Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 25, 2012

Unusual Inspiration: Character Arcs Made Easy

by Fae Rowen

I am a plot-driven writer. The plot arrives first in my head, then I look for  people who will survive and grow in that world.

My #1 concern? My characters MUST connect with my readers. To have the "best book ever" experience, your reader must believe in, root for, identify with, and, maybe even, cry or fall in love with your protagonist.

It's not easy to meet people like this in real life, so why would we think it should be easy as a writer?

When I began taking writing classes, I was given lists and forms to fill out about my characters. Hair and eye color, education, ethnicity, birthplace, hobbies--you've seen those lists. They work for some people, but they didn't work for me. My characters seemed flat, even though I "interviewed" them to find out their likes and dislikes.

I moved on to Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, Conflict. That really helped flesh out my characters.

  • Why did they get angry?
  • Why did a certain song make them sad?
  • What "floated their boat" and why?

Not all that backstory should be revealed, but a single line to motivate inner conflict goes a long way in exposing your character's underbelly. And that's what our readers need to feel the humanity in our heroes and heroines.

But what do you do when your critique partner says a character is flat? Or a contest sheet comes back with, "I didn't connect with your heroine." Junk the story and start over? No!

The characters you remember from your favorite books are complex. You know their wants, needs and desires. You know their fears, trials, and failures. You feel their joy and success.

What if you're in the middle of a WIP and your character needs another layer or two? Chances are those layers are not going to materialize out of thin air.

When I purchased my Archetype Cards by Carolyn Myss, I never intended to use them for writing. But three years ago I took them to the Washington D.C. conference and with Laura, Jenny and Sharla, we realized they could be an excellent tool to assist with characterization.

Archetypes were first discussed in the time of Plato in Ancient Greece. Carl Jung firmed up and popularized the concept in the twentieth century.

Archetypes are part of everyone's psyche. They may sit passively and come forward to make you aware of danger or dangerous behaviors or they may drive your life.

All archetypes have positive and negative attributes. When you recognize the patterns of an archetype, instead of ignoring the archetype, you can make it your friend and ally. According to Carolyn Myss, as humans, we share four common archetypes and should be able to identify eight more that make us who we are.


For instance, it will come as no surprise to those who know me that one of my archetypes is the Queen.

In the best cases, I assert my power, take charge of situations, delegate authority and act with regal benevolence. Nice, right? But wait. The "shadow" or negative Queen attributes include barking out orders, making impossible demands and lopping off heads. Ouch! I've done that, too.

Oh, I hear the writer in you waking up. You're seeing the possibilities of starting with the shadow characteristics for a character and, through a variety of plot storms, showing the character arc to the positive attributes. For those of us who sometimes get stuck, this little tool can give us the traits we love to hate and show us how those patterns transmute into positive qualities.

Seventy-eight different archetype cards await you. They range from Actor to Wizard. There are also detailed explanations of the four archetypes we all share. Here's a summary of our common archetypes:

1. The Child, including Wounded Child, Abandoned/Orphan Child, Magical/Innocent Child, Nature Child, Eternal Child, and the Dependent Child. You probably know which one you are--and which one you wish you were.

2. The Victim. No, not me! But when in your life have you not felt powerless, blamed someone else for what happened, or been just a little green with envy? When your protagonist feels powerless, how uplifting is it to see her take effective action? A character learning to take responsibility for his own actions makes us root louder for him to succeed.

3. The Saboteur. This is a tough one in real life, because it deals with self-betrayal and fear. Just the stuff good characters are made of. (Read Laura's blog on your character's fear.) Does your heroine allow others to speak for her? By the end of the book, when she finds her voice, your reader will stand up and cheer at her words.

4. The Prostitute. Nope, I'm not talking about the heart-of-gold saloon girl. Have you ever "sold out" to someone or an organization you didn't believe in? Has your hero stayed in a position he disliked for financial reasons? What if your heroine felt herself pulled by circumstances into a situation where she'll have to ignore her integrity and ethics, but is strong enough to say no and suffer the consequences? We're going to root for her all the way through the book!

Here's an example of the information on one card:

Architect, Builder, Designer, Schemer

Light attributes:

  • Grounded, orderly, strategic qualities give creative energy a practical expression
  • Talent for engineering everyday situation or designing solutions to common dilemmas
  • Look for a pattern of designing and building--structure, devices or solutions

Shadow attributes:

  • Master manipulator
  • Designs situations to one's own advantage, regardless of the needs of others

Could Jane Austen have used this card when she began to fashion Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice? Or when she fashioned a character she said no one would love--Emma Woodhouse in Emma?

Do you have to buy the Archetype Cards? No!

You can think of three characteristics that make you love your protagonist. Then think of the antithesis of each. Take your character through your story from those negative characteristics to the positive aspects.

You'll have a satisfying character arc, which means you've delivered a satisfying story to your reader. And isn't that what you set out to do every time you sit down to write?

Do you have other unexpected ways to add depth to your characters and help you with their character arcs? We'd love to hear about them!

0 comments on “Unusual Inspiration: Character Arcs Made Easy”

  1. Fae - I don't have to buy the cards, because I know where you keep them! 😉 I'm so going to use this when I start my next book. Thanks so much for this wonderful tool!

    Along those lines, I wanted to share with everyone, a wonderful video, of Andrew Stanton's speech on Story:

    He's the author of Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and many other Pixar movies. He might have used your technique in creating Woody! It's an amazing watch.

  2. This is great! I'm working on a series, and I'm creating the main character. I've been struggling with how to make her deeper and more real, and this information will really come in handy. Thanks!

  3. Love this. There are all kinds of character mapping and this one more that's really great. Since writers like all people are different in character it's esp. good there are many different ways to draw our characters. I love your idea of these cards because they are so simple to understand--the good side and the dark side as it were. Thanks Fae!

  4. Sue Viders Deal A Story card game is great too. I bought them several years ago and loved them. There are 16 hero cards, 16 Heroine cards, 16 Villain Cards, 16 Flaw Cards, 16 plot cards, and 16 genre cards and 5 wild cards. You deal out one card for hero heroine villain, deal out flaw cards for each one of them. and deal out one plot card and one genre card. Then you brainstorm and try and come up with a story line that falls within the perimeters of the cards you've dealt. Like your genre might be a comedy, the plot might be a conversion plot that centers around a character who is working through a change in their life trying to reinvent themselves, and the characters might be The Darling-little princess- her flaw might be she has a secret, The hero might be the boy from the wrong side of the tracks-his flaw might be that he's had a reversal of fortune, and the villain might be a machine- like in I Robot, or 2001 a space odyssey -his flaw might be that he's too dedicated to his creator.

    And what if the robot were a female and too dedicated to her creator and the princess with a secret comes on the scene but is really trying to break free of her mold and become a reporter and The boy on the wrong side of the street, has become rich because he's the robots creator, and the romance is all a comedy of errors because the robot is trying to protect her creator.

    I'm for anything that will help you brainstorm and come up with more and more ideas.

    Such fun.
    I've ordered the other cards you mentioned. I know I'll enjoy them.
    Teresa R.

    1. Thanks, Teresa. I've heard of the Story Card Game, but your description really explains how they work. What a fun brainstorming tool! Very kind of you to take the time to share them with us. I hope your enjoy your new cards.

  5. I think this is a particularly great idea for those secondary characters that sometimes get left out of the interesting pile on the first draft. Great post, Fae!!

  6. Great post - can see how cards would help with character side of my creative process. At the moment throw in western & chinese astrology when devising a rounded character - interesting conflicts arise as a result.

  7. Very interesting post and something I'm going to look into using with my characters. Thanks Fae.

  8. Fae, are you sure this isn't the game of 52 Pick up my middle brother taught me?

    Seriously, what a splendid idea ... like taking Tarrot cards to the next level ... like sittiing in Jung's head or finally figuring out what the heck Doris Lessing was talking about in The Golden Notebook 🙂

    I love arch types and this intrigues me ... after wearing out all the charcters from my thousand and one community and board meetings ... this is sounds like a sure winner. Also, you remind me I need to buy Debra Dixon's book 🙂

    1. Glad I was able to jog your memory, Florence. You'll get a suitcase full of new characters to complement your characters from all your meetings. And, yes, Debra Dixon's book is amazing.

  9. Very cool! I've been using Tarot cards to develop characters, and I'll assume that's what the archetype cards are based off since the Tarot deck also has 78 cards.

    1. You'll be able to read with these card, too, KW, though they aren't much related to the Tarot deck. The Archetype deck is a companion to Carolyn Myss's Sacred Contracts book.

  10. I haven't heard of any of these cards, but they sound so wonderful -- so inspiring! -- I'm going to order them. Thanks for the great recommendation, Faye!

  11. I read an article lately that said the strangest characters are the ones that we remember the most. I feel that this is true, the one character that always 'haunts' me is Elizabeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I didn't even like the book very much but I continued reading because she was so deep and complex. She was mysterious and I wanted to figure her out in my mind. I would love to create a character like her. I then would achieve one of my goals. I find character writing difficult too, your card idea is really insightful. I used to pick out personality disorders and make characters around themwhen I was in school and writing stories for English.

    Lady Ardour.

    1. I hope you can use the ideas in the blog to achieve your goal of writing a character who makes readers turn pages. Those types of characters have lots of layers. thanks for your comments.

  12. What a great post! I've bookmarked it for future reference. Plus I have the archetype cards and am delighted to have finally found a use for them!!! Just ordered Debra Dixon's book - I need all the help I can get. Thanks again! 🙂

    1. Hi Edith,
      I'm so glad you can dig out your unused cards and put them to use--as well as have a little fun with them. The only problem is that with your cards and Debra's book, your "spare" time just went to zero. You're going to want to be writing all the time! Well, that's not such a bad way to have fun.

    1. I don't know if you live close to me, but I went to my local metaphysical store to surprise Laura Drake with a deck. When I couldn't find it (they keep 2-3 of every deck imaginable) I asked the owner. He looked puzzled and said, "I don't know what's happened, but I had two and someone came in yesterday and bought both of them." Hmmmmm. Hope you had better luck.

    1. MJ - You are exactly right, and THANK YOU for letting us know we'd left this off. I've fixed it and added a Pinterest button as well. 🙂

  13. Hey Fae, I sometimes use my book on personality types by Myers-Briggs!
    And ssshh, don't tell anyone, but when I'm really stuck developing character I think of someone I know really well and steal them for my character!!

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