichever arc has been chosen for the story.
1. The Thematic Truth
The theme is your story’s Truth. It is a universal statement about how the world works. In almost all instances (with the arguable exception of the Disillusionment Arc), the Truth will represent an ultimately positive (if sometimes painful) value, which will help the characters interact more fruitfully and less futilely with the world.
2. The Lie the Character Believes
The Lie is a misconception about the world that stands in contrast to the Truth. At the beginning of the story, the Lie will be preventing someone (either the protagonist or, in the case of the Flat Arc, supporting characters) from seeing, understanding, and/or accepting a necessary Truth. The entire character arc—and, indeed, the entire story—is about if and how the character(s) will be able to evolve past the Lie into the Truth.
3. & 4. The Thing the Character Wants vs. the Thing the Character Needs
The inner thematic conflict of Truth vs. Lie will manifest in the external plot conflict as the Thing the Character Wants vs. the Thing the Character Needs. Usually, the Need is nothing more or less than the Truth, although it can take a physical form as well. The Want may be something large and abstract (such as “respect”), but it should boil down to a very specific plot goal (“a promotion” or “a college degree”). Your character’s evolving proximity to the Want and the Need will change in direct relation to the specific character arc.
5. The Ghost
The Ghost (sometimes also referred to as the “wound”) is the motivating catalyst in your protagonist’s backstory. This is the reason the character believes in the Lie and can’t see past it to the Truth. As its name (coined by script doctor extraordinaire John Truby) suggests, the Ghost is something that haunts the character, something that can’t just be moved past. Often, it is a traumatic event, but even something seemingly positive (such as a parent’s pride in a child) can cause a character to believe the damaging Lie.
6. The Normal World
The Normal World is the initial setting in the story’s First Act, meant to illustrate the character’s life before the story’s main conflict. Depending on the type of arc, the Normal World will symbolically represent either the story’s Truth or the story’s Lie. The Normal World may be a definitive setting, which will change at the beginning of the Second Act, when the character enters the Adventure World of the main conflict. However, it may also be more metaphorical, in which case the setting itself will not switch, but rather the conflict will change the setting around the protagonist (for example changing the atmosphere from friendly to hostile).
The 2 Heroic Arcs
The Positive-Change Arc and the Flat Arc are the “happy” or “heroic” arcs. In these stories, the protagonist either learns or already knows the Truth—and uses it to positively impact the story world.
1. The Positive-Change Arc
Character Believes Lie > Overcomes Lie > New Truth Is Liberating
The First Act (1%-25%)
1%: The Hook: Believes Lie
The protagonist believes a Lie that has so far proven necessary or functional in the existing Normal World.
12%: The Inciting Event: First Hint Lie Will No Longer Work
The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, also brings the first subtle hint that the Lie will no longer serve the protagonist as effectively as it has in the past.
25%: The First Plot Point: Lie No Longer Effective
The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice, in which the “old ways” of the Lie-ridden First Act show themselves ineffective in the face of the main conflict’s new stakes. Although the protagonist does not yet recognize the inefficacy of the Lie, he will still pass through a Door of No Return, in which he is forced to leave the Normal World of the First Act and enter the Adventure World of the main conflict in the Second Act.
The Second Act (25%-75%)
37%: The First Pinch Point: Punished for Using Lie
The protagonist is “punished” for using the Lie. In the Normal World, he was able to use the Lie to get the Thing He Wants. But in the Second Act, this is no longer a functional mindset. Throughout the First Half of the Second Act, he will try to use his old Lie-based mindsets to reach his goals and will be “punished” by failures until he begins to learn how things really work.
50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Sees Truth, But Doesn’t Yet Reject Lie
The protagonist encounters a Moment of Truth in which he comes face to face with the thematic Truth (often via a simultaneous plot-based revelation about the external conflict). This is the first time the protagonist consciously recognizes the Truth and its power. He does not yet, however, recognize the Truth and the Lie as incompatible. He will attempt to use both in the Second Half of the Second Act.
62%: The Second Pinch Point: Rewarded for Effectively Using Truth
The protagonist is “rewarded” for using the Truth. Building upon what he learned at the Midpoint, the protagonist will start implementing Truth-based actions in combating the antagonistic force and reaching toward the Thing He Wants. He will be “rewarded” by successes as he moves nearer and nearer his ultimate plot goal.
The Third Act (75%-100%)
75%: The Third Plot Point: Rejects Lie
The protagonist is confronted by a “low moment” brought about by his continuing refusal to fully reject the Lie. Finally, the protagonist must confront the true stakes of what he stands to lose if he continues to embrace the Lie. Feeling all but defeated, he rejects the Lie. Implicitly, he also fully embraces the Truth.
88%: The Climax: Embraces Truth
The protagonist enters the final confrontation with the antagonistic force to decide whether or not he will gain the Thing He Wants. Directly before or during this section, he consciously and explicitly embraces and wields the Truth.
98%: The Climactic Moment: Uses Truth to Gain Need
The protagonist uses the Truth and all it has taught him about himself and the conflict to gain the Thing He Needs. Depending upon the nature of his Truth, he may also gain the Thing He Wants, or he may realize he needs to sacrifice it for his own greater good. As a result, he definitively ends the conflict between himself and the antagonistic force.
100%: The Resolution: Enters New Truth-Empowered Normal World
The protagonist either enters a new Normal World or returns to the original Normal World, where he can now live as a Truth-empowered individual.
2. The Flat Arc
Character Believes Truth > Maintains Truth > Uses Truth to Overcome World’s Lie
The First Act (1%-25%)
1%: The Hook: Believes Truth in a Lie-Ridden World
The protagonist believes a Truth that the rest of the Normal World around her rejects. The Normal World and most of its characters are mired in a central Lie which enslaves them in some way.
12%: The Inciting Event: Challenged to Use Truth to Oppose Lie
The Call to Adventure, when the protagonist first encounters the main conflict, presents a direct challenge to her Truth. The question at this point is whether or not she can be convinced to take action in wielding her Truth against the Lie of the world around her.
25%: The First Plot Point: World Tries to Forcibly Impose Lie
The protagonist is faced with a consequential choice, in which the antagonistic force attempts to forcibly impose the Lie upon her or others. In refusing to relinquish her Truth for the Lie, the protagonist passes through a Door of No Return, in which she is forced to leave the Normal World of the First Act and enter the Adventure World of the main conflict in the Second Act.
The Second Act (25%-75%)
37%: The First Pinch Point: Uncertain if Truth Is Capable of Defeating Lie
The protagonist struggles to use her Truth against the strength of the antagonistic force’s Lie. She experiences doubt about whether her Truth is capable of defeating the Lie and, as a result, if it is indeed the Truth.
50%: The Midpoint (Second Plot Point): Proves Power of Truth to World
The protagonist perseveres in following her Truth. She offers a Moment of Truth to the world around her. This is the first time the protagonist will demonstrably exhibit the full power and purity of the Truth. At least one significant supporting character will be impacted (positively or negatively) by this revelation.
62%: The Second Pinch Point: Lie-Driven Characters Fight Back
In response to the protagonist’s powerful demonstration of Truth at the Midpoint, other Lie-driven characters will double down on the Lie and use it to mount a formidable counter-attack upon the protagonist and her Truth.
The Third Act (75%-100%)
75%: The Third Plot Point: Lie Seems to Triumph Externally
The Lie-driven tactics of the antagonistic force hit the protagonist hard, even to the point of the protagonist’s seeming defeat in the external conflict. The protagonist is confronted by a “low moment” brought about by the supporting characters’ continuing refusal to fully reject the Lie. The protagonist must confront the true stakes of what she stands to sacrifice if she continues to embrace the Truth. Even in the face of overwhelming odds, she reaffirms her conviction of the Truth.
88%: The Climax: Final Confrontation Between Truth and Lie
The protagonist enters the final confrontation with the antagonistic force to decide whether or not she will gain the Thing She Wants. She consciously and explicitly embraces and wields the Truth.
98%: The Climactic Moment: Truth Defeats Lie
The protagonist uses the Truth (often with the help of positively-changed supporting characters) to defeat the antagonistic force and gain the Thing She Wants and Needs (which are often the same thing in a Flat Arc, since the protagonist always possesses an understanding of the Truth).
100%: The Resolution: New Truth-Empowered Normal World
The protagonist enters a new Normal World, which is empowered by the Truth thanks to her actions.
Once you’ve mastered these two heroic arcs, you’re well on your way to writing powerful stories of redemption, conviction, and relatable righteousness.
Stay tuned, because next week, we’re going to do a side-by-side comparison of the three Negative-Change Arcs, which offer an equal amount of power in dramatizing all the ways human journeys don’t always turn out the way we might hope.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you written either of these types of character arc in your stories? Tell me in the comments!
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