Developing a detailed Character Arc (WANT GOAL MOTIVATION & NEED)

by Kat Fazio
(St. James, New York)

Hi Glen. I love the website, all the information I've read has been very helpful. But I need help. For endless days and weeks, I have been trying to figure out how to develop a realistic character arc (external conflict, external motivation, but the inner conflict, inner motivation and figuring out the theme is confusing me to no end! I'm in need of a better understanding (simplified preferred if possible. Like you're explaining it to a child) and guidance to a characters internal NEED and external motivation. I have the beginning of the protagonist arc. Which is a callous lieutenant who fears abandonment which causes him to stray away from relationships of any kind and also provided him the inability to forgive anyone for any kind of wrongs they did to him. I have the WANT which is surviving an invading army by any means necessary (EXAMPLE: avoiding survivors so he doesn't have to care for them.) I have the main GOAL which is to return home, and a sub-plot GOAL (or maybe this is considered the external motivation) which is my MC wanting to return home to tell a woman that he loves her. I have the ending of the novel where the MC saves a survivor because he's regretful for not saving anyone else and is willing to sacrifice himself in order to prevent the invading army to further their agenda of world domination.

But I can't figure out the NEED that will drive my character to the conclusion of sacrificing himself rather than saving himself and what's the internal conflict that will make him resist the realization.

I also can't figure out what external motivation is considered. Is the goal of my MC's wanting to confess his love to the woman the external motivation? Or am I missing a key factor?

As I'm sure you can imagine, since I'm missing key pieces to a beautiful puzzle, I can't figure out the theme.

Can you help me Glen?

Also, what formula do you use when figuring out the character arc for every character?

Answer: Yes, I can feel your confusion.

To begin, I'm going to set aside your current use of the terms "WANTS, NEEDS, MOTIVATIONS and GOALS." This terminology may work for some people, but these words are close to being synonyms, so I think they just create confusion. Also, you're mixing your external arcs with your subjective arcs, which creates more confusion. I think it helps to separate each arc, make sure each one is sound, and then weave them together.

Here's the basic formula for any dramatic arc...

setup --> complication --> move to crisis --> move to resolution

Start by applying this to the Overall throughline, or main plot which concerns the pursuit of the Story Goal. The Story Goal is the concern or goal that most of the characters are involved in or affected by.

It sounds like most of your characters are concerned with either surviving the war or getting home alive (pick one). Your protagonist will be the person who is leading the pursuit of this goal.

So act 1 (the setup) may show how the characters get into the war. Act 2 (complications) may show the difficulties they face trying to survive the war. In act 3, the challenges escalate to a crisis (key action or decision). Act 4 then shows how the resolution unfolds as a result of the crisis.

Check out the 8 essential plot elements ( and try to incorporate them into the overall plot.

Now for the subjective arcs...

Your main character may or may not be your protagonist, but he is the character through whose eyes the reader sees the story. (For instance, you might have another character leading the effort to get everyone home safely. This will be the protagonist, even if he isn't the main character.)

The main character throughline runs parallel to the overall throughline and concerns the main character's inner conflict over whether or not to change. Dramatica uses slightly different terms for this arc, but it's really the same emotional path...

Initial approach (setup) --> Growth (complication) --> Resolve (crisis) --> Judgment (resolution)

In act 1, we will see the main character's initial approach. That is, we see him handling problems in his usual way. For instance, we may see your Lieutenant avoiding relationships or keeping people at a distance. This may be because of things that have happened in his past or just part of his basic nature.

In act 2 (growth) we will see the Lieutenant pressured to change. He may start to doubt himself or struggle to defend his approach. This may be because he encounters an impact character who demonstrates the advantages of taking the opposite approach -- perhaps reaching out to people, forming friendships, etc.

In act 3 (resolve), the Lieutenant has his personal crisis in which he is forced to decide once and for all whether to stick with his initial approach (keeping people at bay), or change and adopt the impact character's approach (forming a relationship with someone). This might lead him to sacrifice himself for someone else. Ideally, this choice will determine whether the Story Goal is achieved (this is where the MC and Overall throughlines connect.)

Then in act 4, we need to see if the Lieutenant has made the right choice (either a good or bad judgment). Show whether he is happier, better off, at peace, or not. For instance, does he return home and bond with the woman he loves?

Incidentally, you can have a story where the Goal is achieved (everyone, or at least someone important, survives) but the judgment is bad (main character dies or ends up miserable). I call this a comi-tragic ending. For example, maybe the Lieutenant dies but thanks to him the impact character survives, finds this woman, and helps her in a way the MC couldn't, so that some good comes from the MC's sacrifice.

Now, not every character needs to undergo an arc, but it helps if you develop the impact character throughline, which also runs parallel to the overall. Here's what this person's arc looks like...

Approach (setup) --> growing influence (complication) --> strongest influence (crisis) --> resolution

In act 1, the main character sees the impact character using a different approach to handling problems (perhaps reaching out, making connections).

Act 2: the impact character's influence on the main character grows, pressuring the main character to change.

Act 3: the impact character may have a crisis. Seeing this puts the maximum pressure on the main character.

Act 4: we see how the impact character ends up.

Note: If you're wondering what would bring your main character to sacrifice himself, the answer probably lies in the pressure put on him by the impact character.

Incidentally, the Relationship between the main and impact characters can also have its own arc that looks like this...

Act 1: Their relationship is established.
Act 2: Their relationship deepens (for better or worse).
Act 3: Their relationship either peaks or hits a crisis.
Act 4: Their relationship ends stronger (if there was a crisis) or is destroyed (if there was a peak).

Now, if you want to develop your main character's personality, there are 4 main areas Dramatica recommends you look at...

Motivations: This area concerns the emotions that drive the MC. They may result from formative experiences in his past or his basic nature. For instance, does he have a chip on his shoulder or a hole in his heart?

Purposes: This area concerns the tangible things or results he wants. Usually characters want something because they think it will fulfill an emotional need (motivation).

Methods: This area concerns what the MC does or can't do to achieve his purpose. What's inside/outside his comfort zone? Are his methods bringing him closer to his purpose or do they stand in his way?

Evaluations: This area concerns how the MC judges himself or others. For instance, does he avoid certain methods because they would violate his principles? There can be conflict between his principles and his emotional needs. Does he make decisions based on his feelings and rationalize them after? Or does he make decisions based on his principles and take pride in that?

Developing backstory essentially provides the "whys" for each of these areas.

As for theme, this topic can also be fairly complex. Recently, I answered another question on this topic which might help you. Here's the address for the page...

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