Everybody Arcs! How to Use Emotional Growth to Propel the Story and Capture the Reader

Because the Scarletts of the world get THINGS DONE....

Because the Scarletts of the world get THINGS DONE….

I’ve heard people say some books (or genres) are plot-driven and others are character-driven. My POV? This is a fallacy. All good books are character-driven and plot is what makes that possible. Characters have to make us give a hoot about the plot. If we don’t like or empathize with the characters, we don’t care about their problems.

Conversely, plot is the delivery mechanism and crucible for character (even in literary fiction). Characters can only be as strong as the opposition they face. Weak problems=weak characters. In a nutshell, character and plot can’t be easily separated.

For instance, in the Pulitzer-Winning The Road, the plot is simple. Man and Boy must make it to the ocean. Yet, since this piece is literary, the plot goal is subordinate to character goal.

It is less important that Man and Boy make it to the ocean than how they make it to the ocean. The world has been obliterated, killing every living thing other than humans. Many have returned to the animal state, resorting to cannibalism to survive. The question in The Road is less “Will they make it to the ocean?” and more “How will they make it to the ocean?” If they resort to snacking on people, they fail.

The Road

The Road

But I will say that while plot is great, characters are what (who) we remember. We have to be able to empathize. We want to love them, hate them, root for them and watch them fail, then overcome that failure. As the late Blake Snyder said, “Everybody arcs!”

Often, this is the trick with series and why early books generally are more popular. Once our main character evolves, we are left with three choices:

1) Have plot create a new flaw in the protagonist.

2) Peel back another flaw that was already there, but hidden by a more visible flaw.

3) Protagonist can serve as a static character who drives growth in other characters.

Whether we are writing a standalone or a series, character growth is pivotal to good writing. I believe one of the reasons humans are a story people is that we fear change. Often, we see our own flaws and have NO IDEA how to correct them, how to get unstuck. We can feel defeated. Yet, through narrative, we watch protagonists become heroes and, unlike life, there’s full resolution. We can see some slice of ourselves in stories and it helps us change or at least maintain hope that change is possible.


I highly, highly recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Negative Trait Thesaurus and Positive Trait Thesaurus (and add in The Emotion Thesaurus to assist in execution). These books are awesome at helping us see how characters should grow organically. What I love about these books is Angela and Becca show positives of the negatives and negatives of the positives.

For instance, a flaky character can be annoying, unreliable and unpredictable. BUT since this character is unpredictable, she can be very useful because she’s unconventional. She can add comic relief (Phoebe Buffet from Friends) or even tension (Riggs from Lethal Weapon).

Both thesauri show behaviors, attitudes and examples which can make writing life MUCH easier. The Emotion Thesaurus gives us ways to show not tell to express these traits and keeps us from beating up the same descriptions (hearts hammering, hearts beating, hearts thumping, etc.)


There is no one right way to write a book. What I did was read a lot of methods, tried them, took what worked and what didn’t and then cobbled my own. But here’s a peek into MY process and the process I encourage students to begin with.

Since I’m writing a trilogy, I needed to look at who my character was in Book One. In Book One, Romi is very loyal and innocent which is ultimately what lands her in trouble. She blindly trusts because she sees only the good in others and ignores or writes off red flags. By the end of Book One, she’s been through a MAJOR crucible and crawled through hell. To survive the Big Boss Battle, she has to kill or be killed. The person she has to kill is a person she cares about and trusted.

My pitch for Book One is Legally Blonde meets Killing Floor.

And my protagonist is a person who, at the beginning of the story, couldn’t step on a bug let alone take a human life. This final action changes her irreparably and damages her innocence.

So, in Book One, my protagonist evolves from Green Pea Pollyanna to Hero Willing to Do What It Takes to Do the Right Thing.

Ah, but doing the right thing has a price. In Book Two, I can’t have her be the same person as Book One or she isn’t believable. Book Two, she’s flipped to the other side of the loyal-trusting-innocent coin and is two steps away from wearing a tin foil hat. Now she questions everything and can never relax. Everybody lies, is her motto. She no longer talks to just anyone, questions everything and is controlling and isolated (but for very good and sympathetic reasons).

Yet, let’s glance at The Positive Trait Thesaurus and I’ll shorten for brevity’s sake.

Book One: Romi Lachlann

Positive: Innocent characters are pure and trusting. They take people at face value and want to believe the good. Easy characters to like and protect.

Negative: In their determination to only see the good, innocent characters may not view the world and other people as they really are, which puts them at a disadvantage.

When we look at this character’s personality, plotting becomes easier. We can also clearly see her Achilles Heel. She needs to be betrayed by someone she trusts blindly and be able to act in a way that is completely contrary to her nature. Also, by knowing who she is (in the beginning) it’s simpler to see who to cast as the antagonist and even allies. She needs allies who challenge her willingness to swallow whatever story she’s fed and help her toughen up.

The core antagonist has to be someone she never sees coming.

When we glance at The Negative Trait Thesaurus, we see that the dark side of Innocent is Childish.

Positive: Innocent and naive. Like children, they are teachable and adapt quickly.

We can use this positive attribute for the protagonist when we look at the proposed solution in The Negative Trait Thesaurus.

Overcoming The Trait as a Major Flaw: A character can defeat his immaturity by growing up. For some, this will mean encountering trials that force them to mature in a short period of time. Other characters will have to face past demons that are keeping them enslaved in this childish state.

This gives me guideposts as to what Book One must accomplish. Romi is tossed head-first into BIG TROUBLE and most of that trouble involves facing a past she believed she left behind when she ran away from home. The story problem forces her to go back to the place she vowed she’d never return.

I could leave my first novel alone. It’s complete. All books (even in a series) should be able to stand alone.

Romi arcs from innocent and blindly trusting person to a determined fighter. But, I wanted the challenge of trying a trilogy, so I have to repeat the process all over again. What is the opposite of Innocent? Resourceful. What is the dark side of resourceful? Paranoid.

And thus I repeat the process. Who is she in the beginning? Who do I need her to grow to be by the end? She can’t live in a hole hiding and terrified of dying. Something has to push her past her fears to face that she’s regressed into an unhealthy existence. Something has to make her rise above her fear and restore her faith. 

There will be residue of that innocent-loyal person, but it now has a hardened shell as a defense mechanism. The “thing” that lures her out of hiding is likely tethered to her core nature. Being uber-paranoid isn’t who she truly is. It’s a coping mechanism, a protection.

Remember, in the beginning, I said one plot problem can create a new character problem. Like cogs in a wheel these arcs propel narrative and drive growth and change.

Also, remember that no character is only ONE of these attributes. Strong characters are a unique blending or we end up with caricatures. An innocent character can also be loyal and funny (Elle Woods in Legally Blonde) or they can be isolated and fearful (Edward Scissorhands).

Favorite Story Example

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings

I love Lord of the Rings probably more than is healthy. I loved the arc of the Hobbits. Sauron never saw Hobbits as particularly useful (they didn’t get a ring) and he never perceived them as any sort of threat. Yet, it is their innocence that becomes Sauron’s ultimate undoing.

Unlike the other races, Hobbits are not as susceptible to the Ring of Power’s sway because of their innocence and inherent goodness. But, in the first book (or movie) their naiveté nearly gets them and all their allies killed.

***Um, cooking bacon on a mountain while EVIL DEAD KINGS are chasing them and trying to KILL them?

The Hobbits must toughen up and lose some of that innocence…but not all of it. If they lose all of it, the Ring of Power will never be destroyed and Sauron wins. Yet, my favorite scene in all cinematic history (which makes me cry EVERY time) is the end of Return of the King. We see the once childlike Hobbits around a pub table, silent, sharing a drink and we see what they sacrificed to not only save the world, but preserve the inherent goodness of their people.

While the other Hobbits dance and laugh and drink in the background, these warriors are quiet and somber. They likely have PTSD and are trying to recapture what they’ve lost, but can never regain. They will never again see the world as they did before that first day leaving The Shire. It is tragic and beautiful all in the span of a few moments.

I hope this gives you some new ideas of how to create dimensional characters. When we know who our characters are (protagonists and antagonists) and where we need them to be/grow, plotting is far simpler.

What are your thoughts? Have you used these books? Maybe used them in a different way? What are some of your favorite character arcs? Do you dislike super-perfect characters?

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have TWO classes coming up to help you!

Upcoming Classes


A seasoned editor can tell a lot about your book with only five pages. Learn to hook hard and hook early. I am running the Your First Five Pages Class. Use WANA10 for $10 off. This is the perfect class for diagnosing bigger story issues or even getting a work agent-ready in time for conference season. This class is April 25th 6:00-8:30 PM NYC Time. Gold Level is available if you want me to critique your 5 pages.

Also, if you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension. Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.



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  1. Reblogged this on dunjav.

  2. This is a brilliant way to look at it, Kristen. Nice boil-down of character arc-ing. 🙂

    1. Everyone has a different technique. Figure y’all might find it useful. 😀

  3. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden.

  4. This is a fantastically written post! You are very thourough and I greatly appreciate your insights.

    By the way, your book series sounds like it is off to a great start. Looks like you have put quite a lot of thought into it! I am excited to one day see it on the bookshelves 🙂

    1. I hope so. Teaching and editing are a different skill than the creation, so we will see, LOL.

  5. legally blonde meets killing floor… nice.

    • Melissa Lewicki on April 24, 2014 at 12:42 pm
    • Reply

    I also love Lord of the Rings more than is healthy.
    I was always sorry that Jackson did not include the Scouring of the Shire in the movie. That section of the book shows how each of the four Hobbits have changed and grown. It also shows them the consequences of evil in a very personal and heart-breaking way. And, it reveals how the Hobbits they left behind in the Shire coped–some heroically and some not.

  6. Reblogged this on In Words.

  7. Reblogged this on I am an Author, I Must Auth and commented:
    More useful information about writing

  8. I love looking at it this way HOWEVER, that whole “must care about the characters” thing does NOT apply to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I hated almost all the characters equally but the story itself was so engaging I HAD to find out what happened in the end 🙂

    1. I dunno. I haven’t read it, but I imagine there has to be something that makes us connect. In “Pulp Fiction” everyone is horrible, but we connect to the hit men in the opening scene when they are bantering about the Big Mac versus the Royale with Cheese. How Tarantino make us empathize is they were bad dudes, but the Antagonist was WAY WORSE, so we root for the lesser of evils.

    • Sarah Brentyn on April 24, 2014 at 12:52 pm
    • Reply

    Loving the Scarlett photo. Brilliant.

    I started reading this and, for like the first time EVER with one of your posts, was all “Eh…not sure I’m agreeing with this.” The plot-driven and character-driven thing. But you went on to explain this so perfectly.

    You flipped me like a pancake. Fab post.

    P.S. Just sent links to The Emotion Thesaurus (and company) yesterday to my hubby as a *nudge, nudge, wink, wink* for Mother’s Day. I am that much of a nerd. Yes, I am. But they look sooo good. That’s funny. Because I’m not kidding. I might tweet that. 😉

  9. Thanks for this! Extremely useful information.

    • becca.puglisi@yahoo.com on April 24, 2014 at 1:00 pm
    • Reply

    Kristen, you are the absolute bomb. Thanks for sharing how The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus are working for you. As the mother of toddlers, I have to say that one of my favorite recent character arcs is that of Elsa in Frozen. It’s all there: the wounding event, the resulting lie, her misguided attempts to adapt under a flawed belief system (which only makes things worse), and the eventual epiphany that guides her to wholeness.

  10. This was both interesting and very educational to me. Thank you for sharing!! 🙂

  11. Brilliant way of looking at creating the character arc.
    ((Goes to find copies of those thesauruseses… thesauri… books. What box did I pack those in… I know they’re here somewhere. AHA!!!))

    I think I’ll look at my characters from this angle and see where they take me.

    • Tamara LeBlanc on April 24, 2014 at 1:11 pm
    • Reply

    I agree 100%, “Characters have to make us give a hoot about the plot. If we don’t like or empathize with the characters, we don’t care about their problems.” I can read a book with a basic plot as long as the characters JUMP off the page at me.I’m not knocking romances (I LOVE them and I’m a proud romance genre author) but I’ve read some over the years – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back types that were pretty pathetically basic…but I adored them because the characters stuck with me. Twilight’s plot is VERY basic, but when I first read it ( I really loved it when I read the advance copy years before the movie came out at an RWA conference, though now I’m not a huge fan anymore) I connected with the characters and thus overlooked the mediocre plot.
    Similarly, I can watch a movie with a basic plot as long as I sympathize with the protagonist. Avatar; basic plot done a gazillion times, but the characters (and AMAZING graphics and world) drew me in and didn’t let me go! I can watch movies like that all day and never get bored…but show me one with ho-hum characters, no matter how big the stars are or budget, and I’m done (The Great and Powerful Oz…*yawn*)
    As I read this post characters went through my mind and I immediately thought of Forrest Gump. LOVED him. Again a pretty basic plot, but he {Forrest} shines, though he doesn’t really change throughout. It’s the characters around him that ARC. Like you mentioned, “Protagonist can serve as a static character who drives growth in other characters.” which I think is pretty darn cool, too.
    This definitely helps me nail down the ways to bring life to characters and show that on the page. Since I’m starting the 2nd book in my series soon, thanks to you, I’ll have the tools to make him/her stick with my reader in a good and memorable way.
    Thank you for your wisdom and your kind words during this sad time in my life.
    Have a wonderful weekend,

  12. Thank you so much! This is really very helpful.

  13. Very good insight Kristen. I’m working on my first novel and have quite a few good ideas for my plot (in my ‘humble’ opinion). Creating action, suspense, etc. come easier for me than character development so I really do value the tips on creating a character arc. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to character development initially because I tend to under-analyze characters in the books I read (focusing more on theme, plot, etc) but I’ve realized how key a complex yet understandable character is to the story. Thanks again!

  14. Reblogged this on Peter Wiebe .

  15. Love this. I’m looking at a trilogy and plotted out the character arc for my character over 3 books, but for me, it’s a gradual change, a step-by-step process. Now I have to balance out the secondary characters.

  16. Thank you for writing this. It’s going to be very helpful when I go back to working on the rewrite of my novel.

  17. Character arc is essential for a satisfying story, in my mind. If the character doesn’t change, what’s the point? I have watched too many movies that are like this. Tons of stuff happened but the character is the same jerk at the end.
    I plotted the character arc for my series right away. The main characters travel different arcs in each book. The way I did it for my main protagonist is that I gave her three things that she really wanted. Of course, Maslow’s hierarchy tells us that the sudden death stuff must be addressed before deeper issues. By the end of book three, she will have fulfilled (or sacrificed for the greater good) these three needs.
    However, I have read books that I thought the story was awesome but I couldn’t tell you the character’s name a day later. What they experienced is what was memorable (but I’m sure they changed or I wouldn’t have enjoyed it). To me, it’s difficult to read a story where nothing really happens but the character learns something and changes. So, you have to have both a strong character and immersive plot for the most successful, memorable writing.

  18. This was the first time I’ve read a clear and understandable (for me) explanation of how to use the Positive and Negative thesauruses, and it’s exactly what I need right now for my novel. I scuttled on over and bought both ebooks. Thank you!

  19. Great insight into character development, Kristen. Thank you. It’s one of the most basic elements of a good/great story, but so damn hard to pull off right sometimes. Thanks for breaking it down for us. I tend not to be on the analytical side and I think that may hurt my writing. Must get better at breaking stuff down like this.

    Just noticed one little thing at the end of the post if you want to change it:

    “When we know who are characters are (protagonists and antagonists) and where we need them to be/grow,”

    …who our characters are… 🙂

    Thanks for all the great posts! I don’t know how you keep producing so much material on top of everything else in your life. It’s impressive.

    1. Well, that’s how I get so many posts out. Content, but….eh, a handful of typos sometimes 😀 .

      1. Don’t mind the typos, love the content. Just bought the Positive and Negative Trait paperbacks. Have the Emotion Thesaurus already. Thanks, Kristen! Now it’s time to go really dissect my damn characters. Time to make ’em real! 🙂

  20. Reblogged this on M.T. Miles.

  21. You should seriously compile your blog posts into a book.

    1. Sigh. I know. On the Neverending To Do List, LOL. Thanks! 😀

  22. Reblogged this on everwalker.

  23. Reblogged this on Roxy Wilson.

  24. It sounds like you use the Thesaruses and pick out only two traits, one positive and one negative? I’ve been trying to do it with several of each. I feel like I am confusing myself and potential readers. Help? Silent

    1. There are two thesauri and one is Positive and the other Negative, but there is a lot of crossover where you can see the gary areas far more clearly.

  25. Great post! I really appreciate the part you added on The Lord of the Rings, cuz I’m a dork about that series too!

  26. You’re making those books sound very attractive…
    Somehow it’s all so clear when you explain it and yet so complicated when I look at my story. Still, I don’t think I’ll get any real clarity until I get to the end and see what there is to work with. Onward!

  27. I enjoyed this article immensely. Thank you.

  28. I have all 3 of those books on my gift wish list. I love how you laid out your story arc by following the character arc. I’ll have to try that to move my own stories to a new and hopefully higher level.

  29. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  30. Absolutely fantastic post Kristen. I have the emotion thesaurus and love it. Invaluable resource.

    I’m writing historical fiction and was planning to write a duology because the historical timeline is too long for one book. I was starting to feel a little angsty about my character arc that it’s maybe not as complete as it should be so now thanks to you maybe I should consider a trilogy!

  31. I’m going to have to get a copy of the The Road it sounds like my kind of read can’t believe I haven’t heard of it. Thanks for the great advice on character arcing and book recommendations. I’m sure these will be helpful in the sequel I’m planning out.

  32. I’ve loved the theasaurus books for ages but struggled with using them to build characters. Thank you for your post on using the books!

  33. Cogently explained – thank you!

  34. Good one and informative too, thnx 🙂

  35. Reblogged this on Dara Rochlin Book Doctor and commented:
    Nice boil down of character arcs.

  36. I’m not sure how I managed to get through Wuthering Heights, the more I read it the more I wanted to slap Catherine silly and push Heathcliff off of a tall building. Their character arcs seemed to be to become more and more vile people as they progressed. I think I read it mainly because I have a penchant for classics rather than the storyline being compelling. Still, credit to Emily Bronte for writing such a twisted relationship.

  37. Reblogged this on Blog of a College Writer.

  38. LOTR is a favorite character arc of mine with the hobbits as well. Another is Luke in Star Wars through the 3 movies, as well as Han Solo. I don’t see much of a character arc in The Hunger Games books, Katniss remains the same throughout them. Things change for her, but she herself doesn’t change. Same with Bella in Twilight. Even as a vampire, who she is doesn’t change really.

  39. The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy has been one of my favorites for a long time because of its incredibly fine execution of details, suspense, and, of course, character change. But the scene that always brings tears to my eyes is right at the very end, where Frodo’s hobbit friends realize Frodo is also going on the ship with the elves to sail away from Middle Earth forever. Of course I’ve seen the movie edition, but enjoy the books even more and have read through the whole trilogy – plus the “prequel” – at least several times. To be able to write like that is a worthy goal of any writer.

  40. I love those thesauri. They have done wonders for me and my writing.

    • Susan M Semadeni on May 3, 2014 at 12:05 am
    • Reply

    Just… wow. My mind is spinning right now and I’m loving it. *L* I’ve been stuck with my novel trying to rewrite it during pregnancy and now those post months when my brain is STILL not back (and even more exhausted). I went back and reread a novel I wrote a couple of years before and it feels so much more alive. I couldn’t figure out why, whether it was voice or better researched, or what. I was reading through one of your old posts on voice (also helpful, btw) and then noticed the link to this so I thought I’d give it a read. BAM. Found my problem. Old novel, GREAT emotional arc. We like the character all right and then it starts getting real… then it hits the fracking FAN and cleanup ensues as she collects and rebuilds, and then she gets smacked down again but manages to wrangle the chaos much better. Current novel, none of that. I realized my protag is just along for the ride and honestly does not change. He *sortof* falls into #3 there, a static character driving growth in others, but even that took yet another outside influence, not solely him. I’m going back and turning this thing completely on its head now, and while it’s still a bit vague to me at this point, it already feels stronger to me. =D

  41. Reblogged this on awriterslife781's Blog.

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  3. […] I impulsively purchased two books recommended by Kristen Lamb in her post Everybody Arcs: How to use emotional growth to propel the story and capture the reader – Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Negative Trait Thesaurus and Positive Trait Thesaurus (I […]

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