Crafting Character Transformations - Uncharted

Crafting Character Transformations

By Uncharted

By Jessica Berg

So often, authors will create an engaging and immersive narrative with rich characterization, and then … nothing happens. That is to say, there’s no change in the main character from the beginning of the work to the end. In other words, there’s no arc.

Understanding character arc is key for writers who want to elevate their craft. Why? Because without an arc, we’re left with the dreaded vignette. And while touching and poignant and engaging to read, vignettes aren’t stories. By definition, they’re short, descriptive literary sketches. But the other definition, “an un-bordered picture that shades off into the surrounding color,” also suits us since that’s what we see in a vignette – something that fades off and doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Coming back to arcs – this is the journey the character undergoes throughout the story. Arcs are what move them from their Beginning State to their End State.

However, they can’t just change randomly. They have to change in direct response to the conflicts/crises they encounter in the work. This means that the arc needs to be meaningful, one that readers can relate to and be moved by.

Why We Have to Have Them

Arcs are essential because they push the narrative forward. Without an arc, a story is episodic: it’s a series of “and then this happened” (ATTH for short) events that might be interesting and engaging to read but don’t lead us anywhere. ATTH is great when you’re just sitting down to those early drafts – you’re literally telling yourself ATTH, ATTH, etc. until you’ve completed the story. But then, when you go back to do the editing (where the real work happens!), we need to make sure there’s an arc. Actions that lack purpose don’t need to be in your narrative.

Here’s the thing – arcs are what take the story from “interesting” to relatable. We readers always want to see a sliver of ourselves in our characters’ journeys, and having a well-crafted arc can help achieve that.

So, how can you do that for yourself? Here’s a five-step checklist that’s super simple to follow.

1. Establish Your Character’s Starting Point

      Who is your character at the beginning of your story?

      You need to know their strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears, and maybe even their favorite breakfast/dessert. This baseline is crucial (okay, maybe not the dessert bit) because it helps you understand the magnitude of their transformation.

      Let’s imagine we’re writing a character named Klara who’s just related to a coastal town after her long-term partner broke her head. She’s predictably heartbroken, has zero self-confidence, and has no idea what’s going to happen in her future. Her main flaw is self-doubt. She’s running from her past instead of confronting it. (It’s worth noting that here, we see our MC in a passive state, and once we come to the Inciting Incident, she shifts to an active state.)

      2. Introduce the Inciting Incident

        Remember when we just shifted Klara’s passivity into action? The first time this really takes place is at the inciting incident – this is the point where the MC’s “normal” world is disrupted, and it sets them on their journey. The event MUST push them out of their comfort zone and force them to take action.

        For Klara, let’s imagine her II is when she stumbled on an old book store that’s for sale in her new coastal town. On a whim, she buys it.

        This is her shift from passive to active. This is her first step into her journey and a significant step in her overall arc because this choice thrusts her into new challenges and ultimately helps begin her path to self-discovery.

        3. Know the Challenges Ahead of Time

        You have to know the trials that are going to directly rest your character’s limits and force them to grow. These have to be significant, they have to be directly related to the inciting incident, and they have to illuminate the character’s deepest fears.

        Before you can move Klara along in her journey, you need to know what kinds of obstacles will stress her out the most. There’s where knowing your MC comes in handy. If Klara hates being alone on stormy nights because it makes her fearful, then guess what? That’s exactly where she needs to be. Why? Because this will produce the most change in her character.

        4. Figure Out How it Ends

        What do you want your MC’s end state to look like? Feel like? What kind of emotions do you want them to showcase? How will they have become a new/different person by the end of the work? As you answer these questions, remember that the transformation has to feel earned and natural. It has to stem from your character’s experiences and choices.

        In our example, by the end, Klara has become a confident human who runs a successful bookstore and finds a sense of belonging. This is the direct opposite of how we met the character at the start of the work.

        5. Now Connect the Dots!

        When you’re clear on how you want your character to change and what will happen when they’re faced with adversity, it’s time to ensure every event in the narrative logically leads to the next. This way, you’ll avoid the dreaded ATTH narrative we talked about at the beginning. Avoiding it will help create a cohesive and believable arc.

        For Klara, every interaction, every setback, and all of her triumphs have to build on the previous ones, which leads us to a satisfying conclusion.

        Remember, arcs just aren’t about change for change’s sake. You’re creating a journey that readers can relate to and be moved by.


        BIO: Jessica Berg is a literary agent with Rosecliff Literary. She provides developmental editorial feedback for Writer’s Digest, Uncharted Magazine, and Fractured Lit. A multi-nominated writer, she holds an MFA from Spalding University and is represented by Amy Collins of Talcott Notch. Find out more about her here