The City We Became: Refreshing Fantasy for a Modern Era

N.K. Jemison pushes boundaries, and it’s exactly what the genre of fantasy needs. The City We Became, released in 2020, is a herald of a new wave of storytelling. Authors like Jemison reject the tropes that have mired fantasy for so long. In a genre that should be without limitations, too many writers impose the limitations of our society on their imagined one. Not so for Jemison; she is a writer whose imagination could never be limited.

The city of New York has become sentient, and its avatar takes the form of a young, Black, queer, homeless man. His point-of-view voice is one of soaring lyricism and rugged language. Reading his perspective feels like listening to a slam poem in a crowded bar. But the avatar of NYC is contested by a nameless Enemy. She attacks New York City with what can only be described as weaponized bigotry; she mobilizes the toxic and oppressive elements of NYC to her cause. 

NYC’s avatar, injured and weakened, splits into the five boroughs. Each is given a personality to reflect the identity of the borough. Manhattan is a cutthroat business man who can’t remember his history, Bronx is an old, tough-as-nails artist, Brooklyn is a rapper-turned-councilwoman, Queens is a mathematician with an endless extended family, and Staten Island is a girl trapped in a broken family. 

Jemison uses each of the boroughs to explore a distinct issue affecting New York. The Enemy comes to them in different ways, threatening different things they hold dear. The bureaucracy takes Brooklyn’s historic house. Cops try to imprison the avatar of Manhattan for the crime of being dark skinned. White nationalists threaten Bronx’s art museum. Wherever the Enemy goes, she leaves white tendrils in her wake, that cling to structures and people. They’re an eerie representation of the way toxic ideologies can take hold of someone’s mind without them noticing. 

What makes this story a pleasure to read is how vivid the characters are. Their personalities are distinct, garish, and instantly likeable. They are perfect representations of their boroughs, their quirks and their endearing flaws. I fell in love with each of them the moment I met them. Even Staten Island, depicted as ignorant and prejudiced, I couldn’t help but sympathize with. I understood how such a vile ideology could take hold in her mind, and I felt her pain as she tried to break free from it. 

Not only that, but the characters and the themes of the story mesh perfectly. Each character carries with them a piece of a larger message. Jemison never preaches, she never says things outright. Yet reading this book, I felt radicalized to a larger cause. I felt like I wanted to fight the Enemy, to take hold of her roots and tendrils and rip them out as best I could. 

Many character driven, thematically driven stories suffer from an uninteresting premise. The opposite could not be more the case in The City We Became. The plot is an intricate, suspense filled tangle. The characters are always a step behind the Enemy, and they are never given the room to breathe. Their nameless antagonist presses down on them with all the relentless force of the societal institutions she represents. 

I hope The City We Became becomes a benchmark for fantasy in this new decade. This story is a gold standard of radical ideas, meaningful representation, and genre-defying innovation. It is book one of a trilogy that Jemison is in the process of writing, and I am so excited for the next installment.

Words Are Meaningless

Okay, okay, so maybe the title is an exaggeration. After all, I am conveying these ideas to you through words. So they can’t be totally meaningless. But this is still a fun thought experiment, and one that might be able to help you in your own writing. 

In order to think about the phrase, “Words Are Meaningless”, we need to define “meaning”. This is a word that philosophers have been arguing about for centuries. Just like any twenty-year-old writer with no experience, I like to think myself a brilliant philosopher, and I have the perfect answer. 

Haha, no, only joking. I have no idea. But a good working definition might sound something like: “giving real-world consequence to an abstract idea.” Words are abstract ideas; what they mean, what real-world thing they concern, is what allows them to be useful tools. 

With that very rough definition in mind, I’d like to consider a classic example of words being meaningless. In many creative writing classes or workshops, the teacher will talk about word choice. And often, they will show two phrases. 

“Cottage in the woods.”

“Cabin in the forest.”

These two phrases mean the same thing. Yet the connotation, the image they bring to mind, is completely different. Cottages are associated with cute homes and white lace, woods are associated with airy sunlight and gentle greens. On the other hand, cabins are dark and falling apart, forests are tangled and overgrown. 

In this example, the dictionary definition of the words is useless when compared to the connotation of the words. Yet connotation is an undefined, societal thing. It requires an individual to have experienced these words before. Somebody who doesn’t read a lot of horror novels or someone who speaks a different language would think these sentences mean the same thing. 

Extrapolating from this, I think it can be argued that all words only have meaning in so far as they relate to personal experience. The word “blizzard” might conjure up images of horrible suffering to someone from Florida. But for me, born and bred in New England, it’s just a Tuesday. The meaning of the word “blizzard” depends on the individual’s understanding. The meaning of every word depends on the individual’s understanding. 

This can be a useful tool in your own writing. To give a personal example, the other day I found myself needing to describe a character moving really fast. I tried a bunch of words. Ran. Sprinted. Dashed. None of them gave the visceral image of raw speed that I was trying to conjure. 

Then I tried the word “wicked”. Not as in, wicked cool, but wicked as in to absorb or drain away fluid, like the wick of a candle. The word “wicked” does not, by any stretch, mean to move very fast. But I enjoyed the way the sentence sounded. 

“He wicked forwards.”

To me, at least, the word wicked sounds like it moves fast. It comes fast out of the tongue, it has a hard consonant sound but it also sounds like a rush of wind. Yet it doesn’t mean “fast” in the slightest. 

It’s okay to use the wrong word. I think it adds edge and character, it adds your own specific personality and experience to a sentence. It contributes to a strong, powerful voice. And it’s okay if definition doesn’t match meaning. Because, after all, words are meaningless. 

They only mean something to you.

Finisterre

I see her again just outside of Pamplona. She walks on the shoulder of the road. Her stride meanders, wobbly and goofy looking, the toes of her boots scratching the back of her calves leaving dusty streaks. She’s maybe a hundred yards in front of me. 

Besides us, the road is empty and straight forwards and backwards. It is raised, stone bricked, lined with wheat fields. It looks like a tear stain down a dirty patchwork cheek. The grasses are parched in the sun. 

There is only one tree. The road is so flat I can see it a mile before I reach it. Its branches curve in a thick, low hanging dome and the shadow of it stretches out across the trail. 

She reaches the tree first, tosses her pack down beneath it, lies back against its trunk. I make it a few minutes behind her. 

“Hi,” I say. “Mind if I join you?”

She smiles at me. “Please, it’s the only shade for miles.”

I sit down next to her. Sitting feels like a luxury these days. I’ve walked ten miles already today, and a full eighteen the day before that. 

“It’s Sam, right?” she asks. “We met yesterday at the albergue in Pamplona.”

“I remember,” I say. “Ally?”

“Yup!” Her voice has the false cheer people use when trying to start conversations but honestly I don’t mind, it’s been a little while since I’ve talked to anyone. She reaches out and touches her toes. “Where are you from, Sam?”

“The states,” I say, “Upstate New York, near Buffalo. You?”

She doesn’t answer right away. I look over at her. She has brown hair and pink synthetic shorts that go down to her knees. She flexes her feet in circles. She looks like she’s my age; a well worn thirty. 

“You know,” she says, and her voice changes, I can’t quite place the difference, the cheer is gone but so is the falsehood, “fuck small talk.”

I laugh, half nervous, half genuinely amused. 

“Alright,” I say. “What should we talk about?”

“What’s the worst crime you’ve ever committed?”

“That’s not small talk, I’ll give you that.”

“Come on,” she says. “Let’s hear it.”

“I’ve done an axe murder,” I say. 

“No way,” she says. “That’s what I was going to say. What are the odds of two axe murderers meeting?”

“Higher than expected, I guess.”

“Well, that was certainly more interesting than small talk.”

I take a long drink from my water bottle, then pour some on my hand to splash my face. “Do you start lots of conversations this way?”

“No, first time.”

“Same for me.”

Ally stands, raises her arms over her head. She tugs at her ponytail and brushes bits of tree bark from it. “Well, Sam, I’m going to keep walking.”

“It was a pleasure to meet a fellow criminal,” I say. 

I watch her form dwindle into the distance, it turns into a wavy black outline on the edge of the road. 

Little things happen on the Camino de Santiago. It’s a long trail, six hundred miles, the whole of northern Spain, and I had expected it to feel long as well. I had expected a sense of grandiosity, of walking through a thousand years of history. But all I have are these little things. These little things, and Ally. 

I see a dog with an injured paw on the side of the road. I look around me, maybe for help, maybe out of guilt, although I don’t know why I feel guilty, I didn’t hurt the dog after all. 

The dog mewls. I reach to touch it and it draws back. I reach again, softer, holding out my hand for it to sniff. It lets me pet it. I bundle it up in my arms and carry it like a child against my shoulder. 

A few miles down the road I reach a small stone building with a stained glass window that has a picture of Jesus embracing Mary Magdalene. The plaque on the side of the building says it is un hospital de peregrinos. I don’t speak Spanish but I translate that alright. The plaque says the Romans built it, that nuns have maintained it for centuries. That Santiago himself stopped here when he first made this pilgrimage. 

I leave the dogs with the nuns, we don’t have a language in common but both of us understand the language of pain that the dog can’t stop speaking with. I watch as they bandage his paw and decide that the dog is in safe hands. 

My pack lies against the side of the building where I left it. It’s grey with dust and doesn’t fit me right, and I’ve stuffed half a baguette in the pocket where I’m supposed to keep my water bottles. I hitch it on my back — two weeks ago I had bruises on my shoulders and hips but now I hardly feel its weight. 

That evening I stay in a youth hostel. Fifty bunk beds fill a small room. Each is filled with a pilgrim, their packs, and their boots. The scent of us all together is outrageous. I wear ear plugs to block the snoring. 

Unable to sleep, I take out my journal and I try to write a story. It goes, well, predictably, I guess is the favorable way to put it. Other more unfavorable descriptions might be, ‘miserably’ or ‘frustratingly’. I write a little bit about the stained glass painting. I make it a love story between Jesus and Magdalene. I can’t really get in the characters’ head. My wife used to say I was pretty good at writing, but she was my wife, it was practically in the marriage contract that she had to say I was pretty good at writing. I haven’t written anything worth reading in a few years now. 

I see her again in the rain. She stands under the overhang of a garage roof, her jacket pulled above her head. She’s laughing to herself, jumping out into the downpour and then back into safety. The cobblestones of the road are slick and shiny. Rainwater gleams in the cracks. 

“Sam the axe murderer!” she calls to me, waving, jumping. She beckons me over. I hurry through the rain. My shoes are soaked, I squelch with every step. I huddle under the cover of the garage and rub my arms. 

“Nice day out.” She has to shout over the sound of the rain. 

“Marvelous,” I say. I wipe the water from my face and splutter. 

“Share my jacket,” she says. She grabs my arm and brings me next to her, holds the jacket over our heads. 

“Thanks.”

One of the little things happens. The garage door groans open. A small old woman with wild hair and slippers and knobby legs stands inside holding the remote control for the door. Inside the garage are bins filled with umbrellas. Dozens and dozens of them. Muttering in Spanish, rapid and unintelligible, the old woman hands each of us an umbrella, when at first we don’t accept she grabs our hands and forces them around the wooden grip. The garage door closes. 

Ally and I look at each other, at our umbrellas, and laugh. 

“No way,” Ally says. “That definitely didn’t just happen.”

“I need a little surreality in my life sometimes,” I say. “Is that a real word? Surreality?”

“No clue. Want to get lunch?” she asks, cracking open her umbrella. 

“Sure,” I say. 

The cafe is small and rain pours down the windows. We sit in a corner. A buzz of conversation in a half dozen languages floats around us, we have to talk loud to hear each other. I have a muffin, she has a coffee. 

Ally asks, “Why are you walking the Camino?”

“I don’t know,” I say. I bite my muffin to waste time before Ally will press me to answer the question. 

Ally presses me to answer the question. “No, seriously.”

I wonder that though I’ve only known her for all of ten minutes I already knew what she would say. I wonder what that means. I wonder if this is alright, I wonder, I wonder…

“Sam,” Ally says, chuckling around her coffee. “Don’t leave me for the clouds.”

“Sorry,” I say. 

“You’re dodging my question.”

I glance at her, a bit irritated, I want to say, maybe it’s personal. But the air between us has a certain eggshell quality that I don’t want to crack. So I take a risk, and I decide for honesty, and I say, “I’m walking because my wife left me.”

Ally looks at me, looks down, looks back at me. 

“Are you going to say, I’m sorry, or something?” I say. Maybe that was rude to say. 

“I was thinking about it.”

“And?”

“Back home I would have said I’m sorry. But I wouldn’t have meant it.”

“How about here?”

“I’m sorry, and I do mean it.”  She meets my eyes. I can tell that she does. I don’t know how I can tell, but I can. 

“Thank you,” I say, and I mean it too. 

“Why the Camino?” she asks. 

“I needed to focus.” I set down my muffin. Her coffee grows cold. We’re just looking at each other. “I was drowning in all of this… all of this guilt, I felt like I had failed, and it was just a loop, it fed itself, quicksand. I needed to reset myself.”

“Are you still drowning?” she asks. 

  “Should we start walking?” I say. 

In the distance are the galician mountains, a watery green against low hanging clouds. We walk alongside a river. The rain has stopped and has left an afterimage of mist behind it. The water hangs limp in the air, like time has stopped. The sound of boots against gravel has been my constant companion for the last month, but now I have another companion, the sound of someone else’s voice. 

“How about you?” I ask. “Why are you walking the Camino?”

“I needed something to change.”

“From what?”

“I was married, too,” she says. 

“Was?”

She grins, kicks a stone, watches it dribble off the path and plunk into the river. “He wanted two kids and a picket fence, he wanted me to have some corporate job and have corporate friends.”

“How did you end up here?”

She shrugs. “A whole bunch of plastic people to fill a plastic life, you know? Couldn’t take it anymore. So I left.”

“How has the Camino been so far?”

“Oh, you know.”

“Have things changed?”

“Still feels like plastic. Still feels like I’m faking a midlife crisis just for the attention.” She walks for a few strides in silence, then looks over at me. “Well, you’re not plastic, at least.”

That evening I cross out my story about stained glass love and I write about Ally who is walking the Camino to hide from the FBI as they chase her for axe murder. In my story I describe Ally as sprite. Like that soda, not like the faeries. I say she’s bubbly and maybe a bit abrasive, but sweet. It’s a dumb metaphor but I kind of like it. 

I meet a man named John Frogley. Canadian, age seventy, surprisingly fit. We spend an afternoon walking together. He asks me what I do and I say I’m a writer. He asks me if I know how to diagram sentences. I say I don’t. He says, what kind of writer are you? He and I have lunch on the side of a hill, the bushes are scraggly but determined. He takes a stick and writes a sentence in the dirt. Spades is a fun game to play. Then he shows me how to diagram it. It looks like a stick bug, different limbs scattered in random lines. 

I see her again in a small town outside Burgos. It’s been a couple of days since we last saw each other. Evening falls in orange streaks. Street lamps add electric stars to the sky. We find each other in a side street, each of us looking for dinner. 

“Sam,” she says, waving one of her walking sticks. “How have you been?”

“What happened to ‘fuck small talk,’” I say, grinning, 

She swats my legs with the walking stick. “Alright, wiseass. I was just being nice.”

“I’ve been well.”

“Want to get dinner with me?”

“Sure.”

We find a place that sells pilgrim meals, three courses of ham and pasta and salad for ten euros. 

“You know what I love about Spain?” Ally says. 

“What?”

She holds up her salad. “They use bacon bits as salad dressing.”

“And the wine came with the meal,” I say, raising a glass in a toast. 

We sit on the edge of a narrow street. Pilgrims and passersby bustle about us. It feels like we’re a rock in a waterfall of people. The streetlights give gentle illumination. Ally’s face is half in shadow. 

“What do you do, Sam?”

“Like as a job?”

“Or anything.”

“I’m a writer.”

A smile cracks across her face. She leans forward, hair spilling over her shoulder. “A writer! Are you any good?”

“No.”

“How come?”

“What do you mean, how come, that’s like asking why someone isn’t good at baseball or math or-”

She raises an eyebrow. “I think you have an answer that you don’t want to say.”

Then she waits for me to say it. I take a bite of my salad. I swallow slowly, hesitant, afraid to say the truth but the words just spill from me, if only writing was as easy as talking to Ally, “Have you ever wondered how far you could go if you trusted yourself completely?” 

“That’s not an answer.”

“I’m building to it. This is the preamble.” We’re both smiling. 

“Yes, I have wondered,” she says, voice soft.

“Like, if you bet on yourself with everything you had. If you said to yourself, I’m the greatest there ever was, watch me do this. How far could you go? Is the confidence the only thing you’re missing?”

She watches me, I can see her thinking about what I’ve said, like my words actually mattered. “I think I could go pretty far,” she says. Her voice is almost a whisper. 

“Me too,” I say. “But I don’t.”

“And that’s why you’re bad at writing?” 

“Yeah.” 

The street has emptied of people. We sit in a puddle of yellow light from the streetlamp above our heads. The food forgotten on the table between us. 

Ally and I walk together the next day. In the afternoon I sit by a fountain while Ally buys bread from a baker across the courtyard. I write little details about her in my notebook. She can speak Spanish, a bit brokenly but with a pretty good accent. The baker seems to like her. He’s a heavy man with a red nose and sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His laugh carries across the courtyard. It disturbs the pigeons that had been clucking about my legs. 

I write about how she can have a conversation with anyone. I imagine it’s a bit of a game for her, a challenge, to see how much of a person’s story she can extract from them. But then I cross that out, because it’s not a game. I think she actually wants to know. 

“Tell me about your wife,” Ally says. The road is straight again before us. A perfect perspective shot, I can see it narrowing and dwindling to the smallest point. The kind of thing a child would draw in art class, with a blue sky and three improbably puffy clouds hanging above. 

“Her name was Laura,” I say. “Met in grad school. She was a science teacher.”

“No, I mean really tell me about her.” She jostles my shoulder as we walk. 

“She would sometimes tutor kids. She was so patient with them. But hard, too. They didn’t get any excuses. She knew they could learn the material, they just needed to focus.”

“Why did she leave?”

I glance at her. “You’re very inquisitive.”

She actually looks embarrassed. “You’re right, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be prying.”

“She left because I didn’t bet on myself.”

Ally waits for me to continue. She already knows that I take a few seconds to form my sentences before I speak and she knows that I am silent not because I have nothing to say but because I have too much. Or maybe she doesn’t know that, and she is just being patient out of kindness. 

“She wanted me to get published, to go places, to all the author things I was supposed to do, she wanted me to finish a project and get an editor, and I was just… afraid, I guess. She trusted herself all the way, and I couldn’t do that for myself. She had all these ambitions of her own, she was going to open her own school, and she wanted me to match her stride for stride.”

We stop for a water break. Ally sets down her pack and looks at me. “But you can bet on yourself,” she says. 

“I’ve got different plans for my life,” I say. 

“You’re a good writer,” she says. 

“You’ve never read my writing.”

“I don’t need to. I just know.”

I cross my arms. “I don’t want to hear about how I could be so much further ahead. I’m happy where I am.”

“Are you?”

“Yes!”

“Then why are you walking the Camino?” 

I take a breath, I don’t have an answer. It’s irrational but I lash out back, I don’t know why I’m so angry, I wish I could take the words back, I say, “Why are you? What’s your plan now that you’ve left your old life behind?”

“I don’t know!” her voice is raised. “But I’m going somewhere, I have things I want to do and be. I’m going to reach for them.”

“I wish you luck,” I say, the anger has left my body, leaving nothing but emptiness and a vague jealousy. 

“You don’t need to. You can come with me.”

“What if I’m not worth betting on?” I must sound like a petulant child. I don’t care. My foot taps hard in the dust. “What if I go all in, think I’ve got aces, and all I have is a two and a seven?”

“Every hand is worth betting on.”

“You’d be a terrible poker player,” I say. 

“Maybe so.” She shrugs, tosses her hands up. “But at least I’m playing the game.”

“Well, I fold, then.”

Silence falls between us, sudden and abrupt. I notice the world around me again. We’ve been standing still for a few minutes, the trail ignored. Slowly, we close our water bottles and pick up our packs. “We should keep walking,” Ally says. 

“Yeah,” I say. 

We make small talk for the rest of the afternoon. 

I see a man leading a donkey across a bridge. The highway streams hot and metallic beneath us. The poor donkey is terrified. It can’t see the stairs that lead down off the bridge, it thinks it’s going to fall. The man is patient, he takes a piece of bread from his pack and gives it to the donkey. Happily chewing its food without a care in the world, it clambers down the stairs. 

Ally and I drift apart on the trail. It happens. We stay at different albergues, we have different paces. We don’t know each other well enough to make plans together. We don’t know each other at all. I didn’t notice how quiet the trail was until I didn’t have her voice to fill the silence. Now the emptiness thunders in my ear. Each night I fill my notebook with scratched out words. I worry that I won’t see her again.

But I do. 

I see her again in the courtyard outside the Santiago cathedral. She stands with her hands on her hips looking up at the spires. I raise my hand to call to her, then I draw back afraid, then she notices me and waves. “Sam the axe murderer!” she says, jumping up and down. I’m glad most of the people in the courtyard don’t speak English. 

“Thought I might not see you again,” I say. The tension between us is slight, but it is there. I think we both know to avoid talking about anything real. Something between us has broken, maybe a certain sense of innocence that can’t be found again. So we just banter. 

“The trail is small,” Ally says. 

“Enjoying the view?” I ask, looking at the cathedral. 

“Eh. The construction gets in the way.” Up the sides of the cathedral are wooden scaffolds dotted with yellow-helmeted men repairing the stone. 

“Yeah. Kind of disappointing.”

“Are you going to Finisterre?” she asks. 

“I think I will.”

“Did you know it translates to the end of the world?”

“I did, yes.”

“Spooky.”

“I’ll try not to fall off,” I say. 

“You’re a funny guy,” Ally says. “I’m going to go inside that building and watch the monks tell me things in Latin.”

“Have fun.”

“Will do. I’ll see you at the end of the world, then.”

“It’s a date.” I say the words before I have a chance to think about them. 

She looks at me, an uncertain smile. “It’s a date.”

There are goats as the sun sets at the end of the world. I sit as far down as I can on the rocks. All around me pilgrims come to the edge of the sea and finish their walk. They leave mementos. A walking pole or a hat or their shoes or a note. A few of them cry, or laugh, or hug their family. I watch the goats, and the sun. It drips slowly towards the water. Sea spray from the waves a few yards beneath me mists my face. 

“Hey,” Ally says, gentle. She takes off her pack and sits next to me. 

“Hey,” I say. 

We watch the sun for a while. We don’t say a word. It leaves a streak in the water as it sinks. A white mar on the perfect grey of the ocean. 

“So this is the end of the trail,” she says, finally. 

“I guess so.”

We talk for a little, or maybe an hour, maybe we talk for the rest of time, we talk about everything we can think of and more and when we’ve given mention to even the smallest thing in the universe she says, “I liked getting to know you.”

“Me, too.”

“Sam, my husband called me,” she says. “He asked if I would come back. If I would reconsider.”

“What did you say?”

“I said yes.”

“Why?” 

“I don’t know, Sam.” Her voice is tired. “He’s a good man. I love him. He’s smart, I suppose.”

“And the plastic?”

“I thought the trip would change me,” Ally says. 

“Me too.”

“But it didn’t. I’m still who I was.”

“Me too.”

Ally stands. “The view is pretty.”

“Sure.”

“Goodbye, Sam.”

She stands, takes her backpack, climbs back up the rocks. I want to shout to her, I want to say, Ally, I think I like you, I think I’m in love, I might not be able to bet on myself but I think I can bet on you. 

The words catch in my mouth, my throat strangles around them, my lips are like the bars of the prison cell for my thoughts. 

“Ally, wait,” I shout. 

But she’s gone. 

5 Easy Steps to Make a Character Arc

Character arcs are the bread and butter of storytelling. Many people argue that there is no such thing as “plot”, there is just a character undergoing change as they interact with their surroundings. I often find it helpful to think of a story as just a series of choices made by a flawed character. So it stands to reason that a character arc is oftentimes the backbone that a story is built on. 

While character arcs can have infinite complexity, they all share a few key building blocks. Not all of these are necessary, but most good stories will use one or two of them. As always, find your originality in the ways you break away from these building blocks, yet at the same time, they are still important tools. 

Just to preface, I am currently in the process of outlining a story, and I reached the stage where I plan character arcs. After spending a few minutes looking at the white page and drawing a blank, I decided to review everything I’ve learned about character arcs, and assemble that information into a tidy little guide. So as you read, bear in mind, this article is from the same perspective as all of you; an avid student of the most difficult craft. I am not an expert, but I am a learner, and perhaps you will find this article more helpful because of it. 

  1. Built In Potential

Before you do anything, you must first make sure that your character has the potential for change. This can take many forms. Maybe something is missing from their life, that they need to get. Maybe they have a flaw of personality they need to overcome. Maybe they have a perfect life, but the potential to fall into depravity. It can be literally anything. But from the very beginning, a character must be designed to change. 

As a rather archetypal example, consider Achilles from The Iliad. He goes from a paragon of heroism to a creature possessed by his own rage. His character arc is of a man becoming an animal. But this regression didn’t come out of nowhere. The potential was always inside of him, represented by his ferocious and legendary anger. Without his anger to drive him into inhuman depth, his character arc doesn’t make sense. His character is structured to change. 

  1. External and Internal Change

Character arcs are built on change. But even a character with the potential to change won’t realize that potential if nothing happens. If the Trojan War never happened, Achilles would never have changed. It was only because of the war, because the man he loved died, that his character arc began. 

This change comes from two places, external and internal. External change often takes the form of the “inciting incident”. Something happens to the character. Their life is wrenched from the status quo. It is important, though, for external change to continue to happen to a character. Don’t let them form a new status quo. Keep challenging them with new circumstances. 

Internal change is often a result of the character thinking about or processing the events of external change. This is where the real meat and potatoes of character growth happens. A character’s thought process is a window into both their mind and into the themes of a story. Scenes of a character grappling, wrestling, with their own emotions can be some of the most powerful moments in your story. Milk those scenes. 

It is important to give these two things roughly equal weight in a story. Too much external change, and your story will feel plot-driven and empty. Too much internal change, and your story will feel slow-paced and uninteresting. Find the happy balance that works best for the story you want to tell. 

  1. Character Through Decisions

Now that you have a character with the potential for change as well as the impetus for it, you need a way to convey that change. My recommendation is to do this by showing your character making decisions. 

Decisions are an oft-misrepresented concept. In Story by Robert McKee, he explains how the choice between “good” and “evil” isn’t actually a choice. Good is just so blatantly obvious. A character like Superman does not make a decision to save the innocent or not, he just does

Rather, a real decision has to be between two equal options. When Superman is asked to choose between saving an innocent or stopping a villain, that is when his true character is revealed. And when he still chooses the innocent, the story has successfully shown what he truly prioritizes. 

Equal options make for more interesting choices because they have stakes and consequences. Choosing one option means abandoning the other option. And when both options are equal, it means both the character and the reader feel a sense of loss that only one can be chosen. Don’t be afraid to let those consequences be real.

The consequences of the choices a character makes should increase over the course of the story. Something that many stories do well is have a character choose wrong when it matters most. Have them experience the greatest possible consequence. Putting your character through the thing that would make them suffer the most, as a result of their own decision, is one of the most powerful tools in storytelling.  

I find it helpful to have characters make these decisions periodically throughout a story. In many ways, I structure a story entirely around these moments of intense decision making. I also try to make the decisions thematically resonant, they relate to each other. This way, I can show how a character changes by the different choices they make when confronted with similar problems. 

  1. Conscious and Subconscious Goals

When a character makes a decision, they do so in pursuit of an objective. A character should have a goal, a motivation, something that they wish to accomplish. A small thing, such as winning an argument, or a larger thing, such as finding love. Whatever it is, a character is always working towards something. This is why they’re in a position that forces them to make a decision in the first place. 

I find it helpful for a character to have two goals. A conscious one, and a subconscious one. The conscious goal is a concrete thing. Something, someone, that they can physically touch. In Finding Nemo, Marlin wants to find Nemo. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo wants to destroy the ring. These conscious goals are stated out loud, explicitly, and involve specific and concrete solutions. 

In pursuit of a conscious goal, a character will naturally, but accidentally, accomplish their subconscious goal. Unlike the conscious goal, the subconscious goal is never stated out loud. It is intangible, often involving a character’s true nature. 

In Finding Nemo, as a side product of finding Nemo, Marlin becomes confident and capable. This is something he has always wanted to be, but never been able to. In Lord of the Rings, as a side product of destroying the ring, Frodo becomes a worldly, experienced adventurer. This is something he has always wanted to be, but never been able to.

The subconscious goal was well established by the narrative, but the characters would never have said to themselves that was the reason they went on the adventure. Both the characters and the story used the conscious goal as an excuse to allow the character to achieve their subconscious goal. 

  1. Relationship Tugging

Finally, it is important to remember that no character goes through change alone. Each character is surrounded by a web of other characters that influence the decisions they make and the arc they travel. 

I like to think of different characters as playing a game of tug-of-war with the protagonist in the center. The protagonist gets tugged back and forth by the people they are in a relationship with, until eventually they are pulled too far to one side. 

Star Wars is a story that does this excellently. Luke Skywalker’s character arc is of a peasant boy with no skills becoming the savior of the galaxy. As a part of that process, he is tugged in different directions by Darth Vader and Princess Leia. Vader wants him to become a dark lord, and Leia wants him to become a Jedi hero. 

Luke is tugged back and forth between these two sides. As with the part about decision making, these two sides are presented as equal in his mind. Sometimes he feels the tug of the dark side stronger, sometimes he feels the tug of the light side. The climax of the story is when he is tugged all the way to the light side. 

Importantly, you’ll notice that Vader is a character who is also undergoing this ‘relationship tugging’. Luke is tugging him in one direction, and Emperor Palpatine in another. To make the world of your story feel truly rich, and your characters feel truly dynamic, it is useful to create a web of interconnected interactions like this. 

In Conclusion

As with all writing advice, you’ll only drag yourself down by trying to follow it exactly. I can think of a dozen amazing stories that use none of these building blocks, yet have spectacular characters. I compiled this list as a way to inspire myself, for my own process. If it helps inspire you, I couldn’t be happier. But there are uncountable places to draw inspiration, and every writer’s process is unique.