A character arc in fiction, as in life, is the path by which a character transcends his deepest fear to achieve greatness. Without this evolution, the reader has no reason to travel with that character through the story.
To create this character arc, we must know our character’s greatest fear. According to Psychology Today, there are only five basic fears, from which all other fears are born:
- Fear of Extinction – This is the fear that we will cease to exist, or, more simply put, the fear of death.
- Fear of Losing Autonomy – This can also be viewed as the fear of losing control. It includes the fear of not being in control of situations or people, the fear of being absorbed or overwhelmed by relationships, and the fear of being physically entrapped.
- Fear of Mutilation – It is fear for the integrity of our bodies, which includes phobias of snakes, fire, spiders, etc., as well as the obvious, which is fear of actual bodily mutilation.
- Fear of Separation – This is the fear that we will be abandoned, rejected, unwanted, or disconnected from others.
- Fear of Ego-Death – This fear is that we will suffer shame or humiliation. It could also be termed as losing face or suffering damage to dignitas.
In the character arc, we identify our character’s fear and then beat him up with it. His fear provides the internal conflict throughout the journey. The process of beating him up is the external conflict. The external conflict challenges the fear and teaches our character things he did not know when the story began. This new knowledge gives our character the power to change and overcome.
Charles Dickens gives us an outstanding example of character arc with A CHRISTMAS CAROL. There are several versions of this classic, but for our purposes, we will look at the movie SCROOGED.
Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a cynical TV programming executive. In the first few minutes of the movie, he fires an employee for disagreeing with him, has his secretary give each person on his Christmas list a towel as a present, and tricks an old lady in order to steal her cab. He even orders antlers to be stapled to mice as an addition to a live Christmas Eve production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL to please his boss.
However, as merciless as Frank is with others, he is just as merciless with himself. He turns down Christmas Eve dinner with his brother to work. Also, he is given the Humanitarian of the Year award at a banquet, and it means so little to him that he leaves it in a cab and heads straight back to work. He makes no time in his life for love or joy.
Frank Cross’s greatest fear is ego-death and shame. He pushes everyone away, including himself, in his quest for the top of the ladder. This is where his character arc begins.
After the awards banquet, the ghost of Frank’s former boss and best friend visits him to tell him he is headed for doom, but he can still be saved if he changes. Frank repels him with jokes and denial, but his fear of ego-death is challenged by the idea that he needs to change – that he will need to let his ego die if he is to live. Frank is momentarily panicked.
The next day, the Ghost of Christmas Past in the form of a cab driver pulls Frank off the street and takes him back in time to Christmas Eve when he was four years old. Frank’s father comes in late and tosses him a package of veal as his only Christmas present. He tells Frank that if he wants a train, he can go get a job – that being four is no excuse. Frank sheds tears of sympathy for himself.
The Ghost of Christmas Past pricks Frank’s character arc by challenging his fear of ego-death – reminding him that he was once a child who wanted something other than material success.
Frank’s next stop is Christmas Eve with his young love, Claire, a woman who works at a homeless shelter. He enjoys these memories, only to have them followed up with a later Christmas Eve, when he chooses his work over her, telling Claire that she should not be so selfish. Claire walks, and Frank realizes what he lost.
In this phase of the character arc, the Ghost of Christmas Past challenges Frank’s fear of ego-death with the memory of the love and happiness he shared with Claire. Frank begins to question his choices.
Shaken, Frank goes to the homeless shelter to find Claire. While there, a homeless man asks him for two dollars, and Frank says no. He invites Claire to lunch, and she asks him to wait a moment while she makes a phone call. Frank’s fears have the opening they need to reclaim him. His arc is not complete. He tells her to forget it, and, referring to the homeless people, he says, “Scrape them off, Claire. If you want to save someone, save yourself.” He returns to his office.
The Ghost of Christmas Present appears in the form of a sadistic fairy that enjoys smacking Frank around. She takes Frank to his secretary’s home, where her family is laughing and playing together in spite of their poverty. Frank learns that his secretary’s son has not spoken since seeing his father killed five years earlier.
Frank’s next stop is his brother’s house, where he discovers his secretary sent his brother a VCR instead of a towel. He plans to fire her until he hears his brother speaking kindly of him in spite of how negligent he has been. His brother gives him unconditional love. Frank revises his opinion about the VCR, saying, “It’s only money.”
The Ghost of Christmas Present then smacks Frank with a toaster, and he falls through the floor to land underneath a bridge. There, he finds the homeless man that had asked him for two dollars earlier that day, frozen to death beside a tiny Christmas tree. Frank learns that money it isn’t only money to those who have none.
During this stage of the character arc, the Ghost of Christmas Present challenges Frank’s fear of ego-death with experiences of family and unconditional love, as contrasted with the consequences of Frank’s own lack of compassion. Frank begins to question his values.
Back in his office, the employee Frank fired gets off the elevator with a shotgun and tries to kill him. Frank escapes to the elevator and lands at the feet of the Ghost of Christmas Future – the grim reaper.
Frank’s first stop is an institution where his secretary’s traumatized son is now a young man, tied into a straitjacket and imprisoned in a padded cell. Frank is horrified and begins thinking of ways he can help the child before it’s too late.
The elevator next opens on a decked out Claire having dinner with high society friends, telling the waiter to get rid of some begging children. Cold and soulless, she quotes Frank as telling her, “Scrape them off, Claire. If you want to save somebody, save yourself.” Frank experiences true regret.
Then the elevator opens on Frank’s funeral. Only his brother and his brother’s wife are present. When the casket is fed into the fire, Frank finds himself inside it, burning.
The Ghost of Christmas Future challenges Frank’s fear of ego-death by showing him the consequences to himself and to others if he does not face this fear and change.
Frank is convinced. He has learned the lessons he needs to allow his ego to die and to become the person he needs to be to survive. He is ready to complete his character arc.
He pounds the casket, and the lid opens, along with the elevator doors, and he’s back in his office. He hugs the fired employee and re-hires him with a promotion. Then he runs onto the set of the live Christmas Eve production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and shares his newfound humility with the live TV audience, believing he will lose his job and all of the status he clung to so dearly only a few hours before. Claire sees him on TV and joins him, and his secretary’s little boy speaks for the first time. Frank shares the miracle of his redemption and encourages everyone to pass on the love of the season every day of the year.
Frank transcends his greatest fear to achieve personal greatness – the character arc.
Happy Holidays to all, and God bless us, every one.
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Have you used fear to propel a character arc? do you have a "preferred" fear that works best for your writing?
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Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney. Her writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror. Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE, now available on kindle and in paperback at Amazon and on nook and paperback at Barnes & Noble.
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