Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 2: The Lie Your Character Believes
Below is an excerpt from helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com hosted by K.M. Weiland - a great website for anyone wanting to be an accomplished writer, but what is perhaps more intriguing in these posts is the connection between fictional characters and our real lives. Take for example the opening paragraphs. Weiland writes,
People hate change. We may sit around and wish our lives were different, but when the rubber really starts streaking the tarmac, we usually find ourselves wishing we could just hang out here in our safe and familiar haunts.
Characters are no different. They resist change just as staunchly as any of us—which is a good thing. Out of resistance comes conflict; out of conflict comes plot. This is just the first of many ways in which plot and character arcs are inextricable from one another. As Stanley Williams so aptly explains it in his book The Moral Premise:
A good way to conceive of movie stories, like Die Hard and Love, Actually, is to think of the visible story as the metaphor for the invisible story.
In other words, the plot is all about the character’s inner journey, whether the connection is immediately evident or not. Plot, in its simplest manifestation, is all about the protagonist’s thwarted goal. He wants something, and he can’t have it right away, so he keeps right on trying.
The Change Arc, at its simplest manifestation, is all about the protagonist’s changing priorities. He realizes the reason he’s not getting what he wants in the plot is because either a) he wants the wrong thing or b) his moral methods for achieving what he wants are all wrong.
"Out of conflict comes plot" and "plot is all about the character's inner journey" - "about the protagonists thwarted goals." For a storyboard, this works. For life, it is incomplete - shallow. Try telling a struggling teen that their struggles are vital because it produces the plot. Tell them it's about their inner journey, and that's a bit closer. Tell them that conflict reveals truth, and it can help give purpose to their struggle.
But first, they must get through the Lie. Weiland continues,
The Lie the Character Believes
The Change Arc is all about the Lie Your Character Believes. His life may be horrible, or his life may seem pretty great. But, festering under the surface, is the Lie.
In order for your character to evolve in a positive way, he has to start out with something lacking in his life, some reason that makes the change necessary. He is incomplete in some way, but not because he is lacking something external. A person in a prison camp can still be entirely whole and balanced on the inside, while someone floating in a Malibu mansion’s swimming pool may be one miserable son of a gun.
Nope, your character is incomplete on the inside. He is harboring some deeply held misconception about either himself, the world, or, probably, both. As we’ll see in next week’s post, this misconception is going to prove a direct obstacle to his ability to fulfill his plot goal. In some instances, it may start out seeming to be a strength, but as the story progresses, it will become your character’s Achilles heel. . .
What Is the Lie?
Your character’s Lie could take any number of forms. For example, maybe he believes:
Might makes right. (Thor)
The only way to earn love is through servitude. (Jane Eyre)
Your only worth is in being the favorite. (Toy Story)
Money is to be treasured more than people. (Three Kings)
The weak must always give in to the strong. (Green Street Hooligans)
The Lie is a specific belief, which you should be able to state in one short sentence. It may include some qualifiers, as does Jane Eyre’s. Her basic Lie is that she isn’t worthy to be loved, but it’s qualified by her additional belief that she can earn love if she is willing to enslave herself to others, physically and emotionally.
Symptoms of the Lie
How do you find the Lie? The first thing you’re going to want to do is examine your plot to see if the Lie might be evident in the conflict. (We’ll get into that more next week when we discuss the conflict between the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs.) The second thing you’re going to want to do is look at the character’s actions—and especially his reactions. See if you can spot any of the following:
Inability to forgive
Shame over something done or suffered
None of these are the Lie, but they’re often products of the Lie. Your protagonist may be aware of the symptoms of the Lie in his life, even if he isn’t yet able to recognize the Lie itself. More than that, he may be totally willing to shed the negative symptom, but he can’t because he can’t get past his fundamental belief in the Lie. . .
Questions to Ask About the Lie the Character Believes
1. What misconception does your protagonist have about himself or the world?
2. What is he lacking mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, as a result?
3. How is the interior Lie reflected in the character’s exterior world?
4. Does your character’s Lie require any qualifiers to narrow its focus?
7. What are the symptoms of your character’s Lie?
The Lie Your Character Believes is the foundation for his character arc. This is what’s wrong in his world. Once you know what’s wrong, you then get to set about figuring out how to make it right.
Being able to articulate the lie of a fictional character, why they believe about themselves, the world, or both, is crucial, because it allows the character to be dynamic - to have depth. They don't just act a certain way simply because they're a jerk, or because they're selfish, more than likely they are acting a certain way because they are battling against a much larger, much deeper lie. And if we can begin to search for the lie and the roots of the why, not only might we find ourselves with a little more compassion, we might even find that we have something in common - be it fear, extreme hurt, inability to forgive, guilt, horrible secrets, or shame. Probably, if the lie is great enough, there is more than one lurking beneath the surface.
Stories Matter. And understanding the characters, the lies the believe, and the consequences of them will not only make us better writers and readers, they will make us better people.
Thanks for reading! Good luck.