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Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 7: The First Act

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 7: The First Act

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Published by K.M. Weiland
Discover six major elements of the positive change character arc that need to be included in the First Act. (Part 7 of Creating Stunning Character Arcs.)
Discover six major elements of the positive change character arc that need to be included in the First Act. (Part 7 of Creating Stunning Character Arcs.)

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Published by: K.M. Weiland on Mar 23, 2014
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The First Act is one of my favorite parts of any story. Why? On the surface, theFirst Act seems to be the slowest part of the story—and it often is. It’s justsetup, after all, right? True enough, except for that one little word
 just 
. It isn’t “just” setup; it’s SETUP! It sets up the plot, but even more importantly, it setsup the character arcs.As you’ve already seen in the previous six parts of this series, the setupnecessary just to prepare for your First Act is pretty intensive. But once you’vegot the prep work of deciding upon the Lie Your Character Believes, the Thing HeWants, the Thing He Needs, his Ghost, his Characteristic Moment, and hisNormal World (phew!) out of the way, the First Act itself is comparatively simpleto piece together.The structure of character arc finds its foundation in the structure of plot (whichI talk about more in my book
Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writingan Outstanding Story 
). For now, let's quickly run over the basics of plot structurein the First Act, just to refresh your memory:* The First Act covers the first quarter of your book.* The First Act introduces important characters, settings, and stakes.* The First Act introduces the conflict, but the protagonist won’t fully engage init until the First Plot Point at the beginning of the Second Act (more on that in abit).In
 A Writer’s Journey 
, Christopher Vogler points out,[Stories] are often built in three acts, which can be regarded asrepresenting 1) the hero’s decision to act, 2) the action itself, and 3)the consequences of the action.
6 Parts of Character Arc in the First Act
With a few notable exceptions, the structure of character arc is much moreflexible in its timing than is the structure of plot. Below are six major elementsof the positive change arc that need to be included in the First Act, but most of 
Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 7: The First Act
helpingwritersbecomeauthors.comhelpingwritersbecomeauthors.comhelpingwritersbecomeauthors.comhelpingwritersbecomeauthors.comhelpingwritersbecomeauthors.comkmweiland.comkmweiland.comkmweiland.comkmweiland.comkmweiland.com
 
these elements can happen just about anywhere within that first quarter of yourbook. Use your understanding of your story and its necessary pacing to help youtime the key moments in your character’s arc.
1. Reinforce the Lie
The reinforcement of your character’s Lie will begin in the first chapter,specifically through the revelation of the Thing He Wants and the Thing HeNeeds. His Characteristic Moment and his Normal World will both illustrate theLie. Readers need to see how the character’s internal problems are, in turn,causing external problems.This reinforcement should continue throughout the First Act. Your character’s Liemay have several facets, so feel free to take your time introducing each of them.You don’t have to cram everything into the first chapter. Hook readers with aglimpse of the character’s problems, then use the rest of the First Act to fill inthe gaps.For example, Thor’s Lie is practically handed to him by his father who tells himstraight out he was born to be king.
2. Indicate the Character’s Potential to Overcome the Lie
Right from the beginning, readers need to see even a teeny promise that yourcharacter possesses the capability to change. What specific quality will beintrinsic in your character’s ability to fight his way out of the Lie (refer to AngelaAckerman and Becca Puglisi’s
Positive Trait Thesaurus
 for inspiration)? Even if your character hasn’t yet fully developed this trait, hint right from the beginningthat the seed is there.In
Toy Story 
, Woody’s ability to be a good friend is on display right from thestart in his caring attitude toward the other toys in Andy’s room.
3. Provide the Character’s First Step in Discovering How to Grow andChange
This doesn’t necessarily mean he
takes
the first step in changing. This is stillthe First Act, after all, and the character is still a long ways from even beingable to admit he has a problem. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start laying thegroundwork. He can’t change unless he first knows how to change. The First Actis the place to begin foreshadowing that change by giving the character a hint ortwo about the nature of his Lie and—even more specifically—the Truth he'll needto learn in order to counteract it.In
What About Bob? 
, Bob’s cure (love and family) are strongly foreshadowedthrough his immediate connection with Leo’s family photographs.
 
4. Give the Character an Inciting Event to Refuse
The sturdiest place for your story’s inciting event is halfway through the FirstAct. This timing gives you the opportunity to introduce your character and hisworld before hitting him flatout with the inciting event. Note this does
not
meanthe previous events will be unrelated to the main plot. Everything builds intoeverything—if only through foreshadowing.Think of the inciting event as an opportunity for your character. On the surface,it may be something awful (like a declaration of war). But for your unwittinghero, it’s the opportunity he’s been waiting for. He doesn’t know it yet, but thisis his big chance to change his life and get out from under that Lie forever. In
Plot vs. Character 
, Jeff Gerke stresses,Good inciting events at first appear to bothers out of the blue, butthey end up being individually tailored for the hero.Here’s the important thing about the inciting event: Your character doesn’t muchlike it. He considers it, then shakes his head and sticks up his nose. Nope, notinterested. He’s got better things to do—like polishing up his Lie. If he engageswith the inciting event, his old life will change, and he doesn’t want that. Asuncomfortable as his old life may be, he’d still rather cling to its familiarity.But it’s too late! The inciting event has already changed the character. In ever sosmall a way, it has changed his awareness of himself, his world, and hisproblem. For the first time, he begins to realize he
has
a problem. He probablywon’t be able to name that problem just yet. But suddenly he’s got an itch. Thefamiliarity of his old world isn’t quite so comfortable anymore.In
 Jurassic Park 
, Alan Grant’s first response to John Hammond’s preposterousoffer is to turn him down flat. He gets over it quickly enough when Hammondraises the stakes, but his initial reluctance is important.
5. Evolve the Character’s Belief in the Lie
Toward the end of the First Act, the character will still be entrenched in the Lie.He believes in it just as strongly now as he did at the beginning of the story.But, on a subconscious level, he is beginning to fight against its foundation. Asa result, his belief in how he serves the Lie begins to evolve. For example, hemay still believe money is power, but he now believes he can gain that moneyhonestly instead of working as a con man.At the end of the First Act, Jane Eyre still believes she has to serve to be worthyof love. But she decides she’d rather strike out on her own and take service as agoverness, rather than continue drudging as a teacher at Lowood School forGirls.

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