Writing Hacks: Developing Your Characters’ Emotional Arcs

character arc 1

A lot of people think that writing a good story is about nailing the plot. (I was this way when I first started out.) While plot is important, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Equally important to plot is your casts’ character development, or what some call the characters’ emotional development.

What is emotional development?

Emotional development is how your characters change throughout the course of the story. After everything they’ve been through plot-wise, they aren’t going to be the same person at the end of the story. Sometimes these developments are good, and sometimes they are bad. People are shades of gray, in my opinion, neither purely good nor bad. I advise exploring both the positive and negative sides to your characters’ emotional arcs to add depth and richness to your story.

What is an emotional arc?

Like a plot-arc, where we have a beginning, inciting incident, first point of no return, middle, second door of no return, dark night of the soul, climax, and conclusion, a characters’ emotional journey also has sign posts. I’ll give a brief run-down of how the plot sign posts line up with the emotional sign posts below. For more detailed information, I highly recommend Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer. It’s one of my favorite writing references for tracking the dramatic and emotional action in your story.

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Plot and Emotional Sign Posts

Beginning: This is your character’s normal world or starting point. Just because this is a starting point doesn’t mean things are boring. Characters have flaws, after all. They must also have a goal, motivation for that goal, and encounter conflict (I’ll cover the importance of GMC in another post.). It’s necessary to give your readers a glimpse into your character’s normal life or starting self so they can start to form an attachment and empathize with the character.

Inciting Incident: The event, or problem, that shakes up your character’s normal world. Some people call this the “call to adventure,” which your character typically resists. She wants to remain comfortable and keep the things the same. After all, the unknown is scary. She may not know she needs to change. You, as the dastardly writer, must drag your protagonist kicking and screaming toward the first point of no return.

First Door of No Return: Pressure and misfortunes mount until your character is forced through the first door of no return. This could mean her identity is stripped away and she’s left fumbling and struggling to find her balance in this strange, new world. It could mean she loses the family who has always been there for her. However you handle it, you must make it clear things cannot go back to being the way they were in the beginning. This is the stage where your character is most off-balance. She could be suffering from loss of identity, loss of loved ones, loss of career, loss, loss, loss. She might feel anguished, angry, in denial, frightened.

Second Act/Part One: As the character gropes to find her way, she must also gradually discover renewed strength and confidence in her ability to adapt to this new scenario. Readers see the character slowly finding her footing and changing into a stronger version of herself. New flaws appear. The middle is where she learns things about herself she never knew existed. It’s where she gets comfortable in her new skin. She starts to question who this new person is and if she likes this new person. What are her goals and motivations now? Have they changed from before?

Middle: The midpoint is where the character realizes she cannot go back to the way things were before and surrenders to her fate. She’s not fumbling around in her new role as much, physically or emotionally. This marks a turning point in her confidence and her commitment to change.

Second Act/Part Two: Firmly committing to this new life, your heroine embraces who she is becoming. She discovers new skills and strengths. Her personal hopes and dreams are more clearly defined here, since she knows her new self better. She starts to test herself and believe in herself more. After all, she has to, for the antagonist has been growing steadily stronger this whole time.

Dark Night of the Soul: This is the point where the antagonist’s power is at its greatest. Things look bleak for your heroine. She questions if the struggle to change was worth it, and if she’s good enough to do what she must do. All her doubts weigh upon her, and she must find the courage and strength to face her main antagonist.

Climax: This is the showdown against the bad guy. Your heroine is tested to see if she’s changed enough to overcome her greatest fears and obstacles. She may still question herself, but she must possess the determination and grit to see this through. Otherwise, she will fail.

Resolution: Triumphant, your heroine emerges victorious from the conflict. She might be surprised and proud she conquered her greatest foe. She has fully transformed into a different person from who she was in the beginning. (On a sidenote, some characters experience a negative emotional arc. They might devolve throughout the story until they are in a worse state of being than the beginning. Think of the hobbit who eventually devolved into Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.)

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Tips for Tracking Emotional Development

I tend to know how my character ends up first, and then go back to the beginning to figure out where they started. I then scribble my way through the middle until I have a good idea of how I’m going to emotionally develop my character throughout the story. In The Plot Whisperer, Martha suggests writing down your characters’ emotional development “sign posts” on index cards and placing them alongside your plot arc cards on a wall, so you can visually see how things line up. This has been incredibly useful to me, as I can quickly glance through my visual timeline and adjust or plan accordingly.

Conclusion

I hope this has served as a primer for character/emotional development if you are new to writing, or if you’re a plot-heavy writer (as I used to be). Putting some thought into how you handle your characters’ emotional development—I encourage you to do this for secondary characters, too—will enhance and enrich your stories, making them more engaging for the reader.

  • Images created with Canva. 

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Do you track your characters’ emotional development while writing or planning out a story? 

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