The Hierarchy of Characterization: The Character Arc

N. K. Jemisin

Lesson time 17:45 min

Nora continues the discussion of character development by adapting the classic story arc structure to create externally driven and internally driven character arcs.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

Topics include: The Externally Driven Character Arc • Character Identity Development: Internal Character Arc • Don’t Always Explain Complacency • Get Them to Root for Your Underdog • Introduce Audiences to Marginalized Characters


[MUSIC PLAYING] N. K. JEMISIN: We instinctively feel more connection with a person who we see going through this process of trying to decide who they want to be and then making that decision and then going forward. We like to root for an underdog. [MUSIC PLAYING] When you're trying to create a new story, or when you're trying to create the-- the plot of a story, you've probably heard people refer to a typical three-part plot arc. That's just basically a beginning, a middle, and an end. You start off with the character in a basic state. You carry the characters through a period of rising action. You hit a climax. Usually that's where there's a big fight or something that happens. Then there's a period of falling action, and then maybe you have a coda or a resolution thereafter. And a typical character arc follows a similar format. [MUSIC PLAYING] A character plot arc can take both the internal and external form. We're going to talk first about the externally-driven character arc. Now, that also comes in three stages, a beginning, a middle, and an end. What I use as terminology for this is the character's first in a steady state. It can be a kind of complacent state, where they feel comfortable, are just going about their daily lives, their day-to-day commute, whatever. Then there's an inciting incident, something that impacts them on a-- on a huge level. Inciting incidents can take a lot of different forms, and not all readers are going to be interested in all inciting incidents. This is why when you do see an externally-driven character arc, usually it's kind of important to spend some time establishing that this character is interesting and worth following, worth caring about. So it's a good idea with an externally-driven character arc to actually start in that steady state with the character, because then you have time to explore the person's character, make them someone that the audience will empathize with, and then when this terrible thing happens, then we care what happens to them. There are all sorts of disaster movies out there. There's so many disaster movies that it's actually hard to care when a character ends up in, you know, aliens attacking or whatever. But if we've had some time to get to know the character, get to like the character, then we can move forward. In the movie "Independence Day," we spend a good bit of time with the protagonist, Will Smith. There are several protagonists in that movie, but the most time that the camera kind of focuses in on is showing us his life, his partner, his relationships, his adoptive son. And then the inciting incident happens in a moment that we can completely empathize with. He's gotten up. He's going to the bathroom. He's just going about his regular day. We see in every way that he is an every man, and then we feel that kind of-- the-- the visceral, scary, disturbing moment when he realizes that his entire world has changed forever. ...

About the Instructor

The winner of the Hugo Award for three consecutive years for her Broken Earth Trilogy, N. K. Jemisin has sold millions of books and created new cultures and histories. Now the acclaimed science fiction and fantasy writer is teaching you how to create a world from scratch, develop compelling characters, and get published. Build your craft and share your voice with inclusive fiction that reflects your experience.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

N. K. Jemisin

Bestselling sci-fi and fantasy writer N. K. Jemisin teaches you how to create diverse characters, build a world from scratch, and get published.

Explore the Class
Sign Up