Creating Character Arcs: Part 1

Character Arcs: Act 1

Compelling, fun and memorable character arcs that leave a big impression are something we search for in media. We all love to see a flawed character grow and change onscreen. It’s a challenge to create a good story with characters you want to follow. But the right structure can help shape both character and story.

Writer, K.M. Weiland describes character arcs in her book, Creating Character Arcs. She outlines a defining “Lie” a character tells themselves about their identity that shapes their world-view.

In what Weiland describes as a positive change arc, the plot takes the Lie that’s holding the hero back and dismantles it throughout the story. And in the end, they come to understand a new truth about the world and themselves.

Turning to popular culture, two great examples of well- structured positive change arc are the first Thor movie and DreamWorks, The Prince of Egypt. They work so well because they’re both about entitled princes whose Lie is that they think the world revolves around them. Everything is fine and the system they live in because they’re comfortable living at the top. However, they’re rattled out of their apathy by life-changing events that force them to start caring.

Act 1: Introduction to the character and their Lie
 So, the first act in the three-act structure is all about set up. We’re introduced to the main character and the world they live in.

Thor:

The first time we see adult Thor, he’s grandstanding in front of a crowd, and later, flipping over a table when he doesn’t get his way.

We’re shown is Lie vividly from the start, and that’s his right of kingship, and that swinging his hammer around should fix every problem.

The Prince of Egypt:

After we’ve shown the situation of the slaves and how Moses came to be in the care of his adoptive family, we cut to Moses and Ramses as young men. We first see them in the middle of an intense and reckless chariot race. There’s property damage and Moses nearly rammed his adoptive brother into the side of a wall in the name of fun!

What’s Moses’ Lie? His father’s kingdom is his playground, and everything exists for him and his family.

This is how you show where your character is at the beginning of your story and constructs the basis for their arc. You show their normal environment and how they act in that environment.

The Inciting Incident:

Now we have the set-up, the story is ready to leap into the inciting incident. This propels the narrative forward, taking the main protagonist from their known world and challenging their Lie in a dramatic way.

Thor:

The first Thor does this by having Thor and his friends travel to Jutonhiem to fight the Frost giants behind Odin’s back. Thor gets busted because of his jealous little brother, and as a result, he loses everything. In a fit of rage, Odin takes away his son’s hammer and title, banishing him to some backwater place called Earth!

At the end of act 1, Thor lost everything that he’d built his identity on. Act 2 begins with him literally run over a car and tasered. All his pride is thoroughly stomped on by the narrative.

The Prince of Egypt:

After an encounter with his biological sister and brother, Moses is forced to question his heritage. He then stumbles on the “history etched on every wall” that shows the Pharaoh ordering the deaths of all the children of slaves. Moses’ Lie that he’s deserving of all he has because of his birth status is completely shattered.

Like Thor, everything he built his identity on has been stripped away. Act 2 will focus on the fallout from their Lie being taken from them, and how they move forward from there.

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