How to Plot Character Arc


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We want to tell meaningful stories, and we know meaning comes from cause and effect. From seeing the effect a plot has on a character, and understanding how the experience they’ve gone through has impacted them.

But that’s a big target to hit, and thinking about it in such broad terms doesn’t offer much practical guidance.

In an effort to break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces, plot and character are often taught as two separate topics.

But I really believe it makes the writer’s job easier to start thinking about (and planning for) that plot-character interaction as early as possible. Not only will it help you create a meaningful story that has a real emotional impact on your audience, but thinking about how plot and character work together will also give you a more complete map to guide you through writing the screenplay.

So today I want to give you a simple exercise to plan the protagonist’s character arc in tandem with the major plot points. That way you can make sure you’re thinking about character arc – and the emotional layer of your story – from the earliest iterations.

What is character arc?

First of all, what is character arc and do you have to have it in your screenplay?

Wikipedia actually has a solid definition: “A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story.”

Does your character have to arc? No. (It’s your story, you can do what you want.)

In some stories, the whole point is that the character doesn’t change. In some stories, what changes is the world around the character – that’s okay too.

Good stories are most often about some kind of change because that’s how we know the story meant something, it had consequences. A story can still be good and meaningful without a traditional character arc, but you may have to work a little harder to show us why nothing changed and what meaning that delivers.

How do plot and character work together?

For the vast majority of movies, plot and character development are intertwined. Plot events act on a character and force change. The changing character makes choices that drive plot direction.

When plot and character are designed to intertwine effectively, it makes the story feel more meaningful because we can see how those elements are working on each other and effecting change.

A good match between plot and character helps answer the “Why this story now” question. This particular character needs this particular plot, because he needs to change, he just doesn’t know it (or won’t admit it).

Once you have that match, you can map out the character arc alongside the plot to give yourself even more direction. As you work out the big plot points that give your story shape, you can work out the corresponding steps in the character’s arc.

What are the major plot points?

There are 5 major plot points I talk about most often:

  1. The Inciting Incident introduces a problem (or opportunity) the protagonist must contend with, setting the story in motion by creating circumstances in which the protagonist will need to form the story goal.
  2. By the Break Into Act 2 the main conflict is clear and the story goal is established, which the protagonist believes will address the problem/opportunity. It’s his preferred or only solution to the problem.
  3. The Midpoint raises the stakes and/or creates greater opposition to achieving the story goal, and as a result injects new energy into the story and sometimes drastically changes the direction it’s headed.
  4. At the Break Into Act 3, the character begins the final push toward resolution. Sometimes that shows up as a new plan to achieve the same goal, sometimes it’s a new goal altogether.
  5. The Climax shows whether the goal is achieved or not, whether the problem is successfully addressed or not (aka how it all shakes out).

Today we’re going to add in a few other points to think about, which will give us a more complete picture of the character’s arc:

>> The character arc starting point – what flawed or unhealthy state is the character starting from? (This is what will be challenged by the plot, so refer back to the plot-character match.)

>> The low point that usually happens at the end of Act 2. This is a beat that’s vitally important to understanding the character arc because it’s where the story’s theme or lesson is held up in front of the protagonist. It acts as sort of a trigger for the Break into 3 plot point, and since we’re talking about how plot and character arc work together, it’s important to include it in our discussion.

>> The character arc ending point – what does the transformed character look like? Or what’s changed?

What happens in the character arc at each major plot point?

Since we know plot and character affect each other, we can use what we know about each to “do the math” and fill in what we don’t yet know.

Let’s look at how each of the major plot points functions in the character’s arc:

>> The character’s starting point is “flawed” or “unhealthy” in some way. Basically, they have some misbehavior or point of view that is not serving them as well as they think. It doesn’t have to be an objectively negative quality, but it is having some negative effects in the character’s life, which is why he needs the journey that’s about to happen.

1. The Inciting Incident: What happens at this plot point creates a situation that challenges the character’s starting point flaw in some way.

2. Break Into Act 2: This is where the external journey that will challenge the internal transformation begins in earnest. The character embarks on the course of action that will force him to change, but he doesn’t yet know that the change is coming. He thinks he can maintain that flaw or misbehavior and pursue the goal.

3. The MidpointThe midpoint plot event causes the protagonist to get more invested in achieving the goal. Success may be even more important or meaningful, or it may require the protagonist to recommit to achieving the goal in light of even more conflict. When the protagonist gets more invested, it creates more pressure to change. Because that’s ultimately the key to achieving the goal or whatever form success takes. So even though the character is still not ready to admit he needs to change or embrace a “new way” of being, he’s likely beginning to see how the “old way” isn’t working.

>> The Low Point at the end of Act 2: Plot-wise, the protagonist likely feels on the verge of failure, or that he’ll never be able to achieve the story goal. Or he may realize he’s been pursuing the wrong thing all along. Often he’ll have a “lightbulb moment” or pep talk of some sort, where the protagonist faces the lesson of the story’s theme. He still may not be ready to fully embrace it, but this is where he most clearly sees what he’s been doing wrong and what he should be doing instead.

4. The Break Into Act 3 shows the protagonist’s new, “growth” way of addressing the problem – now that he or she has been through the transformative events of this story. If it’s a new plan to achieve the same old goal, it’s likely enabled in some way by what the character has learned up to this point. If it’s a new goal altogether, it’s probably formed because the character has learned the old goal isn’t what he really wants or isn’t the “healthy” thing to pursue. This realization is only possible because of what he’s experienced and learned in the story.

5. The Climax shows us whether the character is able to embrace the lesson of the theme or not. Whatever this experience has forced the protagonist to confront in themselves, to change, to re-evaluate – that’s demonstrated in the climax. It’s the character walking the walk, not just talking the talk (or thinking the thoughts).

Today’s movie example: The Peanut Butter Falcon

Written by Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a buddy movie about a young man (Zack) with Down’s Syndrome and a loner (Tyler) who’s on the run from some guys who want to hurt him. Zack and Tyler end up traveling together on the way to meet Zack’s idol, the wrestler known as the Salt Water Redneck.

In this movie, both of the characters are changed by their relationship. But I think Tyler edges out Zack as the true main character, so we’ll look at his character arc here.

>> Character arc starting point: To put it simply, Tyler is a loner. He doesn’t have friends or family, and he keeps it that way. We don’t know why at this point, but we know he doesn’t seem happy even though it does appear to be by choice. He’s also reckless, self-destructive even, which we see as he steals from others, picks fights, etc.

1. Inciting Incident: Zack stows away on Tyler’s boat. Since Tyler pushes people away, being forced to pair up is a direct challenge to that.

2. Break into 2: Tyler agrees to take Zack to the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school on the way to Tyler’s own destination. So Tyler embarks on the external journey (traveling with / entering into a relationship with this kid Zack), which will challenge Tyler’s “flaw” – his belief that he shouldn’t have relationships. That’s the big thing that’s not serving Tyler as well as he thinks.

3. Midpoint: We see in flashback why Tyler pushes everyone away (he blames himself for his brother’s death), but we also now understand what it would mean for him to deal with it and move forward as a healthier, happier person. Then Zack asks Tyler to train him to become a professional wrestler. Tyler agrees, so their relationship takes the next step. The more their bond grows, the more Tyler wants to change, but he still doesn’t know if he deserves to.

>> Low Point: The men pursuing Tyler (because of something he did in Act 1) catch up to them. They burn the raft Tyler built to get Zack to his destination. So Tyler’s actions have again hurt someone he cares for. It’s his worst fear, echoing what happened in his past. But now, Zack comes to his rescue. It’s a two-way street; they care for each other. Tyler finally understands that you can’t push people away out of fear that you’ll lose them or that your actions may hurt them, you just have to do your best to make good choices, and look out for each other.

4. Break into 3: Tyler begins the final push to achieve his goal – to help Zack fulfill his dream of meeting the Salt Water Redneck. Tyler just wants to make this kid happy.

5. Climax: Zack gets a chance to wrestle – his dream come true! But gets nervous, wants to chicken out. Tyler gives him a pep talk so he won’t walk away from his dream, and then makes a costume for Zack and pumps up the crowd so Zack can have the ultimate experience.

>> The character arc ending point: Tyler has gone from a self-destructive loner to someone who cares deeply about others and forms strong bonds. He’s created a new family.

Let’s make it meaningful

If the character hadn’t been well-matched to the plot, or if the plot had no effect on Tyler at all, the movie wouldn’t feel as meaningful. And isn’t that what we want – to tell stories that have an impact?

When you start thinking about how the specific events of the plot cause the character to challenge his “old way” of being and take on a “new way”, it actually makes the job of creating a meaningful story much less daunting. The same way you start broad and then get more and more granular with the plot, you can also do so with the character arc. And when you map out the character arc alongside the plot points, you get a more complete map that takes into account both the external and internal journeys of the character.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.