7 Questions to Design a Better Arc of Change for Your Protagonist

Image: composite photo of an eclipsing sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.
“Sunset Beach Eclipse May 20th 2012” by jimnista is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Today’s post is by book coach, editor and platform expert Heather Davis (@HLeeDavisWriter).

Beginning authors don’t often appreciate the critical importance of a fully formed character arc, nor do they understand the key steps to create a satisfying one.

The good news? This problem is totally fixable.

Here are 7 essential questions I use to help writers create a robust and rewarding arc of change for their protagonist. To help fully explore each question, I will be using Ernest Cline’s adrenaline-packed novel Ready Player One for my examples.

1. What’s the Point you are trying to make with your novel?

Every great novel makes a Point about the world or the human condition. This Point is carefully crafted so that it resonates deeply with readers and takes them on a journey of emotional discovery. The problem for aspiring authors? It’s difficult to reverse engineer that story magic because great novels don’t beat readers over the head with their Point. If the scenes in a novel are like beads on a string (and I really love this analogy) then the Point of the novel is the string itself, joining those beads into a single entity, coursing through the center of everything but nearly invisible most of the time.

In Ready Player One, the Point is “in order to live a meaningful life, that life must be lived authentically and in the real world.”

Yes, this Point sounds super cliche. But that’s alright. In fact, most Points are so universal that they do sound cliche, and, ironically, that is exactly why they resonate so strongly with readers.

2. What are the biggest moments in your protagonist’s past that cause them to feel misaligned with the Point of your novel?

If your protagonist is going to be a great fit for your novel, they need to have a fairly unhealthy relationship with the Point you are trying to make. Why? Because they haven’t actually learned the Point yet. That’s exactly what makes them the ideal protagonist for your novel.

But here’s the tricky part. In order for that unhealthy relationship to be believable to readers, you must create a past that supports and explains it.

In Ready Player One, protagonist Wade Watts chooses virtual reality over the real thing, and his backstory certainly explains that choice. He is a poverty-stricken orphan who lives with an abusive aunt in a dangerous trailer park called the Stacks. His father was shot to death for looting a grocery store when Wade was just a baby, and his mother died of a drug overdose when he was 11 years old. This rich backstory helps readers empathize with Wade’s decision to escape reality.

3. What problems are being created by your protagonist’s past and their resulting misalignment with the Point of the novel?

Once your protagonist has a past that explains their misalignment with the Point of the novel, it is your job to determine all the ways that past is wreaking havoc in the story present. Why? Because these problems will subtly notify readers that your protagonist’s life needs some serious fixing (i.e. an arc of change).

In Ready Player One, the tragic events of Wade’s past have created numerous problems in his life. He has a terrible relationship with his aunt and her boyfriend, he sleeps on the floor of a tiny laundry room, he is bullied at school for being poor, and he has no friends outside of the OASIS. Yes, Wade has problems galore. And all of these problems reinforce Wade’s belief that happiness can only be found in the OASIS—far, far away from the real world.

4. What does your protagonist want?

Now that you know where your protagonist’s arc of change starts and the backstory that supports the need for that change, you must ensure your protagonist has a goal that drives them. That’s right—every protagonist needs a goal. Without a goal, the story is stagnant.

Interestingly, the goal does not necessarily need to be the real antidote to their problems. In fact, it usually isn’t the real antidote.

Usually, the protagonist’s goal centers around something very external because we all tend to guess that external things will make us happy. For example, maybe your protagonist wants a love interest to notice them, or maybe they want to make partner at a law firm, or maybe they want to make their ex-lover miserable.

No matter your protagonist’s goal, both you and your readers know something your protagonist doesn’t know: achieving that external goal isn’t really going to provide the internal reward your protagonist is longing for. Because of this reality, it doesn’t actually matter if your protagonist achieves the external goal or not. Maybe they get what they want, maybe they don’t. Either way, they will learn the Point of the novel and complete their character arc.

In Ready Player One, Wade’s goal has nothing to do with making authentic human connections and living in the real world. Nope—he just wants to find an Easter Egg hidden inside OASIS because that will bring immense wealth.

5. What does your protagonist need?

Your protagonist’s true need is the heart and soul of your novel and your protagonist’s internal arc of change. It is the antidote to all of their problems. After all, your protagonist is internally stuck, and they must change or die (if not physically, at least metaphorically), and your plot is going to help them get unstuck. You will find that the protagonist’s Need is a reflection of the story Point. That’s not an accident, it’s the story’s magic.

In Ready Player One, Wade needs “to create authentic relationships with real people in the real world to find true happiness.” Why? Because Wade lives almost entirely in the OASIS and has no fulfilling relationship in his real life. Even Wade’s best friend, Aech, and his love interest, Art3mis, are known to him only in the OASIS. He is as far from “living authentically and in the real world” as a character can get. Again, readers feel Wade’s struggle deep down in their core. They know he needs a lot more than money to achieve happiness.

6. What external events are ideal to force your protagonist through their arc of change?

Your protagonist doesn’t want to change. They are a stubborn, willful child who would rather stay in their status quo world forever. Why? Because change is hard and inertia feels safer.

That means that you need a plot that will absolutely force them to learn the Point of your novel. This plot should propel your protagonist out of their “normal life” and into a “new life.” Event by event, the plot should give your protagonist no choice but to move through their character arc, changing incrementally along the way. Remember, each event in your novel is actually an argument for the Point you are trying to make.

In Ready Player One, Wade realizes that he can’t find the prized Easter Egg without help from his virtual friends. Soon, however, the bad guys target Wade in real life, forcing him to share more personal information with his friends, and, eventually, leading him to meet those friends in person in order to survive and accomplish his goal.

7. How will your protagonist change by the end of the novel?

In order for readers to feel satisfied by the ending of your novel, the protagonist must have a full and dynamic arc of change. The protagonist should land 180 degrees from where they were at the beginning of the novel. Interestingly, this change doesn’t have to be in their external circumstances. The protagonist’s external circumstances might change for the better, stay the same, or get worse. The important change happens internally.

In Ready Player One, Wade finds the Easter Egg and becomes the richest person on the planet. Externally, he is 180 degrees from where he started. Not bad. But the most important change has taken place internally. By the end of the novel, Wade has realized that true happiness comes from authentic human connection. The final scene shows Wade in the real world, meeting and professing his love to Samantha, the young woman behind the Art3mis avatar. Now that’s a satisfying arc of change.

Final thoughts

The external parts of your novel (i.e. the plot) and the internal parts of your novel (i.e. the protagonist’s arc of change) must be intricately woven together to create a work that truly resonates with readers. It’s okay to rethink and reimagine your story until both aspects of the novel support each other perfectly. Remember, readers might pluck a novel off the shelf because of an awesome premise, but they stick around to watch the protagonist grow and change in meaningful, cohesive ways.

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