Understanding the Character Lie: POSITIVE Arcs Part 1

Types of Character Arcs:

·         Positive change

·         Negative change

·         No change, steadfast [world tries to force them to change and they refuse]

·         Steadfast Character Example: Harry Potter vs. Ms. Umbridge – Harry is right, and never changes. He is steadfast.

o   “The Main Character of a story does not have to fundamentally change their point-of-view. Some grow by maintaining their resolve against all odds.” -Narrative First


Focus on the Character lie: core for developing positive character arcs

K. M. Weiland gives the best explanation I've ever heard about character lies. They are like a tooth with a cavity. Most people hate the dentist and avoid it. When a tooth starts to go bad, we avoid dealing with it. We chew on the other side of our mouth, avoid crunching food and gum, and it can go on for years like this [Castaway] but the rot continues to build and get worse, and cause problems until eventually it must be dealt with.

The character lie is a manifestation of most people perspectives on life. We think to ourselves if only ... I lose some weight ... get that promotion ... make more money ... get married ... etc ... then we will be happy. Science has informed us that these things are not true, but we still hold to them, because we want something to make us happier. This is exactly what your character has, an 'if only' goal, that is based on a lie. Happiness does not exist in the 'if only', the character will find it when they face the lie, and accept the truth.

That truth will help him understand what he needs instead of what he wants, change his journey [mid-point turn, or all is lost catharsis].

Finding the Lie:

In life we ask 'why' in fiction, we ask 'what causes', the second is not a vague concept, but a specific event, a story.

Once you know the characters lie, dig into their backstory and create an event that caused that lie about reality to form.

The Lie develops out of survival needs and dilemmas. At some point we make a choice to do well in one aspect of our lives over another. We work too much and our relationship suffer etc… Your character had to make this choice at some point, and it created the lie so they could live with it.

Other words: the 'ghost' or 'wound' refers to the event that created the lie

The lie is sometimes called 'the secret'

Four Approaches to story Ghosts

  1. Early Introduction: Sometimes origin stories use a prologue to give the full details of the ghost or wound to the reader.
    1. Think about the beginning of any Batman series, we see his family killed in the opening scenes, or Krypton being destroyed.
  2. The slow leak. Little bits of back story are dropped in the hope of stirring the reader’s curiosity and lure them further into the story.
    1. Darth Vader is Luke’s father. The ghost of Luke's father and his connection to rebellion are hinted at throughout the series, slowly shifting the narrative each time Luke hears the story until he finally hears the truth from Vader.
  3. The flashback. This method deals with a focus on the lie up front constantly causing problems in the character's life until they are eventually forced to face what happened in a lengthy flashback, or dialogue.
    1. The Expanse: Holden was born and raised to save the world [his families ranch].
    2. Huntress Moon: back story of the killer.
  4. The Ghost is the inciting incident: This is a very different type of story where there is little focus on the backstory, and happy people have something terrible happen to them, and it breaks them.
    1. P.S. I Love You: They are happily married and he dies, and it breaks her. The lie develops then and there: she thinks she will never be happy again.

Deciding which is best will depend on your story and rely on feedback. In one of my writing groups a girl had a story where the Ghost was that the heroine was actually a pornstar, she also saw this as the big hook of the story. It was revealed in act 1, and didn't hook anyone. The early introduction uses the Ghost as a hook in the story. If the ghost doesn't hook readers you need to try a different method. As always feedback is key on finding what will work best your story.

Chunking the Ghost in a single chapter as an early introduction is an easy way to test the first method that doesn't involve a lot of rewriting. The same is true of the third method. So I recommend if your experimenting, try those two first. The second method is best approached by dropping your hint in a chapter and then getting specific feedback about it. If it doesn't stir people's curiosity, drop more or you need a better ghost.

Does the Wound need to be Revealed?

There are stories where the wound that created the lie is never revealed. In Cars, Lightning McQueen wants to be free from depending on other people/cars, but we never discover why. The storytellers decided that it wasn’t essential to the narrative, that the precious screen time was better spent on other things.

It’s possible that because his lie is so common and easy to relate to that the storyteller worried we connect less if they knew the backstory.