3 Trait Character Arc
Updated: Nov 21, 2021
Crafting the Inner Story by discovering and challenging your character's flaws.
Overview and Purpose
It’s integral to develop flaws for our characters. If we want readers to relate to our stories, we must craft a journey not only for our characters to experience but for our readers to experience as well.
This journey is called the internal struggle, the sequel, or the “B” story and is all about those pesky flaws which inhibit our characters from achieving their goals. Discovering and challenging our protagonist’s flaws is the key to writing transcendent stories.
As authors, not only can we write characters who overcome their flaws, but we have the potential to help real readers overcome their own flaws as well.
Whether you’ve already written your protagonist’s story or you’re just starting out with a shiny new idea, this guide will assist you with formulating redeemable qualities for your characters. It’s integral to develop flaws for your characters. If you want readers to relate to your story, you must craft a journey not only for your characters to experience but for the reader to experience as well.
“Ask readers what they remember about novels and most will say the characters, but is that accurate? It’s true that the characters become real to us but that is because of what they cause us to feel. Characters aren’t actually real; only our own feelings are.”
No matter how epic your fantasy may be, no matter how unrealistic it is for your urban Cinderella story to happen in real life, these flaws will make your character relatable to your readers.
Readers don’t necessarily need to identify with your wonderfully insane plot. Write that crazy plot! Don’t hold back. Raise the stakes. Make the risks unbelievably risky. Make the dark-night-of-the-soul so treacherous, there is no hope of seeing the light. So long as you write a character who experiences these events in a way real people would (that is, with an emotional journey) your readers will find your story relatable.
This journey is called the internal struggle, the sequel, or the “B” story and is all about those pesky flaws which inhibit our characters from achieving their goals. It’s what makes them question if they have the ability to accept the journey you’ve so cleverly crafted for them at the inciting incident. It’s what your plot and antagonists challenge. It’s the very thing that manifests itself as the “all-is-lost” moment.
It’s not dragons nor all-mighty gods which readers see themselves fighting. It’s those inner demons. When your protagonist finally defeats their demons in the climax, our readers face those demons likewise and transcend along with our characters.
Discovering and challenging your protagonist’s flaws is the key to writing such a transcendent story.
Choosing a Flaw
This guide pairs well with my “Crafting Characters” template where you’ll easily identify character flaws based on their emotional wounds. There are endless negative traits to choose from when creating your protagonist, but all flaws will fall into these three categories;
Likability: How likable is your character? Do other characters get along well with them? Are they known to be generous, altruistic, or selfless? Or are they known to be unlikeable?
Competency: Your character either has or needs a skill/profession. Are they good at it? A master? Or are they challenged in this arena?
Activity: Is your character proactive in life? Do they challenge the plot or does the plot challenge them?
Rules about Flaws
Flaws must be internal. A physical deformity or handicap might affect how your character navigates your plot but isn’t considered an inner demon. If you need an example, research Ivar the Boneless from the History Channel’s, Vikings. He’s crippled, but one of the most feared warriors of his time. Now, it does affect his internal confidence which hinders his activity at the beginning of his story.
Your protagonist must be fairly good at one of these three traits. If not, readers won’t sympathize with them. Disney’s Captain Jack Sparrow is, “the worst pirate I’ve ever seen,” but he’s comical. This makes him extremely likable. Ivar might be possessed with murderous hate, but he’s an active character and competent warrior. I find his storyline exciting to follow because I know he’ll provide some action.
Your character must be really bad at one of these traits. This bad quality allows for the internal growth of your character and is the potential for change readers will latch onto. This is your protagonist’s arc! Readers will recognize your character’s flaws and be excited to see them grow because readers want to feel growth within themselves, too. We want to see Ivar accept his physical flaws. Characters who like themselves are far more likable to readers as well. We want Jack to be a competent pirate and get the Black Pearl back.
Graphing your protagonist’s traits
I’m a visual learner. Let’s take a look at the protagonist's potential for growth in a bar graph.
Rapunzel from Disney’s, Tangled is a sweet summer child whose mother has trapped her in a tower. She’s completely incapable of being an active participant in the outside world. She’s sweet, adorable, albeit a little shell-shocked, but who couldn’t like her? Though she’s inexperienced, she’s not completely incompetent. She can hogtie men, escape rough and rowdy kidnappers, and heal wounds with her magical hair. She’s got skills! But is she competent enough to face the outside world?
To understand where she needs growth, let’s look at what Rapunzel wants versus what she needs. Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights, but what she actually needs is to escape her sheltered and emotionally abusive mother. Her inner journey will be about discovering this need and her flaws getting in the way of that. Her flaws are her inactivity and her bit of incompetence.
How the Plot Affects these Traits
Opening Scene: The above bar graph represents Rapunzel at the start of her story. She’s a beautifully flawed creature but has so much wonderful potential to grow into a butterfly (or chameleon in this case.) She has misdirected goals. She wants to see the floating lights for “just one night.” What she actually needs is to live an independent life, free to experience the world on her own.
Inciting Incident: “I’ve got a man... in. My. Closet!” This is the moment that challenges Rapunzel’s flaw. She’s never once left her tower and she knows her mother would be outraged if she found out she ran off with Flynn Ryder (the hunkiest Disney love interest of all.) She’s apprehensive (activity) about going against her mother’s wishes and she’s also questioning if she’s capable (competent) enough to face roughians in the woods. Is she up to the challenge? Of course, she is. There would be no story if she weren’t. (In your story’s case, your protagonist might have no other choice. YIKES!)
Act Two: In this part of the story, your character might be slaying and taking names, or maybe they’re floundering around like Rapunzel. They’re having some good times and they’re having some bad times. The bars of your graph will be fluctuating up and down as your protagonist experiences this new world.
Midpoint: Your midpoint can go one of two ways. Really great or really terrible. Either way, this will be a false moment. The bars of your graph will be either be just a bit higher than where they began, or just a bit lower. Rapunzel’s midpoint is the moment she finally gets what she wants and witnesses the floating lights and has an almost kiss with Eugene (formerly known as Flynn Ryder, but character growth happened and he revealed his true identity. Swoon!) Alas, this moment is only fleeting… our bars are about to take a turn for the worst because Rapunzel hasn’t yet overcome her flaws. She hasn’t discovered what she needs.
All Is Lost: The worst tragedy your character has ever experienced happens at this moment. It’s worse than the inciting incident. Your character’s flaws have become so impending, they believe they’ve failed at everything. She may have become more active, but Rapunzel's mother convinces her that her incompetence has led her to be betrayed by the person she’s come to trust the most (Eugene.)
Climax: But your protagonist is a hero! They’ve somehow mustered up the courage to realize their flaws are fixable. Rapunzel’s experiences in act two have led her to discover that Gothel isn’t her mother and Eugene would never betray her. Eugene knows this too, and he comes to save her because supporting characters will recognize your protagonist’s strengths and assist them with overcoming their flaws and defeating both inner and outer demons.
Ending: Now that your character has defeated their flaws and is a well-rounded character, you must end the story by proving the change in your protagonist has affected the world around your character. Your character must put good back into the world. Rapunzel returns to her true parents, the Kingdom celebrates for days on end and they live happily ever after. Also, her magical tears can heal flesh wounds. Who saw that plot twist coming?
Stories that won’t follow this arc
Tragedies: A tragic story ends at the climax and the character of this story never overcomes their flaws, or their revolution comes too late. Rapunzel is a tragic story for the villain, Mother Gothel. Gothel’s unlikeable nature of being a child napper results in Rapunzel disowning her. In her fit of rage, Pascal (the chameleon) trips her, and she falls to her death, symbolizing she’ll never overcome her greatest flaw. This type of tragedy reflects a character’s inability to defeat their inner demons.
Tragedies certainly don’t just apply to villains. There are many tragic stories that happen to good characters. Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare is a perfect example of this. The Montagues and Capulets long-standing dislike for each other puts these two lovers in an unfortunate situation and the lovers commit suicide. This type of tragedy reflects a character’s inability to defeat their outer demons.
Flat Arcs: This is a special kind of character who already knows their needs at the beginning of their story. The character’s bars will certainly fluctuate throughout the plot as they realize their goal of protecting their need will take more effort and sacrifice than they originally thought, but overall their bars will begin and end nearly at the same levels.
The best example you may know of is Katniss from Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. At the start of her story, she already knows she needs to defeat the Capital and her climactic moment is her attempt at doing so. She and Peeta succeed in this endeavor, ultimately triggering a rebellion. Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is another example. He’s already aware of the corrupt nature of wealthy people and his experience with the Buchanons only proves his opinion even further.
The need which drives these characters through their plot is their desire to expose the bad and protect what is good. Flat arcs are representative of stories that show a need for change in society rather than an individual person. Because the protagonist’s arc is muted, the message of the plot shines through.
By crafting internal flaws for our characters to overcome, we write emotionally engaging and relatable stories. In every scene and plot point of our novels, our characters grow.
Our readers grow with them.
"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?"
While our stories are fiction, the emotions we experience while reading are very real.
As authors, not only do we write characters who can overcome their flaws, but we have the potential to help real readers overcome theirs, too.
“In a word, you are magnanimous. You are the best our human race has to offer. I know this because you write.”
Special thanks to Authors J. M. Ivie and Brittany Wang.