The Five Ingredients of Character Arcs

Baleigh Shortreed
7 min readOct 14, 2023

In the realm of storytelling, character development is a crucial element that can either make or break a narrative. In this article, we’ll explore the essential components of a compelling character arc, focusing on five key elements: truths, lies, wounds, needs, and wants. Join us as we dissect each of these elements to uncover the intricate art of crafting a well-rounded character journey.

The Truth & The Lie

A character’s arc and progress of an arc throughout a story include two things: acknowledgement of a universal or character specific truth, and the lies they tell to avoid acknowledging it.

The Difference Between Truth and Lie

  • The Truth (aka Universal Truth): It encapsulates the core essence of your story or its underlying theme. In the realm of fables, it represents the invaluable lesson that characters must grasp to undergo personal growth.
  • The Lie (aka False Truth): This is what the character firmly believes to be true, often serving as a barrier to their personal evolution. To attain success and transformation, they must ultimately dispel the illusions of the lie and embrace the profound veracity of the truth.

Examples for Explanation

  • Fiction Example: Your character is given an “inciting incident” in the beginning of your novel or story. They are provided with a situation in which they have options. They know that they have both wants and needs that can be met when making their choice(s) over what to do. Their lie to themself or “false truth” is that they cannot both solve their problem(s) and get what they want at the same time. The truth is the understanding that in order for the character to grow, they must choose to receive the want over the need in order to make the most effective choice for the situation so that they receive the least amount of resistance in their consequences. (If you are writing a drama, then you will make them choose “wrong” more and more until they learn their lesson much later down the line). This can be reflected through red herrings, foreshadowing, and plot twists.
  • Consumer in Business Example: Your client knows they have a problem or “pain point” and this is the reason they are looking for help or your business expertise. The consumer “believes” that the problem can’t be solved or that the pain cannot easily go away: this is their perceived truth but is actually a lie. What you as a company offer is the “universal truth” in that you can solve their problem quickly, efficiently, and with little friction to the client.

The Wound or Ghost

The biggest hindrance to a character’s growth is their perpetual wound or ghost. In my head, I see the ghost and the wound as two very different things. A ghost can be the manifestation of guilt of actions take or not, where as a wound being something that has occured to them personally.

The Difference Between Truth and Lie

  • The Wound (aka The Inciting Incident or Defining Moment): The incident or defining moment in which the lie became the character’s false truth.
  • The Ghost (aka “The Id” or The Little Voice In Your Head): The lingering emotions and thoughts as to why the character believes in the false truth.

Examples for Explanation

  • Fiction Example: Your character experiences a moment (usually something incredibly traumatic like a death, injury, or relationship change) that forces the character to take on a new perspective of life or learn a “false truth” that reshapes the way they view the world and the rules of life. The incident that occurs is the wound, and the new belief is the ghost that haunts them until they are forced to change. For example: if your character experiences their partner cheating on them (the wound) and subsequently breaks up with their partner, they may now believe that all people of their gender may be cheaters, no matter the situation (the ghost). As a result, they will be untrusting of every partner they have moving forward until they confront the truth to the contrary.
  • Consumer in Business Example: Your consumer has something happen to them, either once or perpetually; this is the wound. The continual pain or “pain points” that the consumer experiences while not “solving their own problem” through the help of your business is the ghost.

The Needs vs. The Wants

The need is usually an intangible desire for life to be made easier or a physical object(s) that would add to life expectancy, where the lack of it would increase the rate of mortality. See Maslow’s Hierarchy article here. The want is usually a tangible object that neither adds nor detracts from mortality rate, and or can be intangible but is commonly associated with an emotion. See article here.

The Difference Between Truth and Lie

  • The Needs (aka The Necessities): A “need” refers to a fundamental requirement or necessity that is essential for a person’s well-being, happiness, or to meet their basic survival and comfort. These needs can encompass various aspects of life, such as physiological needs (like food, water, and shelter), safety and security needs, social needs (like belonging and love), self-esteem needs (such as self-respect and recognition), and self-actualization needs (related to personal growth and fulfilling one’s potential). Needs are distinct from wants, as they are more critical and necessary for a person’s overall well-being and functioning. Meeting these needs is vital for maintaining a balanced and fulfilling life.
  • The Wants (aka The Desires): A “want” is a desire or a preference for something that is not essential for basic survival or well-being. Wants are often related to personal preferences, aspirations, or wishes for things that can enhance one’s life or provide enjoyment but are not necessary for sustaining life or maintaining one’s basic needs. Examples of wants can include items like a new smartphone, a luxurious vacation, a fancy car, or specific experiences like attending a concert. Wants are subjective and vary from person to person based on their individual desires and values. Unlike needs, wants are not critical for survival but are part of what makes life more enjoyable and satisfying.

Examples for Explanation

  • Fiction Example:

Needs: In the course of their character arc, a fictional character may find themselves grappling with profound needs. The need for safety and security may lead them to escape from a perilous situation or seek out a stable and secure environment. Their journey could also revolve around the need for love and belonging, pushing them to establish meaningful connections with others or mend broken relationships. Additionally, characters might be driven by the need for self-esteem and respect, often stemming from their insecurities, and require recognition, confidence, or self-respect to overcome these inner demons. Ultimately, their character arc might lead them toward self-actualization, urging them to uncover their true purpose, realize their full potential, or chase a long-held dream.

Wants: Additionally, fictional characters can be fueled by various wants that propel their development throughout the narrative. Material possessions might be a strong desire, with characters yearning for a luxurious car, a new house, or other opulent items to enhance their lifestyle. Alternatively, their focus may be on fame and recognition, seeking validation through public acclaim and popularity. In some cases, the desire for revenge could be a powerful driving force, as characters harbor a burning need to settle the score with those who’ve wronged them. Lastly, the allure of adventure and excitement can steer a character’s choices, leading them to seek thrill-seeking experiences or embark on journeys of exploration and discovery.

  • Consumer in Business Example:

Needs: In the context of a character arc involving a consumer in a business setting, several critical needs may emerge. For instance, the need for a sense of safety and security could be a driving force, pushing the consumer to find a solution that resolves their pressing issue or “pain point.” This need for reassurance and stability can motivate them to seek assistance from a business. Additionally, their journey might encompass a profound need for love and belonging in a business context. Establishing a meaningful connection with the business or addressing interpersonal issues could be essential to their growth. Moreover, their character development could be intertwined with the need for self-esteem and respect, often arising from their own insecurities and uncertainties. This might manifest as a need for recognition, affirmation, or validation from the business, which is pivotal in their quest for resolution. Ultimately, the character’s growth may lead them toward self-actualization within the business framework. They could uncover their true purpose, recognize their potential, and achieve personal growth by finding an efficient solution for their needs.

Wants: In a “Consumer in Business” character arc, the character’s journey may initially be fueled by various wants that define their trajectory. The desire for material possessions or outcomes may come into play. For instance, they may want a quick resolution to their problem, which aligns with their vision of an improved lifestyle or business success. Alternatively, the character may crave fame and recognition within the business context. They seek validation through the acknowledgment of their needs and their status as a valued customer. In some instances, the desire for revenge might be a powerful motivator, as the character may want to set the record straight or achieve a sense of justice in their dealings with the business. Lastly, the allure of adventure and excitement can also play a role. The character may seek an engaging and frictionless experience with the business, hoping to embark on a journey of efficient problem-solving and positive interactions.

Breaking Down the Character Arc: A Step-By-Step Guide

1. **Life Before the Incident**: Begin with the character’s life as it was before a pivotal event or incident disrupts their world.

2. **The Incident**: Introduce the incident, which acts as the catalyst for change in the character’s journey.

3. **Life After the Incident**: Explore how the character’s life evolves post-incident. In some stories, there may be multiple incidents that shape their path.

4. **Opportunity for Learning**: Present a moment where the character has the chance to grasp a valuable lesson or insight.

5. **Temptation: Want vs. Need**: Create a conflict by tempting the character with the fulfillment of a want, which contrasts with what they truly need for personal growth.

6. **Choice-Making**: Show the character making a choice, which will significantly influence their future.

7. **Consequences of the Choice**: Highlight the results and repercussions of the character’s decision.

8. **Regret or Acceptance**: Illustrate the character’s emotional response to their choice, which can manifest as regret or acceptance.

9. **Cycle or Repeat**: If necessary, continue the cycle until the character finally learns the lesson, with each repetition offering a new opportunity for growth and change.

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Baleigh Shortreed

Writer, Author, & Entreprenuer teaching you to advocate for yourself through written, verbal, and digital means.