The main reason I disagree with people who claim every story fits the hero’s journey, is that it’s not the only character arc out there, and it really doesn’t fit every story. While I wasn’t sure why exactly my story doesn’t fit the description when I wrote the post on The Hero’s Journey – My Pros and Cons, my late yet intense study of Story Structure made things much clearer to me. So I’m excited to share my conclusions with you!
Character arcs. A character starts out as some guy, then stuff happens and he does some pretty crazy shit, which in turn changes who he is so he becomes a different guy. The end.
In all honesty, character arcs are so easy to explain because we’ve all experienced them. None of us is still the person we were with three years of age, or thirteen, or thirty. We all change, some for the better, some for the worse, and some change sideways. Hey, it’s alright, as long as we move on. It’s the same with characters, they move on as the story progresses, but the WAY in which they move on usually falls into one of three major categories.
Here be definitions.
The Change Arc – this is our good old “hero’s journey”, which basically has the protagonist change from an unlikely fellow into a savior and hero. This transformation is quite radical, and despite some inner strength that was “always within him”, pretty much all else about the protagonist changes drastically by the end of the story.
The Growth Arc – in this character arc, the protagonist overcomes an internal opposition (weakness, fear, the past etc.) while he faces an external opposition, and as a result he becomes a fuller, better person. He’s still pretty much who he was, just upgraded to Protagonist 2.0.
A comon yet often overlooked variant of the Growth Arc is The Shift Arc — here, the protagonist changes his perspective, learns different skills, or gains a different role. The end-result is not “better” or more than the starting point, just different. The protagonist has not overcome a grand inner resistence or anything, he simply gained a new set of skills or assumed a new position, maybe discovered a talent he forgot he had, or a different vocation.
The Fall Arc – comonly known as a “tragedy”, the Fall Arc follows the protagonist as he dooms himself and/or others, and declines into insanity, immorality or death.
That’s it, three very different character arcs. And before anyone starts on semantics, yeah, I know growth implies change and change implies growth and bla-be-di-bla-blah. The point is to understand the different degrees and types of personal change, not to find out who’s vocabulary is bigger and harder, right?
So we’ve got three major types of character arcs. How come so many people confuse them all for the “hero’s journey”? Well, I think it’s because the hero’s journey shows the most dramatic character change, and it’s the most comon. It’s fairly easy to mistake it’s structure for THE character arc structure, instead of recognizing that it simply shares the same basic elements of character-driven story structure with other types of character arcs. It’s the story structure beneath it that’s universal, not the “hero’s journey” itself.
*sips some water*
*chokes on it and looks like a dork*
So which type of character arc should we pick for our story? That’s also easy to find out. All we have to do is to answer two questions:
1. What do we want our character to be like when the story reaches its glorious conclusion?
2. What do we want our character to start out as?
par example — If we want him to become the leader of a group of people, and we want him to start out as just any other member of that group, then we’re writing a Change Arc (everything else will fall flat and fail to make the ending believable).
But if he starts out as the leader of a rivaling group of people, then we have three possibilities:
- a Growth Arc if the rivaling group are the “bad guys” and our protagonist learns the error of his ways;
- a Shift Arc if the rivaling group are also “good guys” but with opposing interests;
- and a Fall Arc if the rivaling group are the actual “good guys” and our protagonist ends up leading the powers of darkness.
Knowing where we want our character to be at the resolution of the story, and knowing how they start out, gives us the kind of character arc we will need to develop. That’s important, because knowing what that arc is early on, will help us figure out what kind of scenes to write, what their impact will have to be on the character and what types of decisions they will have to make along the way. Not in detail, not exactly what they will decide and do, but what kind of personal attitude and strength (or weakness) they must bring to the table in which part of the story.
Now we know the starting point of our character and who we want them to be when the story reaches its finale. What we also need to know is the basic story structure that lives underneath every coherent, successful story. If you’ve read Larry Brooks’ awesome writing advice, heard Dan Wells’ funny lecture, or read Les Edgerton’s brilliant insights, then you know where I’m headed. If not, here’s my very quick definition of story structure, mixing these three perspectives with my own:
1. Set up
- showing the protagonist in his accustomed environment or role
- inciting incident — something stirs the waters, creates a surface problem to be solved, or promises trouble in the future
- first plot point — the true story problem is revealed, the core conflict that drives the story; everything changes from now on, it’s a point of no return
- the protagonist refuses to face his new problem or pursue the new goal; he reacts to the change with denial, refusal or flight
- first pinch point — pinch points are used to create tension and apply pressure to the protagonist; the first pinch point is usually where the antagonist is revealed, or the gravity of the new situation is made clear
- mid-point — a critical piece of information is introduced which changes everything again — the protagonist’s (and readers’) understanding of the nature of the problem is altered; also, the protagonist decides he must stop running and act
- the protagonist becomes proactive, and starts to attack the villain or tackle his problem; however, he fails or worsens the situation (try/fail cycles that increase tension)
- second pinch point — the antagonist (or opposing force) reveals their full strength, and all seems hopeless and lost; the protagonist reaches his lowest point
- second plot point — the last piece of critical information is introduced, and now the protagonist understands how to defeat the antagonist, or what to do in order to solve his problem (it can be an external piece of the puzzle, or the realization that the “power is within him”)
- everything we’ve set in motion comes together now; no new information or characters are introduced
- climax — the actual show-down between protagonist and antagonist (or opposing force), in which the story promise is fulfilled (more on that in a future post)
- denouement — the protagonist assumes his new position, and major loose ends are tied up; also, if need be, the hook for the sequel is introduced or hinted at
So how does story structure look when it comes to the different types of character arc?
The Change Arc Story Structure
Old order: the protagonist in his natural environment, with his old role and familiar problems; usually the opposite of what he will end up.
- inciting incident = the hero is ripped out of his normal life and environment by a change
- first plot point = the hero learns or decides he must embark on a new journey
- first pinch point = the nature of the opposing force is revealed; the hero reacts (flees, hides, refuses to take responsibility, tries to escape or break-off the journey, etc.)
- mid-point = something happens which makes the hero realize he must assume his new role and grow into it, and take the fight to the villain
- second pinch point = the villain gains the upper hand (either the hero’s allies fall to the villain, or the villain is shown in full strength, dominating the field); it seems as though the hero has no chance, and he reaches his lowest point
- second plot point = the last piece of information is delivered or discovered, and now the hero knows exactly how to defeat the villain; by this point he has also grown into his new role, and can use his new skills
- climax = show-down between hero and villain, where the hero uses all he’s learned, and even more (a daring move, a genius tactic, or simply a previously untried combination of skills) to emerge victorious
- denouement = the hero returns to his old environment as a new person, and is now accepted and praised for his new role.
Sounds very familiar, right?
Now here’s the structure of a Growth or Shift character arc. Either one is frequently found in romance novels, thrillers, horror, adventure, even science-fiction.
The Growth & Shift Arc Story Structure
Old order: the protagonist is pursuing some semi-interesting goal that he thinks is the most important thing for him; or he’s just going about his merry life
- inciting incident = a change happens, which hints that what he thinks he wants (his old goal) might not be what he should be pursuing, or not what he really needs; or he meets someone who makes him question his perspective on things. Note: in Growth & Shift arcs, the inciting incident is usually very subtle, and in fast-paced thrillers it can even coincide with the first plot point
- first plot point = the protagonist does something that sets him on an entirely different path (can be a perceived mistake, a misunderstanding, etc.); or something happens to the protagonist that forces him to change his direction, and he sets a new goal; or he is simply given the opportunity to do something that has nothing to do with his old goal, but which turns out to be just the challenge he needs to get out of his rut
- first pinch point = the new path brings only trouble to the protagonist, and he tries to drop the new goal, flee from the new problem, force his way back into his old life, or simply tackle it the way he’s always tackled things in his life (it obviously needs to fail); the first pinch point is the moment the protagonist meets true opposition, hardship or failure
- mid-point = a crucial piece of information is revealed that changes the protagonist’s perspective on the whole situation, and thus his understanding and his tactics; it can be the transition from reaction to action, or simply a radical change of approach in fixing the problem he’s facing
- second pinch point = the protagonist’s first attempt to do things right this time, but he screws things up even more; or the opposing force (must not always be a “bad guy”, it can be an abstract problem, a mystery, the odds mounting against the couple coming together, whatever) pulls the rug from under the protagonist’s feet leaving him hopeless and devastated
- second plot point = the last bit of information is discovered (or the last straw falls on the camel’s back), that helps the protagonist take the difficult decision or make the right move to reach his goal
- climax = the protagonist faces his problem head-on, and succeeds
- denouement = the protagonist gets to fully enjoy the fruits of his hard work (gets the love of his life, defeats the mafia, etc.)
And finally, we have the structure of the Fall character arc, commonly known as a tragedy in literary circles.
The Fall Arc Story Structure
Old order: protagonist is happy, safe and fulfilled
- inciting incident = something interferes with the protagonist’s happiness; this can either be a suspicion, the past coming to haunt him, a new person interfering with his life, etc.
- first plot point = the moment when the new disturbance causes old personal demons to show their ugly faces, or when it directly endangers the protagonist’s way of life; from now on, it’s clear that not all is well in paradise, and that something must be done
- first pinch point = because Fall character arcs typically have an internal plot (even if it’s garnished with external conflicts and transitory antagonists), the first pinch point is the moment when the protagonist finds the first undoubtable evidence that something is wrong with him, with someone close to him, or with everyone else (humanity, the world, etc.)
- mid-point = the protagonist confronts his suspicions or the person he believes to be the cause of the disturbances, and realizes the situation is much worse than expected; this can take many shapes, from confronting a suspected loved one for having an affair, or confronting the shady coworker for conspiring against him, down to confronting imagined (or delusion-induced) antagonists in unfavorable circumstances, which only lead to the protagonist becoming convinced of an even greater evil going on
- second pinch point = this is where the protagonist does the first truly horrendous thing (to protect himself or others); it’s a point of no return for him in his transition from normalcy to despair, decay or immorality. Instead of an outside antagonist proving his power, we have the protagonist do something that would have previously been considered uncharacteristic, something born out of fear, jealousy, hatred or delusion, which will set the avalanche of character failure in motion
- second plot point = the last piece of critical information comes into play, and it devastates the protagonist; it can be proof that he was wrong the entire time but now it’s too late to make good on his actions, or it can be the last piece of the puzzle he’s trying to solve which reveals the only possible action left to take — and it’s not a positive one
- climax = the protagonist takes that final action which seals the deal; he dies, kills someone, loses his sanity, dooms a great number of people, or something equally tragic
- denouement = if there even is a denouement (in case the protagonist dies, especially if he’s also the narrator, then the story ends at the climax); now the protagonist is shown in the new context, doomed by suffering or displaying the characteristics of a villain
That’s about it. Three different types of character arcs, all based on the same underlying story structure.
In the case of my story—which I’m currently reworking on a “detailed outline” level (to give you awesomely supportive guys a little update)—the protagonist follows a Growth Arc. She does not change fundamentally as the story progresses, but she changes her role and defeats internal opposition as she faces external odds. She evolves and grows, but she doesn’t become a hero, savior, role model or anything like that. It’s most definitely not a hero’s journey, but it definitely is a character arc with all the necessary elements that show innner conflict and change. I bet if you haven’t written such a story, you can at least think of one you’ve read, which has a strong character arc but no “journey” to heroism. Right?
Oh, and one more important thing.
I strongly believe there are no laws in fiction, only guidelines. There are exceptions to every rule, black sheep in every herd and a genius in every generation. But I think it’s safer—for me—to assume that I am not the exception, the black sheep or genius among all others, until actual real experience proves otherwise. I find it better to start out following a proven structure, and try to shine with my concept and characters, than to break rules haphazardly in hopes of creating something unique.
We need to take a good look at the needs of our individual stories and respect them, not force them into a mold or experiment on them like we’re Mengele’s apprentices.
So what type of character arc have you written in your latest story? I’m curious!