This post will be a short one, but I felt self-concept is a key building block when starting out with character arc. The self-concept of your character (this can also feed into character conflict, which will be covered in our next post) is how your character views him/herself.
How does s/he think of themselves? This is not who s/he is, or how others perceive them, but rather how s/he perceives him/herself… It’s not the whole truth, it’s their self truth.
Your heroine might be an exceptionally capable, efficient boss in a high-powered executive role – while she might actually see herself as the Plane Jane/Ugly Duckling who believes she can’t be successful in the looks department, so must work doubly hard to prove her smarts… or perhaps she feels her life is out of control, despite her control and efficiency that others see.
Or your hero might be an undercover agent who believes that as he has no personal connections and he’s always playing a ‘role’ that others don’t really see him for who he is, he’s invisible, and perhaps – less than human. Or that he’s just a mouse running in the wheel, with no real impact on the world around him – there’s always another criminal to take the place of the criminal he’s just caught, so he’s less than effective , while others may instead see the capability and justice he delivers, in the lives that he saves – or the lives that he ends.
With the self-concept comes great potential for growth (character arc). If our heroine feels out of control and less than attractive, one arc that shows real development would be her gaining that control, and realising her self-worth, that beauty is relative, that she doesn’t need to continually try to prove something, she can be content, proud, etc.
Our hero could realise that what he does is important, that he is important, that there is a ripple effect with his actions, and that people do see him, see what he does, and appreciate it – particularly those effected by the criminals he brings to justice.
With the self-concept comes great opportunity for challenge, for raising the stakes, for creating conflict. For example, our heroine who is extremely efficient, yet feels out of control; what’s the worst thing that could happen? She could actually find herself in a situation where she has no control whatsoever. And then? Perhaps she could actually lose control of herself – she could cry, she could rant, she could hit.. Things she would never have thought herself capable of, and possibly dreaded.
Our hero feels invisible and inconsequential – what’s the worst that could happen? What if his cover is blown, and the criminals see him for who he really is? Or that someone’s life depends on him and he has to strive, has to succeed, it becomes vital for him to be effective, to be powerful, and to have some impact with his actions.
For ways to outline and plot your character’s self-concept, feel free to download the Character Self-Concept Worksheet.
Someone once said – put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them. That’s what challenging your character’s self-concept is like – each time you throw that proverbial rock that hits the character at their core self-concept, they hurt, they heal, they recover – or they dodge. And maybe get hit by the next one. Either way, your character is forced to act and react, and consequently change. So, to add extra dimensions to your character, challenge his/her self-concept. Put them up that tree. Throw rocks. Then set fire to that tree – put your character through that emotional ringer.
Get writing, and good luck!