Writers in the Storm

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May 8, 2024

Ways to Know Your Characters, Part 5- Impact on Plot

by Ellen Buikema

A character's impact on the plot involves all their traits. It's important to understand how their background, personality, flaws, and strengths influence the plot and move the story forward.

Character arc

A character arc is the journey of transformation that a character takes over the course of a story. They grow as individuals through their experiences.

Elements of a character arc

  1. The Goal: What the character wants. The Goal gives direction and sets the story (and their arc) in motion. It is their motivation.
  2. The Lie: A misbelief they have about themselves or their world that thwarts their ability to reach their Goal.
  3. The Truth: An understanding the character needs. A truthful view of their own self or the world. If the character can find and accept The Truth, then they often reach their Goal.

The three main types of character arc are:

  • Positive character arc, a hero’s journey. The character changes for the better, resulting in an improved situation.

In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins wants a simple life in the Shire but after joining a quest he feels terrified, regretful, and inept. He is transformed along the journey.

  • Flat character arc – The character does not evolve. Instead, their mission is to enlighten others. Mystery, thriller, and adventure series that follow one unchanging investigator or hero.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, detective Hercules Poirot, on a train to London, takes on a murder case because there are no police on board. That’s his Goal. He resists the lies of deceitful passengers and exposes the culprits, finding the Truth.

  • Negative character arc, the anti-hero. The character changes for the worse, taking a toll on their world and those around them. The truth is right in front of them but they can’t see it.

In the series, Breaking Bad, happy, honest science teacher, Walter White, is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Unable to afford his treatment and care for his family he tosses aside his morals and spirals downward. He sees the Truth but believes the Lie (acting in his family’s best interest). Immorality for morality’s sake.

A well-developed character arc affects a character's impact on the plot, while readers become invested in the character.

Relationships between characters

A character's impact on the plot may be influenced by their relationships with other characters. Family, friends, neighbors, enemies, pets and sometimes objects—for example the volleyball named Wilson in Chuck Noland’s Cast Away.

Interactions with other characters creates tension, conflict, and provide support for the character's journey. These interactions are the mortar that holds the building-story together.

Relationships are important. No one lives in a vacuum.

Here are some positive and negative dynamics you might see in relationships:

Positive relational traits

  • Friendly
  • Motivating
  • Nurturing
  • Romantic
  • Supportive
  • Trusting

Negative Relational traits

  • Controlling
  • Dysfunctional
  • Neglectful
  • One-sided
  • Unable to love
  • Volatile

Any combination of these relationship dynamics can shape behaviors and impact the plot.

Relationships are complicated because people are complicated. They view the world from a different doorway, each feeling that they are the hero of their own story.

Conflict between characters

Friction between characters keeps the readers turning those pages.


  • is necessary for plot development and creates feelings of uncertainty.
  • reveals character traits and motivations, shaping character development.
  • pushes characters to their last nerves, revealing their true selves.
  • shapes characters’ actions and decisions.

By understanding how characters relate to each other, writers can create more complex and interesting plotlines.

Decisions a character makes

Decisions made by characters during conflict situations impact the plot, moving it forward.

  • Look at the main events in the story. How many of them are caused by the character's actions? A character who tends to makes things happen will likely have a big influence on the plot.
  • Ponder the character's choices. How do they affect the story's twists and turns? Decisions aren’t always about doing something—doing nothing can have an impact!
  • Even passive characters can influence the plot through their reactions. How do other characters and events in the story change because of this character's responses? This can give you clues about their indirect influence on the plot.

Think about the decisions your character makes in your story. Are there consequences for those choices? Does your protagonist always make the right one? Brainstorm ways to make those decisions have higher stakes and see how it could change the story.

Don’t waste opportunities to cause trouble for your protagonist. Take advantage of each choice your characters make.

Character’s perspective

No two individuals will perceive an event in the same way—a perception gap.

In Wendy Corsi Staub’s The Final Victim, two women interact with the same man, but their perceptions are very different—generous or self-centered.

  • Who’s right?
  • Is one untruthful? If so, why?
  • Is one of them misjudging him? If so, might she misjudge something else?

Perception gaps encourage readers to think about characters’ motivations, be more involved in the story, and to try to figure out what makes the characters to act the way they do.

A perception gap presents an opportunity. If writers know how characters perceive things, they can predict characters’ behaviors, then create plots specific to the characters. Because no two characters have the same background or personality, each has a unique perspective. The story varies depending on who is telling it.

How do your characters impact the plot of your stories? What character arcs do you prefer to write? Read? How do you use conflict?

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About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon chapter book series with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works in Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and The Crystal Key, MG Magical Realism/ Sci-Fi, a glaze of time travel.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Sammy-Sander from Pixabay

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5 comments on “Ways to Know Your Characters, Part 5- Impact on Plot”

  1. Ellen, I've never seen character arc laid out in such a way that is easy to understand. We all know our characters have to learn something important and be changed at the end of the story, but it's fascinating to see that there are some unexpected ways to do it.

    1. Thank you Sandy!

      I can relate. My stories are character driven.

      Glad you enjoyed the tips!

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