Character Arcs

Signs and portents, my dear readers, signs and portents. Last week, a 4.8 magnitude earthquake was felt all along the East Coast and got people who think of earthquakes as a West Coast thing all excited. Personally, I thought my boiler was having a particularly aggressive morning until my coworkers started chiming in on our group chat and asking if “we felt that”.

And, of course, the big, huge event this week was the solar eclipse. Earthquakes, night during day, almost eighty degrees in the first week of April. Signs and portents.

The human mind has evolved to make connections. And although we certainly need to make connections with other humans, to the point that loneliness and rejection undermine our health almost as badly as smoking habits, I’m talking about other kinds of connections. We are hard-wired to look at a flat, 2-D drawing, and interpret it as a 3-D object. This is MAGIC. Our brains do magic.

And this ability to connect things to create a narrative extends to everything in our world. At its best, this is where scientific discoveries come from. At worst, you get conspiracy theories and terrorists.

But this magic that our brains do is gold for authors. Not only does it enable us, the writers, to create stories and fully rounded characters, it enables our characters to come alive and do all kinds of things because their minds make connections and our minds as writers and readers, accept these connections as realistic.

We can recognize a connection as being false (I can’t see the curvature of the earth, therefore the earth is flat), while at the same time being completely capable of recognizing, and maybe even liking, a character who makes this connection.

Character Arcs Drive Your Story

Yes, there are plot driven stories, and there are character driven stories, but the best stories are the ones where the story happens BECAUSE a character is who they are. It can only happen to THEM, and therefore, even plot driven narratives are really character driven at heart.

And what drives our characters? Fears, lies, false connections (of the heart and of the mind).

A while back I hit a wall with a WIP. After some soul searching, I realized I didn’t have a good enough grip on my characters. They were soft, gauzy. I was placing them on the chess board of my plot without knowing why they were moving around other than that I needed them to go here or there. Eat a pawn. Fight a rook.

How to Find Your Character’s Arc (a template recommendation)

I turned to the internet, and the internet gave me gold. The template available from this site has been tremendously useful, and I couldn’t recommend it higher. One of the things it forces you to ask your character is “what line would they never cross”. Or, as in a writing exercise I recently did, “what would they never, ever do.” Then, of course, as the writer, you put the character into a situation where they HAVE to cross that line. Love this.

What Does Your Character Believe?

Speaking of that exercise, here it is:

As your character, write an “I Believe” speech. Write a a list of six things your character seriously believes in, and another list of three silly or outrageous beliefs. Write another list of rules your character has for themselves. Two statements of disbelief and three statements of things the character would never do.

If you ever find yourself with a spongy character, have them answer the above questions. It’s amazing how defined they become.

Then, go ahead, challenge their beliefs, make them do things they swore they’d never do, and see what happens. Magic. Magic will happen.

Take Your Character Out to Dinner

Need more ways to procrastinate writing your magnum opus? Here you go. From Master Class wizards, more exercises to get you to understand your characters and make a connection with them.

Where are you in your writing journey? How are your characters doing?

Emilya Naymark

Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.

When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.


  1. Wow, these are such great suggestions for getting to know your characters, Emilya. Iā€™m just starting a new work-in-progress and believe me this is my work for this weekend now ā€“ many thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *