Tag Archives: character arcs

Craft your characters’ arcs with me at Savvy Authors!

Struggling with showing your character’s emotional journey? I’ve got just the thing for you: A two-week in-depth class on character arcs I’m teaching through Savvy Authors!

Join me for Character Arcs: all dressed up and nowhere to grow starting Monday, April 17, 2017. We’ll be digging deep into creating our character’s internal journey of growth and showing it on the page, from backstory to beginning through the climax.

The course lasts two weeks and covers brand new material (even if you’ve been in previous character arcs classes and read my book!). Here’s the syllabus:

  • Week 1—Building the arc
    • Discovering your character’s arc
    • Digging into your character’s past
    • Arcs for other characters (including antagonists & romantic interests)
  • Week 2—Structuring the arc
    • Creating the “illustrating” incident
    • Two steps forward and one step back through the middle
    • The climax of the character arc

Cost: $35 ($25 for premium members of Savvy Authors). I hope you can join us!

Register now!

Photo credits: character arc logo—Ruth and Dave

When the character doesn’t know he’s going to arc

So we know we have to set up a character arc in the beginning to create the maximum effect as the character goes on a journey of internal, emotional growth (in a growth arc). Since the character is going to learn and grow, obviously they’ll start off in a place where they need this growth. In that sense, it’s a bad place.

Of course, sometimes—often!—our character doesn’t realize he’s in a bad place. He’s operating under a mistaken belief about himself and the world, but right now, that belief is working for him. It’s protecting him from repeating the bad experience that left him with this wrong belief in the first place.

Nicole's Many Emotions

For example, maybe our hero couldn’t learn to ride a bike as a child, and his mother ridiculed him for it, etc. (his bad experience). As an adult, he has a hard time believing he’s capable (his mistaken belief). He protects himself from confronting this painful belief by not trying new things, living a cautious life (his outward behavior at the outset). Throughout our story, he’ll learn that he is a capable person after all (his character arc).

But at the beginning of the book, our hero doesn’t know he’s about to learn and grow. He’s bopping along in his safe, cautious little life, thinking all is well, and he’ll never have to change. More than that, he isn’t consciously thinking about how cautious and small his world has become, or how incapable he feels, or anything else. He thinks he’s happy because he believes he’s solved the problem of feeling incapable—by avoiding situations where he’s incapable.

Let’s frown-smile for our protagonist here. It’s sad and cute that he feels that way, and throughout the course of the book, we’re going to prove to him that he’s wrong. To do that, we’re going to have to break him down and make him face the hard reality of his mistaken belief before he can move past it to grow.

But we’re not there yet. Right now, we’re just at the beginning, where he still thinks things are fine. He won’t realize he’s limited his life this way, or that he has this mistaken belief until later in the story. So how can we show them to the reader and set up the character arc adequately?

Subtly setting up the character arc

I believe that we have to set up a character arc early on in a book with an incident that illustrates the mistaken belief in action, and how that mistaken belief is holding the character back. In a book where the character realizes they need to learn and grow early on, it’s usually fairly easy to do this in the beginning. You can be somewhat obvious without hitting the reader over the head.

On the other hand, when our character isn’t ready to begin the journey, when they’re still happy in—and oblivious of—the mistaken belief, we have a bigger challenge: showing the character’s belief and how it’s crippling them to the reader while allowing our character to remain blissfully oblivious.

The deep-seated mistaken belief can actually work in our favor here. The character is so used to using this belief to justify his actions and explain away contradictory material that we can have him do just that, showing the reader the thought process that’s holding him back. So for this example, perhaps we present him with the opportunity to do something he’s always wanted to—climb Mount Everest or be on a reality TV show—and he lets the opportunity pass.

Naturally, we can’t make the impact of this action too bad, or we’ll clue the character into his own need for change too soon. We can use a more subtle “bad consequence” to prove that this attitude isn’t helping him—whether that’s a split-second wistful wish that he could accomplish that goal, or suspiciously harsh mental castigation not to fritter away his life in pointless dreams.

These techniques work best for close narration (first person and deep POV third person), where we can use a slightly more unreliable narrator, rather than the more dispassionate narrators (more distant third person and omniscient). With more narrative distance, the narration sets up the expectation that facts are being reported, rather than the characters experiencing and relaying the story. Thus when we report our character’s lies to himself, we have to work even harder to show the reader that these thoughts are not “true.”

If we set this moment up correctly, the reader will briefly note the circumstances, but it won’t stop the story, or make the reader think the character needs to change right away. Later, when the character is confronted with the ultimatum, realizing he has no choice but to change, the readers and the character can look back over the experiences of the novel thus far for evidence to support that ultimatum, cementing the need for change in everyone’s minds.

Learn more about character arcs!

What do you think? When do you have your characters begin to realize they have to change?

Photo credit: Nichole’s Many Emotions by Ally Aubry via Flickr/CC

More structural self-editing resources

Yesterday I shared my presentation on structural self-editing from the 2014 LDStorymakers conference, and today I’m sharing some more resources on the subject—enough to keep you busy for quite a while!

Books I referenced

Blog posts

Other resources

Seven-point story structure by Dan Wells on YouTube—each video is about 10 minutes

What are your favorite resources on story structure?

Tomorrow: my presentation on gesture crutches!


Could Frozen be even better?

I have little kids. I get to go see Disney movies without any shame. I even get to go to the sing along version. (And be the loudest person in the theater. No shame.) We all really liked Frozen (except for my three-year-old, who’s still upset that Elsa told Anna to go away). The story, the characters, the songs, even the plot twists—we loved it.

Elsa-and-Anna-Wallpapers-frozen-35894707-1600-1200But the more I’ve pondered the story and especially the ending, I’ve wondered if it couldn’t be a little stronger. This has nothing to do with the cute reprises of “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?” popping up on YouTube.


If you haven’t seen it, the movie revolves around a pair of princess sisters, Elsa and Anna. After an accident in their childhood where Anna is badly hurt, Elsa must hide her magical ice powers from her younger sister. Afraid she’ll hurt her sister again, Elsa shuts her out completely. They spend the better part of their lives separated, even after their parents die, and Elsa’s secret powers continue to grow beyond her control.

On the day of Elsa’s coronation, after a fight with Anna, Elsa accidentally reveals her powers to the whole kingdom. Elsa flees in fear, setting off an eternal winter in their kingdom. Anna goes to find her sister and convince her to come back, but Elsa freaks out when she finds out what happened in their kingdom. In her fear, she again accidentally freezes her sister’s heart.

Anna leaves, and discovers that she will die without an act of true love. At the climax of the movie, Anna has a choice to kiss her true love or save her sister’s life. As she blocks the death blow of the villain’s sword, Anna turns to solid ice. Elsa is devastated.

In a Disney reversal, Anna’s selfless sacrifice is an act of true love, and it thaws her frozen heart (and body). Elsa realizes that the answer to her out-of-control powers is love. She’s able to harness her magic and end the premature winter.

Okay, super cute, heartwarming, etc., right? It is. But after a while, you look back at that conclusion and wonder . . . didn’t Elsa always love her sister?

It was Elsa’s love of her sister that led to her fear, led to Elsa shutting her out. So why was love all of a sudden the answer?

Completing the character arc

Although the movie does revolve around Anna and her actions, it’s Elsa that has the biggest character arc. At the beginning of the movie, she’s warned that fear will be her enemy, which she (and her parents) take to mean that others will fear her powers and possibly hurt her. This inciting incident sets up her character arc to grow from a place of fear.

Throughout the course of the story, her own fear rules her life. She cuts herself off from everyone but her parents—and eventually won’t even let them touch her because she’s afraid she’ll hurt them. When she’s afraid and upset, her powers rage out of control, and hurt the people she cares about.

The final image of the movie, Elsa, Anna and their subjects playing with her magic, shows that Elsa has successfully learned her lesson and integrated it into her life. But before that, when she says what she’s learned, she only says, “Love! Of course!”

Again, she’s always loved her sister. That isn’t how she’s grown or changed. What she actually learned was a lesson about not letting her fear overrule her love for her sister and her subjects. I think that expressing that, tying the character arc back to the growth that she’s seen throughout the film and the lesson she learned, would have made the movie just a little bit stronger.

How could we express that better? One or two sentences of dialogue would have been enough, since the positive results of her character arc are already shown well through her actions. The line that keeps springing to my mind is straight out of the Bible: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear.” She’d let her fears override that love (not completely destroy it). When she realizes that she needs to show her love for her sister and receive her love in return, she’s able to overcome those fears and control her powers.

The answer isn’t just love. If we dig a little deeper, we see that the real theme is that love can conquer fear.

A big musical number to that effect wouldn’t have hurt either 😉 .

I still love it

In all, I do still love Frozen. I’m a writer, and I analyze things—and you’d think I wrote a book on Character Arcs or something. As I was telling Jami Gold in her post analyzing another way Frozen might have been a little better, these criticisms and analysis of the movie are actually a positive thing. I think it says a lot for any story to inspire craft discussion!

What do you think? Did you like the ending of Frozen, or could it be better?

Character Arcs is here!

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Subplots

We’ve finished our series on subplots, but we haven’t touched on one of the most important types: the character arc, the character’s emotional journey of growth. And that’s because I’ve been working so hard on the book about that very topic.

Hooray! It’s here!

On Kindle and in paperback

With more formats coming soon!

“Amid the vast number of books that focus on the what and why of character arcs, Jordan McCollum has created a refreshing guide that demystifies the how. Any writer interested in learning more about how to create a realistic character arc and smoothly add it to their story will benefit greatly from this book.”

—Becca Puglisi
author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression


CHARACTER ARCS show the events of our story are worth reading about.

In most works of fiction, the major characters don’t just experience the events of the plot—the story changes them. They learn and grow, ultimately succeeding at the climax of the story because of all they’ve gained. Even the greatest plot in the world can ring flat if the character’s internal journey isn’t dramatic enough. For a character to truly resonate with readers, he should change and grow over the course of the story.

CHARACTER ARCS will help you:

  • Give your readers a powerful experience in any genre
  • Discover your character’s arc: their internal, emotional journey.
  • Implement that character arc to make your readers root for your character.
  • Keep your story moving by using external plot events to prompt your character’s internal growth.
  • Revise your character’s arc for maximum impact.
  • PLUS a special chapter on using character arcs in romances, family dramas & other relationship stories.

Far from a write-by-numbers manual, this approach examines the basic mechanics of character change to show you how to apply these principles in your own work, with numerous examples.

Add power and resonance to any story—master character arcs!

More about Character Arcs
Add Character Arcs to your Goodreads

Lucky! Number! Seven!

This entry is part 8 of 13 in the series All my novels

After a maaajor crash and burn novel, I needed to quit writing, perhaps forever. And then fall (the season) came, and with it, NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month.

To this point, I’d never done a full NaNo. I made a sad attempt in 2006, but stalled out in the first chapter. In 2010, the year before this, I did a “Half-No” where I added 25,000 words to my ill-fated sixth novel. I’d written a book pretty quickly before: 90,000 words in 8 or 9 weeks, spanning over November (2008), but I started in October (five years ago today, in fact!), so it couldn’t count as official even if my word count was enough.

I like to challenge myself, so doing NaNo wasn’t enough. I heard of Candace Havens’s “Fast Draft” method, where you write your first draft in two weeks. I finally found the right characters to use for an idea that had been bouncing around in my brain for over a year, sketched out a plot, threw that away, took a deep breath, crossed my fingers, and dove in.

The book stats

Title: Bloodstone
Genre: Uhh . . . action/adventure romance, I guess? It’s a lot like National Treasure.
Inspiration: Umm . . . I think it was partially inspired by a History Channel pseudoscientific special on Vikings in the Americas. Also, some notes on a passage of scripture.
Writing dates: 1 November 2011 – 14 November 2011
Length: Just over 78,000 in the first draft; sitting at 85,000 right now.
Elevator pitch (or a little bit longer than that): Professor Cora Warren has an archaeological dig to conduct; her student Jack has his own agenda: an unbelievable archaeological theory. But it’s not his theory that challenges Cora’s faith the most—until they unearth an artifact that will drag them through a thousand years of incredible history, give them both a reason to believe, and bring them face-to-face with a secret society hellbent on keeping the treasure and the glory for themselves.

Dude. I love this book.

107/365 [Flying Fingers]

What I learned from this book

First and foremost: as soon as I got up on November 1, I dove into this book. AND WRITING WAS FUN AGAIN! It had been two years since I’d written something that I loved and enjoyed, and had it flow. I’d forgotten the joy of drafting, and how much my soul needed that creative energy. I also got to revisit one of my favorite conflicts in romance: forbidden love!

To date, this is the longest I’ve gone from initial idea to actual writing. In fact, I was sure I’d given up on that idea, that it didn’t have the spark or passion I’d need to sustain a novel. The characters I’d initially sketched out for the idea just didn’t connect with me: the “hero” had such an obvious agenda he came off as flat before I ever even gave the guy a name. Having let the ideas percolate so much—and building on something that has as much background as Vikings in America—gave me a lot of fuel to write very fast!

And speaking of writing fast, I wrote real fast. I wasn’t sure if I could really do the Fast Draft method, especially since I don’t write on Sundays, but sure enough, I hit “The End” on November 14, averaging 6500 words a day. This was majorly helped by my first ever writing retreat, where I wrote . . . darn, my records are on my old laptop still. But it was many words. Plus, I got to be there to receive the acceptance letter for what was to be my first published novel (third manuscript), and to get to share that news with friends in person was very cool. (There may have been a request for a cartwheel. I may have fulfilled that request.)

Writing fast also had some other advantages. I thought I’d end up with a super sloppy first draft, and yes, in some ways I did. However, having the entire novel in my head helped me to weave together threads that I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise, instead of dropping them and fixing it in revision. It really felt like weaving a novel, like all the craft and structure mechanics I’d spent the last four years beating into my head were really coming together. It was far from perfect—and I think it’s going to have to undergo a second round of revisions still—but it was surprisingly good.

COVEROne of the craft and structure mechanics that really came together for me during this time was the concept of the character arc, and most especially how I needed to use that arc at the climax. This was a major craft breakthrough for me, and I’m excited to share it with you in Character Arcs, coming next week! (You can add it to your Goodreads now. Just sayin’.)

This novel was also the first time I got to experiment with different timelines, something I love to read. I watched National Treasure to analyze the structure of the genre and I was struck that the beginning of the movie is a flashback (uh, sort of?) depicting part of the history of the secret/legend they’re pursuing. I ended up using three storylines throughout: one in Puritan times (the first time the stone is unearthed), one in the mid-nineteenth century (forming the secret society), and one modern (finding stone, coming up against secret society, romance, character arcs and more). Plus a scene in Viking times (remembering the creation of one of the clues).

Man. I love this book. I’m going to love it so much more when it’s shiny and perfect. Sigh.

Tell me about one of your favorite manuscripts!

Photo credit: The Hamster Factor via Flickr & CC

Win a Kindle Fire & fill it with great books, free & on sale!

You guys, I have so much awesome news.

First and foremost, I’m guest posting today at the new home of the Bookshelf Muse, Writers Helping Writers! Come learn how to turn your character’s strength into a weakness to create a character arc! Also, check out the post to find out when Character Arcs is coming out, gear up for their Amazing Race and the debuts of the Positive Traits Thesaurus and the Negative Traits Thesaurus

Second, we have the winners of the review contest. The Grand Prize winner, drawn at random is . . . comment #8! MINDY HOLT! You’ll get the $25 Amazon Gift Card as well as ARCs of Spy for a Spy and Character Arcs. Also, Lindzee Armstrong gets ARCs of Spy for a Spy and Character Arcs!

Okay, third, and getting back to what I promised you in the title of this post, I’m part of a huge promotion today and tomorrow. You can enter to win a 7″ Kindle Fire giveaway (scroll down), and find over 50 free or sale-priced books to fill it!


Check out Bookmarked Bargains to find them all!

There’s more good news to share but . . . this is so much that I think we’ll spread out the happy. We deserve more happy days, right?

Announcing Character Arcs (the book!)

It’s a big year for me! After speaking at the LDStorymakers Conference this spring, I wanted to get my thoughts on character arcs out there again. so coming soon, it’s . . .

character arcs
Character arcs the book!

I’ve already collected all the cool stuff I’ve shared through guest posts, the original blog series, and my presentation, and I’m clarifying, refining and expanding it!

It should be launching on Amazon Kindle as an ebook sometime next month. I’ll definitely keep you posted.

I’m planning more writing craft ebooks in the future, and I think I’ll probably bundle a couple ebooks for print editions as well.

What do you think? What writing series or topics would you like to see a book on?