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Part 2: First Draft 
Character: An arc is an Arc

By Dale Griffiths Stamos
September 2010


Authorlink welcomes award-winning playwright Dale Griffiths Stamos as a regular monthly columnist.

"Story really is about character. "

I’m sure you’ve heard plenty in writing classes about a character “arc.” And sometimes, looking at character this way can seem formulaic and forced. However, I will argue that if you have all your essential story elements in place, the journey that the character takes from the beginning of your story to the end will not only feel unforced, it will feel natural and right.

Story really is about character. Because the essential structure of all good stories is the following: Take a character and place them in a situation that challenges them to the utmost of their core. Have them rise to the occasion by drawing from the best of themselves and/or by discovering resources within themselves they didn’t know they had. Along the way, they may sabotage themselves, trip up, or have setbacks, but ultimately they will dig within and find a way to succeed. Conversely, have your character fail to find a solution because of some flaw within themself that destroys any chance of success. Make sure along their path, they have moments when it seems they may succeed, or where hope is evident. But ultimately they will fail because the flaw is too powerful to overcome.

"Each small adjustment in their character leads to the next."

Either way, the character will not remain static. They will change, for the better or worse, because of the situation you have placed them in. And, importantly, this change needs to be an incremental one. A good play will not have a character jump from say, A to J (or A to D, if the change is smaller) but instead will have them go from A to B, and then to C and so forth. Each small adjustment in their character leads to the next. They will shed their old skin slowly, revealing the bits of fresh skin beneath, until finally, a new self is revealed.

Think of Dickens’s “A Chrismas Carol.” Scrooge does not suddenly, at the appearance of the first ghost, become a magnanimous, generous soul. He must go through the trial of each successive ghost and the wrenching lessons they teach, altering little by little his views of life until he “gives up the ghost” and makes his final transformation.

"As this story (and all good stories) reveal, it is about tribulation leading to transformation."

As this story (and all good stories) reveal, it is about tribulation leading to transformation. It is the testing of the soul. Even action movies, full of plot points and special effects, work best when this aspect of character growth underlies the story.

In this process, allow your characters to surprise you. You may have already determined where they will end up and even worked out many of the scenes that will lead them there. But, as most of you already know, once you start writing, your characters can sometimes get a little unruly and want to take the reins. Let them. Find out where they’re going. You can always rein them in again, if you need to. But if you’ve created strong enough characters, you may find they take you to deeper and more intriguing places than you had originally imagined. This exploration can help make your character’s transformation that much more compelling.

". . . an arc is just an arc. It’s a steady curving motion upward or downward until a resolution . . ."

Ultimately, an arc is just an arc. It’s a steady curving motion upward or downward until a resolution is arrived at. At the beginning of this curve, your character is one thing. At the end, they are something else. This could be a large change, or a small, but a change it must be.

If you’ve written your story well, this arc will be invisible and feel inevitable.

It’s all in the wrist.

About the Author

Dale Griffiths Stamos is an award-winning playwright whose work has been produced and published in the United States and abroad. She has been on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and a guest artist at Cal Arts where she taught the workshop, Finding Your Story. For more information, go to