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How-to Tuesday

How to Bring Your Characters to Life: Part 5 – Mapping Your Character’s Personal Journey

Every week, we update our current how-to series about creating realistic characters, entitled “How to Bring Your Characters to Life,” providing a handy activity to help you turn your characters into realistic “people.” Last week’s post was about fine-tuning your character’s personality. This week, we will map out your character’s personal journey by figuring out how he or she will change throughout the course of the story.

Mapping Your Character’s Personal Journey

Last week, you decided whether other people in your story perceive your main character as he or she truly is (or thinks that he is) or in a different way. Now that you know how your character views themselves and how the world sees them, you can decide whether you think that your character will stay “static” and be similar at the end of the story, or change (for better or worse) as a result of what happens in your plot. In the past two parts of our series, you considered how your character might feel about the way they are viewed by others and/or themselves. If it is a positive view, the character may not feel like it is necessary to change (you can still change them if you want to) but if your character feels like he/she is viewed negatively, they may feel more motivated to change.

Another reason a character might change is to get closer to achieving their goals. If your character wants to make the varsity soccer team, then she may decide to start practicing every day. If your workaholic character wants to spend more time with his family, he may purposefully reduce his own hours at work. Or perhaps, his hours are cut without his approval, and being forced to stay home more causes him to realize the importance of family.

It is up to you to decide if, why, and how much your character will change, and whether others will notice the change in your main character. If they do notice, will they appreciate the change or be disappointed by it? How will your character feel about the reaction their change (or lack of change) provokes in those around them?

In the writing world, a character’s change throughout the story is often referred to as his “inner journey” or “character arc.” A character’s journey has five main parts:

1. Initial Condition:

How your main character is at the start of the story. This includes your character’s best qualities as well as your character’s most fatal flaws. Does your character realize if and how he might benefit from changing? Is your character’s life perfect? If not, how could changing in a certain way help improve your character’s life, the lives of those around him, or help him achieve his goals?

2. Inciting Event:

The event that sets your story into motion, causing your character to take some sort of action. (Usually this is an out-of-the-ordinary event, such as having an unusual encounter with a new person, an unexpected blessing, a natural disaster, a personal epiphany, a midlife crisis, etc.) This inciting event causes your character to realize that something needs to change (however your character might not know yet that he is what actually needs to change). For example, your character might decide to try a new career path, pursue a love interest, travel to an unfamiliar place, etc. Along the way, he may realize that he needs to change in order to properly achieve the change he desires in his life as a whole.

3. Escalation:

The events (usually problems/obstacles that grow increasingly more difficult as the story progresses) that shape the change or changes in your character. The more painful and difficult the events are, the more likely it is that your character is going to want to change. For example, if your character is a mean and selfish person, and one by one, he starts losing all of his friends and the love of his significant other or family members, he will probably decide to become nicer to others. But if your mean character only loses one friend, he may just become angry at that person rather than realizing that change is necessary.

4. Moment of Truth:

This is the moment when your character finally realizes the effect that his initial condition was having on his life, and clearly sees how changing could affect his life from that point onwards. This is when your character fully commits to changing, or makes an informed resolution not to change, despite the benefits he knows that it might have. For example, a gangster might decide to “go legit” and get into another line of work, or he might try to do so, but eventually return to his life of crime even though it is clear to him now how much it hurts everyone around him. This is the most crucial point in your story, where your character chooses between good and evil, and/or between changing and staying the same. Your readers will be on the edge of their seats wondering what your character will decide, so try to make it as interesting as possible.

5. Final State:

The aftermath of your main character’s choice leads to the “final state” at the end of the story. Has your character changed? If so, how much? Have others noticed? How do they feel about it? How does your character feel? Has he achieved his goals? Have his goals changed at all?

Activity #1:

Have a conversation with somebody close to you, such as a friend or family member, and ask them to tell you about a time in their life where they decided to change in an important way. Ask them why they decided to change, and what events led up to that decision. Take detailed notes, and see if you can incorporate their own experience into your story later.

Activity #2:

Map out the five main parts of your character’s journey by answering the five questions below. Try to write at least a paragraph for each question.

1. Initial Condition: How do you want your character to be at the start of the story?
2. Inciting Event: What will be the event that sets your story into motion?
3. Escalation: List 3-5 events (usually problems/obstacles that grow increasingly more difficult as the story progresses) that shape the change or changes in your character.
4. Moment of Truth: When your character finally realizes the effect that his initial condition was having on his life, what will he decide?
5. Final State: How do you want your character to be at the end of the story?

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