How to Figure Out Your Character's Arc
Many a story begins with a great character. That flash of inspiration that says I have to write a story about this person. Yet, so many stories stall out just short of that all-important finish line. Why is that?
The answer finds its roots in misplaced focus. With most attention devoted to fleshing out the character and providing them with greater and greater sources of escalating conflict, the basic logic of their actual arc breaks down. In fact, sometimes it's not even there at all.
There is a simple dynamic that exists within all Main Characters, defined by the chasm between a problem and a solution.
Why the Main Character Exists
The purpose of a Main Character within a complete story is to present to the audience a personal perspective on the story's central inequity. Some stories explore Main Characters who create problems by testing themselves. Will Hunting and Luke Skywalker come to mind as central characters troubled by the fallout of personally imposed trials. Other stories take a look at Main Characters beset by problems of perception. Malcom Crowe from The Sixth Sense and Lester Burnham from American Beauty both suffered because of how they perceived the world around them. These inequities, seen as problems by the audience, exist independent of gender, genre or generation. They drive the Main Character through a story, coming complete with a corresponding resolution device, or solution.
Problems of test call for solutions of trust. Both Will and Luke managed to find peace in trusting something outside of themselves. Problems of perception demand a dose of reality. Both Malcom and Lester finally saw things the way they really are. Perceptive problems cannot find resolution by trusting something, and problems of trials cannot resolve by the reality of the situation. Every problem comes complete with one complementary solution. Understanding what drives a character can help a writer discover what that solution is, revealing exactly how to resolve their character's arc.
Common Problems, Common Solutions
A Main Character's problem is about as far removed from genre as one can get. Take for instance three completely different films: Something About Mary, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Memento--a raucous comedy, a kid's fantasy adventure, and a psychological thriller. Polar ends of the genre spectrum, yet they all feature Main Characters troubled by the same exact problem. And because they all come from the same dramatic place, one can predict where they will end up--assuming they resolve their problems.
Something About Mary
Ted had a bit of a disastrous date with Mary back in high school. In fact, it was so bad that he has dwelled on it, and continues to dwell on it several years later. Ted is the kind of character who is unable to do the kinds of things he wants to do. This performance anxiety, which finds its roots in that dreadful day in the bathroom, is his problem. This inequity within him is a problem that determines what he can and cannot do in regards to Mary today, an inadequacy deep at the heart of his own personal angst.
Now, this might seem a little too much for a film about franks n' beans right? We are talking about a Farrelly brothers film. But it is this kind of attention to character that elevates this film above others in its class. Ted suffers from a lack of ability and it shows. Harry Potter, on the other hand, suffers from too much ability.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Harry can talk to snakes (Parseltongue for you nerds), he can ride a broom with little to no effort, and he can catch a Snitch just as well as his dad. Harry is a born Seeker. These skills set Harry apart from the other kids, increasing the angst he already feels at acquiring the label, The Boy Who Lived.
It's the same kind of problem Ted has, only weighed way over at the other end. Besides simply being incapable, one can be capable of too much, especially when they're not sure exactly what to do with it. In either case, both Ted and Harry experience an inequity attributed to ability.
But what of a character who finds their problem encompasses all aspects of an inequity?
Leonard has a clear problem defined for us from the start: he can't make new memories. Another way to put it? He is unable to make new memories. Leonard has a mental disability, a deficiency that drives his every move.
But like Harry, Leonard is someone who is too capable. In fact he is so capable of deceiving himself that, if left to his own devices, he could keep the quest for his wife's killer going indefinitely ...
... which brings us to the resolution of a character's arc.
The Solution to a Problem
So how does one figure out where a Main Character will end up? Understand the solution that will resolve their problem. When beset by problems of ability, like Ted, Harry and Leonard, the answer lies in desire.
Desire overcomes ability. Think of it this way: Let's say you're not good at something. Perhaps you're an animator at a big-time studio and you don't draw as well as some of the other artists. This lack of ability (or disability if you like) is a tremendous source of pain for you as it holds you back from whatever purposes you strive for. In other words, it is a problem.
Now there are two approaches you can take to work this problem. The first involves staying the course, working the problem and the effects of it, until the problem dissipates. Perhaps your drawing skills will improve. Perhaps the skills of those around will decline. In either case, the approach is one of steadfastness, that problem of ability still driving your every move.
The other approach is to simply give up wanting to be a great animator or, give up that desire. It may seem tragic (as some stories are), but when it comes to resolving a problem, the emotional consequences run second to the methodology needed to get there. Giving up that desire for improvement, or wanting something else even more, or even having someone desire you will solve that issue one had of a lack of ability. That problem of ability simply disappears.
A Solution for Every Character
This second approach is exactly what happened to Ted. But instead of simply giving up on wanting Mary, he followed it to the end, effectively increasing his desire for the girl of his dreams. He followed his heart and told Mary he came to Florida because he loved her. In doing so his feelings of inadequacy disappeared and Mary came running after him. The solution completes Ted's arc.
Same with Harry. Only his solution of desire came in the form of those at Hogwarts welcoming him in. His adventure with the Sorcerer's Stone found him a new home, a natural solution for someone who never had one, having suffered great alienation for so long.
Both Harry and Ted found peace at the end of their arcs. By replacing their problems of ability with a solution of desire they nullified the inequities at the heart of their personal struggles.
But what about Leonard?
Now Where Was I?
With those last four words it is clear exactly where Leonard is--he's still stuck with that problem and probably will be for a long time to come. There was no instance of desire that could have abated his disability. There could have been perhaps with Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), but she was using Leonard just as much as Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) was. That solution of desire never presented itself.
Because of this unfortunate fact, that unrest Leonard feels inside of him will always be there. In fact, there is no indication that he won't burn that picture of Teddy the next day and move on. After all, he has shown that he is capable of keeping his charade up indefinitely.
The End Is in Sight
When a writer fully understands the kind of problems that their Main Character struggles with, determining how to wrap up their stories becomes a simple matter of figuring out if the appropriate solution shows itself. For Ted and Harry the answer was yes. For Leonard, the answer was sadly no.
In either case, the arc carries with it greater meaning.
For Something About Mary and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the message was that great happiness arrives when you replace your problems of capability with an overwhelming sense of heart. Whether by following it or feeling it from others, that sense of desire will resolve your personal issues.
For Memento, there was no resolution. Sure, Leonard's mental disability gave him the ability to seek revenge upon the killer of John G., but it left him feeling lost, still troubled by the demons he began the story with.
Find your character's true inner problem and the key to the end of their arc will present itself.
Advanced Story Theory for This Article
Dramatica refers to this dynamic within the Main Character as the Main Character Problem and the Main Character Solution. In the three examples above the MC Problem was Ability and the MC Solution was Desire. In addition to the earlier examples of Test and Trust and Perception and Actuality, there are several more kinds of problems that can drive a Main Character.
When the Solution comes into play, the story features a Changed Main Character. Their Resolve has Changed, signified by the Solution taking precedence over the Problem. In Steadfast Main Characters, like the example of Lenny above, the Solution is never revealed. Technically it can be throughout the course of the story in order to make the struggle seem less one-dimensional, but when it comes to that final decision, that final Resolve, the Solution is never engaged.
And it doesn't always have to end Badly, the way it did for Leonard. Characters can refuse to use their Solution and come out ahead. William Wallace did (he came out a-head, sorry, couldn't resist!), but he stayed steadfast in his approach and managed to not only free Scotland but the angst he felt within him over his wife's murder.