So how do you fix them? You’ve got to plan the pace of your character arc, your character’s journey of transformation, from the very beginning.
What Is Character Arc?
Character arc is a change in your character physically, emotionally, or spiritually from the beginning of your story to the end. It’s called an arc because it spans the length of your story in an arcing fashion. This change can be for the better or worse—growth or regression—but something has to change. If your character ends up the same as he or she started, well, that doesn’t make for a very compelling character we all want to root for.
Why Is It Important to Pace Character Arc?
Creating a believable character arc is crucial to a good story, and pacing ensures that it happens in a way that makes sense to the readers in the context of your story world. You want your character’s journey to captivate your readers, and you want them to easily feel something at each moment in your character’s journey. Pacing is key to achieving this.
If character arc is a new concept to you, I highly suggest checking out these resources before you dive any deeper into this article:
The Hero's Journey WorkshopEver heard of the Hero's Journey? Confused by the mythological-sounding terms? Never fear! This article will provide you with a basic understanding of the origin, concept, and use of the Hero’s Journey in modern storytelling.
What Is the Hero’s Journey?
Originally proposed by an American mythological researcher named Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey is an all-embracing metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation that heroes from all eras seem to share. Years of research lead Campbell to discover several basic stages that almost every hero endures regardless of origin or culture. He called this common structure the “monomyth.” In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell explained:
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatu
How to Pace Character Arc
Okay, so you’ve got a working knowledge of what character arc is and how your character will change throughout your story. You’ve got the song, but what music do you put it to?
Pacing isn’t something that happens by happy accident as you write. It takes work and planning, so start by brainstorming all the ways your character could possibly get from point A to point B. There are a thousand ways any story could take shape, and none of them are right or wrong in the beginning. So just start listing them all out and then ask which ones will line up to make the most compelling story? The most dramatic character transformation? Which will make your readers root for your character and maybe even relate, and which will make them cringe and stop turning pages? Which possibilities excite you and make you want to immediately start writing the story? Circle the good ideas and cross out the bad, then start forming them into a story with some recognizable shape. This is the beginning of your story’s structure.
This is where pacing comes in. How you order the sequence of events in your story and how much time you spend on each of them determines the pace. It’s the heartbeat that keeps your story alive, but every heartbeat has a pattern. The heartbeat of a character arc looks like this:
This is the pattern that repeats in escalating succession until the climactic event of your story takes place and your character makes the decision and subsequent action that leads him to victory—or tragedy. This is the moment your readers have been waiting for, but they have to get there first. The journey must be worth it and pave the way for a satisfying ending, one that’s both surprising and inevitable. Sounds like a tall order, but every great story pulls it off.
Let’s break down the sequence.
This is a moment in your story where something happens to your character. Most of the time, these events should happen as a result of something your character does or something inherent in the environment around them AKA the world of your story. As Tom Clancy said, “Fiction has to make sense,” so make sure these events don’t come from nowhere and aren’t random. They should all add up to something.
I won’t go into detail of every event that needs to happen in order for your character’s arc to be released because there are tons of existing resources to help you with that, but I’ll highlight a few of the main sequences of character arc as examples.
The first big event that kicks off your story is called the Inciting Incident or Call to Adventure. This is the thing that sets the rest of the story in motion and puts your character on her path toward change. Without this event, you wouldn’t have a story.
For example, an inciting incident would be the Capital coming to District 12 to draw names for the Hunger Games or Wade Wilson getting cancer in Deadpool. Or it can be a direct affect of your character’s (typically bad) choices in the beginning of the story. My favorite example of this is in The Emperor’s New Groove. Kuzco is a real jerk in the beginning of the movie and fires Yzma. In retaliation, she becomes the story’s villain when she tries to kill him but accidentally turns him into a llama instead, thus setting the story in motion.
Note: Any event in this pattern could also be a twist or reveal that gives your character access to new information that will determine his next reaction, decision, and action.
The next step is your character’s reaction to this big, crazy, often life-altering event. Remember that the whole goal of your story is to transform your character in some way or give them the opportunity to transform the world around them (such as in the case of Katniss Everdeen). So this first event sets them on a journey toward change, but they won’t change right away. Their first reaction can’t be, “Well, I was a moron and will immediately change my ways.” That’s not a very compelling story, and it would be over too quickly if that were the case.
So the first reaction is typically denial or objection or running away from the problematic situation they’re now entrenched in. Or they don’t know how to fix the problem and take matters into their own, ill-equipped hands.
Back to the examples:
Katniss doesn’t know how to end the Hunger Games, but her gut reaction is that she has to keep her sister out of harm’s way.
Wade Wilson is scared of rejection and can’t stand to see his girlfriend watch him wither away.
Kuzco refuses to believe he needs Pacha’s help to make it back to the palace even though he’s been turned into a llama.
These are all visceral reactions to difficult problems, and that’s the idea. Something drastic happens to your character, and their reaction makes them human and shows us their need to change or make a change in their world. Reaction is vital to giving your reader insight into your character and making them care what happens next. You want your character to react to this first event in a way that will dig them even deeper into trouble and get your reader to ask, “What will happen to this character next?” This is the basis of tension in your story.
Decision and action are tightly linked, but they don’t always happen at the same time. Your character can decide to do something but not do it immediately. Or she can make a decision that’s challenged by another character or thwarted by something else that happens in your story. Or he could change his mind because of any number of things. The disconnect between decision and action is a fantastic way to add tension and conflict to your story, but handle with care because a character who deliberates for too long can bring your story to a screeching halt.
Action is the most important part of this sequence. This is when your character does something that launches your story into it’s next sequence of events.
In our examples:
Katniss volunteers as tribute in her sister’s place.
Wade Wilson leaves Vanessa.
Kuzco tries to make it back to the palace on his own.
These actions directly lead to the next event of the story. Or, at the very least, these events cause a ripple effect in your story that produce the next event in your series of story sequences. Just remember:
The stakes are higher in each sequence, and the action your character must take levels up in difficulty until you reach the climactic moment of your story.
It’s harder to find a way to survive the hunger games with a friend than it is to volunteer as tribute.
It’s harder to tell your girlfriend you’re an immortal freak than to leave her.
It’s harder to trust a friend to help you climb a palace wall than to run off into the jungle by yourself.
But these final actions ensure your character’s transformation and prove to your readers that your character has changed in a striking and dramatic way—or that they’ve made a change in the world around them.
Note: If you’re wondering how many escalating sequences your story should have, the short answer is eight. The long answer is that it depends on the type of story you’re telling and how long of a character arc you’re working with. It takes Katniss three books (or four movies) to change things in the Capitol, but short stories may only have one sequence.
When Character Arc Pacing Goes Wrong
Make sure you give your character a chance to react, decide to do something, and then take action as a result of every plot event in your story. If events keep happening to your character before they have a chance to work through this progression, your story’s pace is moving too quickly, and you’re not giving your readers a chance to fully understand and relate with your character.
How long it takes your character to get advice and make a decision before taking action has a huge impact on the pace of your story. If they can make quick decisions without hesitation or deliberation, your story might move too quickly and possibly cause your character to seem unbelievably decisive. But if your character can never make a decision and hems and haws for pages or chapters without taking action, your story will slow to a crawl, get put on life support, and die. No one wants to read about a character who drags his feet and won’t do anything. If you're having this issue, check out this Character Proactivity Workshop.
You might also run into trouble if every event in your story happens out of the blue or is not a result of an action taken by your character. This makes it hard for your readers to follow the story and believe your character is making any impact on the story or is actually connected to it in a visceral way.
Pacing isn’t some mythical thing that just happens to be inherent in good writing--it’s planned from the ground up and woven in an intricate pattern. Once you learn the pattern, it becomes easier to spot in other stories and master in your own.