“When planning a story, what factors help you decide how far and how quickly to take each character’s arc?” – The Goddess of Corn Starch
When working on a character arc, I like to focus on the amount of sacrifices the character executes. Sacrifices urge them to a new point in the story, based on the events and circumstances, and especially how they interact with another character. How your character reacts to the unexpected is key to determine how they are going to unfold in the future. One of my favorite examples to recognize is George Bailey’s (It’s a Wonderful Life), whose arc is a classic model in pacing a three-act structure. George Bailey makes a strong character with a strong arc because of the way he pursues the events of unexpected calamity.
How soon? Drive the character arc as soon as possible! The Inciting Incident is your greatest champion in this. When the story begins, the characters are on the edge of Ordinary—and it is up to you to give that final push.
Another great example is when George Bailey saves his younger brother in a frozen lake, during the first couple minutes of the movie, thus losing his hearing in one ear. Rather the “tremor,” it is all you need to know who George Bailey is and how his actions will drive the plot. Presto, you have a pretty solid character!
George Bailey never truly gets what he wants (or so he thinks). Essentially, it’s important to give your characters almost nothing that they “want,” so they will in fact do something to get it. This evolves the character and pushes the story forward—it gets them to step out of the ordinary and into the moment, otherwise there would be no story, there would be nothing to discuss, and nothing to learn. Give the character the ability to pursue the ponderance of “Okay, what now? How am I going to overcome this?”