We writers seem to hear a lot about character arcs.
They’re all over the place, hiding inside “How to Write a Book” books and creeping around the Internet. It must be a conspiracy.
Nobody wants their book to go “plop,” so why would you even think of using a character arc? And is there some sort of rule that if you don’t use one you can’t get published?
The tiresome character arc
In a nutshell, a character arc is a trajectory that operates according the following list. (Try to count the number of hackneyed phrases and situations.):
- Stage 1: Character introduced. Inciting incident, call to action, central question asked. Character’s life will never be the same.
- Stage 2: Rising action. Character begins his or her inner journey, encountering a number of problems and barriers preventing him or her from reaching the goal.
- Stage 3: Problem solved, goal reached, falling action. Character resolves his or her issues and is transformed.
The Hero’s Journey: an alternative to the character arc
I came across a viable alternative to the character arc conundrum. It’s called the Hero’s Journey, and it was first identified by Joseph Campbell. The value of Campbell’s discovery is that he went on to develop and document it.
According to Campbell (and Christopher Vogler, who took the concept and ran with it), the Hero’s Journey is more like a character circle than a character arc. This circle is divided into a northern hemisphere (the “ordinary world”) and a southern hemisphere (the “special world”).
The hero starts at the top of the circle, goes clockwise, and at about 3 o’clock enters the special world. The hero sojourns there until 9 o’clock, at which time he or she returns to the ordinary world and integrates the experiences from the special world into regular life – but the hero is a changed person, and sometimes the world has become a different place, too.
The Hero’s Journey has 12 stages, which Vogler extrapolated from Campbell:
The ordinary world
1. Hero is ensconced in the ordinary world – limited awareness of problem
2. The call to adventure – increased awareness of the need to change
3. Refusal of the call – fear; resistance to change
4. Meeting of the mentor – overcoming fear
5. Crossing the threshold – committing to change
The special world
6. Tests, allies, and enemies – experimenting with new conditions
7. Approach – preparing for major change
8. The ordeal – big change with feeling of life and death
9. The reward – accepting consequences of new life
10. The road back – a new challenge and rededication
And back to the ordinary world
11. The resurrection – final attempts, last-minute dangers
12. Return with the elixir – mastery
Walt and Harper: in your face vs. nuanced
You can see this easily in any Disney movie; in fact, Vogler was a story developer at Disney and distilled Campbell’s original Hero’s Journey into a seven-page memo for his boss.
I AM A FORMULA MOVIE AND ALL DISNEY MOVIES ARE EXACTLY THE SAME! JUST CHANGE THE NAMES FROM SIMBA TO ALADDIN TO ARIEL! I CAN BE AN ANIMAL, A BOY, OR A MERMAID – DOESN’T MATTER, FOLKS!
It’s interesting that number 11, the last-minute danger, is ordinarily not used in character arcs. You can always see it in Disney movies, however, such as when Simba almost falls off the cliff when wrestling with Scar.
A more nuanced version of stage 11 is the scene where Scout and her brother, Jem, are attacked toward the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. Although it’s more difficult to identify each and every stage in this novel, in my mind that makes the book greater – I’m all for subtlety and seamlessness.
It’s obvious that a coming-of-age or quest story would fit Campbell’s stages best, but other story themes employ it as well. For instance, in a “boy meets girl” theme, generally the couple break up, or at least keep chasing after each other, building layer upon layer of misunderstanding. Toward the end, don’t they always enter into a hopeless situation, only to have it turned over at the last minute because one of them finally does something brave, out of character, and right?
Sometimes you have two or three of these hero’s circles working concurrently in the same book. Take the Harry Potter series, for example. It’s a cinch to figure out his hero’s journey on a macro level, but even his relationship with Ginny goes, more or less, through the stages on a micro level:
Book 1: Harry practically ignores Ginny (stage 1)
Book 2: Harry saves Ginny’s life (stage 2)
Book 3: Harry has somewhat befriended Ginny (stage 3)
Book 4: Harry starts going out with Cho (stage 3)
Books 5 and 6: Ginny gets advice from Hermione (stage 4) and decides to go out with someone else (stages 5 and 6). Finally, through many twists and turns, misunderstandings, and wasted time (stages 7 and 8), the two of them start going out (stage 9). However, by the end of book 6, Harry breaks up with Ginny in order to protect her (stage 10).
Book 7: As Harry prepares for the last stages of his personal/macro hero’s journey, he has a hard time staying away from Ginny completely (stage 10), but by the end of the book, during the final confrontation with Voldemort, the macro and the micro journeys come together as Harry and Ginny fight the bad guys and almost everyone thinks Harry is dead (stage 11). At the end, Harry is revealed to be alive, and he and Ginny can be together again, this time forever (stage 12).
Life imitates art
I just finished an autobiography whose subject, amazingly, also goes through each and every stage of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Called Son of Hamas and written by Mosab Hassan Yousef, it’s about a former stone-throwing Arab teenager in Israel who also happens to be the son of a Hamas leader.
Eventually he gets arrested and thrown into prison, reluctantly agrees to work for the Israelis as a spy, and ultimately helps prevent a lot of bloodshed on both sides. Later, he converts to Christianity and in the end leaves the Middle East, severing all ties with his family and starting totally over again – a completely new man with a new life in a new country.
Attention, nonfiction writers:
You can also use the Campbell model to flesh out your books and have a compass by which you can direct their trajectory.
Biography immediately comes to mind, of course, but you could even use a somewhat modified version of the Hero’s Journey in a sales piece describing, say, the advantages of radial tires.
You could describe the owner of non-radial tires, and how he thinks life is great. Suddenly, he’s in a car accident and has to rethink his life and priorities. After a friend warns him of the dangers of his old tires and recommends radials – and after much research – he decides to take the big step of buying them. He goes from tire store to tire store, wearing himself out comparing prices, brands, and mechanics. Finally, he makes his choice.
He takes his car in to the garage he has chosen, but just as he’s about to have his new tires put on his car, an old friend walks by and tries to convince him to buy bias tires. After a heart-wrenching few minutes, during which he wrestles with his conscience, he gives the go-ahead for the radials. He drives off into the sunset, and all of your readers are now going to buy radial tires.
Uses and abuses of the Hero’s Journey
For both fiction and nonfiction writers, using the hero’s circular journey can help you outline your book. You can fashion each stage into a series of chapters. It’s a great way to break down the book into manageable pieces, which will definitely cut down on writer’s block and author’s panic.
Remember not to go overboard, keeping yourself strictly within the framework of any model. Writing aids are just that – aids to help you approach the blank page easier and to get your thoughts in order. But don’t straitjacket yourself.
Now I’d like to hear from you! Tell me how you’ve used or not used character arcs or character circles. What do you like or dislike about them? How have they helped you in your writing?
I look forward to reading about your experiences with characterization in the Comments below. And as always,