When you’re in the thick of writing, you’re pressured to perfectly structure your plots, ace your pacing, and polish your prose. Amid that chaos, character arcs can easily get lost.
You want readers to be touched by hope when the hero perseveres, joy when he discards his selfish goals, or determination when he confronts the villain. But despite the effort you’ve poured in, you worry that readers won’t be able to follow the protagonist’s arc. If they don’t notice his pattern of growth, they won’t understand the theme—which means the story won’t outshine thousands of unremarkable novels.
These doubts drain your energy. By the time you come to the climax, you’re tempted to insert on-the-nose dialogue about your character’s change of heart to guarantee readers get the message. Though you’re on the right track, a spoon-fed revelation lacks emotional impact. Instead, you need to display a character’s transformation through a hard-hitting low point.
Set Up Victories that Are Impossible without Character Development
The low point (sometimes called the third plot point) occurs before the climax and triggers the shift from the second to the third act (if you’re unfamiliar with these terms, check out the plot guide in our resource library). This tragedy shatters the character’s world and clears a path for the villain to succeed. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès instigates a series of events that ends with a child’s murder. In Fawkes, Thomas’s father buries him under kegs of gunpowder. In Mistborn: The Final Empire, Lord Ruler kills Vin’s mentor, Kelsier. The characters then process the implications before making their next move.
If you build up to the moment correctly, the protagonist’s choice exposes how his experiences have seasoned him. Without evidence of maturity, victory will be implausible (and impossible). If he’s still the character readers met in chapter one, he would never reach the climax.
The low point convinces Edmond Dantès to revise his philosophy on vengeance. If he’d continued despite the disaster, he would never have felt the freedom of forgiveness. If Thomas hadn’t listened to White Light, the stone plague would have ravaged him. If Vin hadn’t learned to accept pain as part of trust, Lord Ruler would still be on the throne. The low point is a locked door, and the truth the hero discovers is the key.
Though moral dilemmas are compelling, you can’t introduce one without first pushing the protagonist to his knees. Readers have watched him fail because of his false beliefs. When he pursues the right course of action, readers realize he’s grown.
Destroy Your Hero’s Foundation
The catastrophe should rock your character’s world so terribly that other trials pale in comparison. Many of you are probably thinking that someone needs to die. But first-degree mentor murder isn’t universally effective.
Throughout your story, a truth or a lie guides the protagonist. Edmond Dantès justifies ruining lives by believing he’s the bringer of God’s justice. Thomas becomes more and more receptive to White Light’s voice. Vin slowly buys into Kelsier’s idea of trust. The characters’ values hold them steady, permitting Edmond to crush his enemies and bringing hope to Thomas and Vin.
But the low point demolishes these mainstays. Edmond releases his vendetta after causing the death of an innocent. Vin questions Kelsier’s teaching when he dies, and Thomas faces betrayal and death for following White Light. Their convictions crumble, and they must decide whether to cling to or abandon them.
When the character hangs on, it demonstrates that he won’t waver even if a situation challenges his beliefs. He’s evaluated the truth and staked a position. He won’t go back.
The low point pulls a heavy load. It leads to the climax, which lets readers judge a character’s resolutions by the victories he achieves. Vin annihilates Lord Ruler because she trusts Kelsier, Thomas and Emma defeat the villain by relying on White Light, and Edmond lives in peace because he forgave. These rewards vindicate their beliefs but would have been impossible to gain without the low point.
Readers have seen it all. They cheer as characters stumble through quests, become filled with hope when characters near the truth, and wish away characters’ sorrows. The characters become their friends, enemies, and mirrors, all within two covers and a cracked binding.
The end of the journey deserves as much emotion as the hundreds of pages before it. The best way to immerse readers in a character’s final struggle is to portray his triumph through his choices and actions. If you showcase this, readers will grasp the story’s meaning with more than their minds.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.