Story Structure — Character Arc

In my previous blog I showed how a traditional Three-Act Structure can be broken down for practical purposes into four acts of approximate equal portions, with eight sequences, 8 plot points, and 8 stages of character arc. I don’t claim credit for any of these ideas. The diagram is the result of simply fusing together the ideas and methodologies of a number of different narrative structures promoted by a number of different story guru. As I mentioned in my previous blog, there is a considerable overlap of these ideas. They simply look at breaking down story structure in different ways: by Act, by Sequence, and by Plot Point.

Today I want to take a closer look at character arc.

In the diagram above I have looked at some of common elements of character arc as it applies to the main protagonist:

  1. The character starts in his ordinary world, and often has a flaw that holds him back from his full potential.
  2. Something happens that disturbs his life forever (the impetus/or call to adventure/catalyst/disturbance). He/she tries to avoid it, but the startling event forces him to act.
  3. He/she crosses the threshold into a new world, where he is out of his depth and struggles.
  4. He/she has to adapt and take more and more desperate measures.
  5. At the mid point he/she begins to learn the enormity of the task he faces, but resolves to continue.
  6. He/she tries a new plan which reaches a crisis point after which he loses all hope.
  7. He/she finally finds the strength for one last attempt and makes a critical choice to risk everything.
  8. He/she succeeds and in doing so has changed.

This kind of story arc, is the one I am most familiar with but it is by no means the only one. One of the most well known is the “Hero’s Journey” developed by Joseph Campbell, and modified and promoted by Christopher Vogler. It is usually set out in a circular structure, but it can be equally shown as though it was a three-act structure, with a character arc that matches the Hero’s Journey as the following diagram illustrates.

I have covered the Hero’s Journey, in my blog already. You can find it here.

Cristopher Vogler’s approach is an interesting one, and is based around the structure of mythical stories. Although in Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, he shows how this approach is flexible and can be adapted to modern-day stories. Some writers, however, seek a much simpler approach.

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

One such approach is Dan Harmon’s story circle. It is set out in a circular form similar to Vogler’s hero’s journey but with only eight simple stages to follows:

The eight stages are as follows:

  1. A character is in his zone of comfort (You)
  2. But they want something (Need)
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation (Go)
  4. They adapt to it (Search)
  5. They get find what they want (Find)
  6. They pay a heave price for it (Take)
  7. They return to the familiar situation (Return)
  8. Having changed (Changed)

The beauty of Harmon’s story circle is that is simple and entirely framed around the protagonist action s (You). The story arc mimics the human learning experience. A hero develops a need for something important. He goes after it. He encounters problems and adapts to them, until he eventually finds what he wanted. He takes what he wants, but has to pay and important price for it. He returns to his normal world and demonstrates that he/she has changed in the process.

Is the Harmon circle fundamentally different from the four act structure I highlighted above? No. The four segments of the circle are pretty much the same as the four acts, but they are described in terms of the protagonist’s actions. The horizontal line splits the world into two parts: at the top –the normal familiar world; and below–the special world of chaos. The vertical line splits the hero’s journey into two halves: the right side is where the protagonists reacts; and the left side is where he takes decisive action. 1, 3, 5 and 7 and important crossover points.

One of the obvious questions about the approach is where is the climax? This occurs at 8 — where the hero demonstrates that he has changed. The climax is indeed the proof that the hero has changed and deserves his victory.

Another interesting point is 6, “Take and pay the price”. The hero’s success comes at a personal cost. This quarter is full of potential pain for the hero. It’s the “crisis” sequence in the simplified four-act structure.

When I first encountered Harmon’s circle I thought it was too simplistic. But as you get to use it to plan the basic story line, you find that simplicity often works. Advocates of the Harmon approach also emphasise that the approach can also be used on an Act and sequence basis as it incorporates the natural story building blocks.

So what do you think of Harmon’s circle?

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