Mining Character Arcs for PlotOften times our stories come to us in visual flashes. We see a character in an intriguing situation. They haunt us before we fall asleep at night or when we're barely conscious in the wee morning hours. We are storytellers. It’s not our job to ask why these random characters pop into our minds, but who they are and what the story is they have to tell. It's almost as if we are the transcribers and they call the shots. Sometimes these characters are silent types and we have to drag their stories out of them before we know in which direction to go.
So, let’s say you have dear Aunt Edith in kitchen with a casserole standing over Uncle Louie’s body--in other words you have a character with problem in an interesting situation. Poor Aunt Edith didn’t snuff Louie, but she’s going to take the wrap if you don’t figure out how to bail her out. So now what? How can we push the plot forward from the inciting incident?
Okay, let’s say Edith’s fatal flaw that got her into the mess in the first place is her desire to take care of everyone, whether they want her help or not. She has a habit of showing up unannounced at the most inopportune times, often creating havoc, and yes, even occasionally death. Somehow Edith must learn an important lesson from Louie’s ill-timed demise and her embarrassing brush with the law and redeem herself. At the end of the story, we know she becomes a welcome member of her family instead of the dreaded black plague who has folks running when her number pops up on their caller ID.
We need to develop scenes that will show Edith’s character flaw and how it works against her in the opening of the story. Then we need to make a list of scenes that show her learning from her mistakes and growing into the new and improved Aunt Edith we see at the end of the story.
Now, it’s time for some brainstorming and character digging. Divide your paper into two columns. Label one “Beginning” and one “End." List scenes that show your protagonist’s fatal flaw working against him or her under the ”Beginning” column. In the opposite column, list scenes that show your character overcoming their flaw. Think BIG here. This is the time to let your imagination run free. Put your Aunt Edith through the ringer.
When you have a good number of scenes, I would suggest you order these scenes in rising intensity. In these scenes, you may have a scene that could serve as reversal--the character thinks they have finally gotten things back on track only to find things are actually worse. Your goal is to move the character toward the climactic moment where all seems lost. The character will be forced to dig deeper into herself to find a solution to her problem. Remember, only a character in conflict will grow beyond his or her comfort zone. So pile on the conflict and make them work for their happy ending.