Transformational Character Arcs: 6 Steps to a Plot-Driving Protagonist | Michelle Schusterman | Skillshare

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Transformational Character Arcs: 6 Steps to a Plot-Driving Protagonist

teacher avatar Michelle Schusterman, Author & Creative Writing Instructor

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

8 Lessons (15m)
    • 1. Introduction

      2:01
    • 2. What is a Postulate?

      2:10
    • 3. Character Postulates

      1:41
    • 4. Behaviors and Flaws

      1:05
    • 5. Character Compulsion

      2:18
    • 6. Creating a Character Arc

      1:47
    • 7. Finding a Plot

      3:52
    • 8. Wrap Up

      0:26
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About This Class

What's the secret to keeping your readers turning those pages? A flawed protagonist who transforms into a hero!

Michelle Schusterman is the author of over a dozen critically acclaimed novels published by Penguin Random House, Scholastic, and Little, Brown. As a creative writing instructor, she has led over 500 workshops and taught over 1,000 students of all ages.

In this class, Michelle will walk you through six steps that will help you figure out what's at the root of your main character's biggest flaws and how her deepest beliefs push her to make decisions and take action—and drive the plot of your story to a satisfying conclusion. Lessons include:

  • What is a postulate?
  • Character postulates
  • Behaviors and flaws
  • Character compulsions
  • Character arcs
  • Finding a plot

By the end of this class, you'll have a deeper understanding of your protagonist and her arc, as well as an outline of the major plot beats for your story. This class is for beginner to intermediate writers who know the basics of character development and want to dig a little deeper.

This class includes examples from the writing craft book The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein. (Disclaimer: this is an affiliate link. If you choose to buy the book your price will not be affected but the instructor will receive a small commission.)

Meet Your Teacher

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Michelle Schusterman

Author & Creative Writing Instructor

Teacher

Michelle Schusterman is the author of over a dozen critically acclaimed novels for middle grade and young adult readers. Her books have received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher's Weekly and have received honors including multiple Junior Library Guild selections, the CBCC Best of 2019 List, ALA's Rainbow List and Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers List, and the NC State College of Education Comic Relief Reading List. 

As a creative writing instructor and speaker, Michelle has led over 500 writing workshops and appeared on panels at DragonCon, Leviosa Con, The North Texas Teen Book Festival, The NYC Teen Author Festival, and Kidlit Con.

In 2020, Michelle launched a YouTube channel where she regularly uploads writing craft and traditional publish... See full profile

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Transcripts

1. Introduction: What's the secret to writing a novel that really hooks readers? Is it building a really unique world with a rich and well-developed backstory? Is it writing a plot twist that manages to surprise even the most seasoned mystery reader? Those things are all great. But I think the one true hook is this, a flawed hero who changes. If you can get your readers to care about your protagonist so much that they're rooting for her to overcome her biggest flaw, you've got a great book. I'm Michelle Schusterman, creative writing instructor and author of over a dozen critically acclaimed novels. Over the next half hour or so, we're going to take the main character of your novel and put them through a transformation process. This class is for beginner to intermediate writers, who already know that your protagonist should have flaws, and goals, and wants, and needs. But you're looking to dig a little deeper, and figure out how to really get your readers invested in your protagonist's journey. That's exactly what we're going to do with a series of quick exercises that are going to take your character through that transformation. By the end of this course, you'll have a plot for your book. Hang on. Isn't this a workshop about characters? Absolutely. This course is about creating characters who transform. Those types of characters drive the plot. Trust me. But wait, what if I'm writing a novel with multiple points of view? Great question. First, go through this course with the protagonist you feel has the most to lose in your story. Then go ahead and take your other POV characters through the same process. Side note, it might be the worst idea to take your antagonist through this process too. After all, bad guys need to have more of a motivation than just being bad. As we go through these exercises, I'll be providing examples based on a popular best-selling novel. Bonus points if you can guess the title before the end of this course. I can't wait to see what you guys come up with, and I hope you'll share your character transformations on the class page down below. Now, if you're ready, grab a notebook or open a blank document, and let's get started. 2. What is a Postulate?: You probably already know that every good hero is flawed, and it's true. But the problem with just randomly assigning your main character a few flaws is that, you run the risk of those flaws being superficial or even cliche. She's super awkward and trips over her own two feet. That's not really a flaw, or at least not the kind we can build a transformation around. Instead, we're going to talk about postulates. A postulate is a deep-rooted belief that a person assumes to be true. I have postulates, you have postulates, we all got postulates, and our personalities are largely shaped by them. A few examples of postulates include, "Everyone deserves forgiveness," or maybe, "Some actions don't deserve forgiveness," "The universe is actively working against me," or maybe, "The universe will deliver anything I ask for," "If I work hard enough, I can achieve anything I want," or maybe, "No matter how hard I work, nothing ever goes my way." Imagine taking characters with these different postulates, and putting them in the same scenarios, an alien invasion, a story of marital betrayal, a murder mystery. Already I bet you can see how they would react to those situations very differently. Now let's talk about the kind of behaviors that would result from these postulates. These behaviors can be both positive and negative. For example, if someone believes the most important thing in the world is family, no matter what, that could lead to her supporting a family member at great personal sacrifice to herself. On the other hand, someone with that same core belief, family is the most important thing, might use that belief to excuse a family member's physical or emotional abuse. Before we go on to the next lesson, take a few minutes to write down three of your postulates. No judgment here, you don't have to share these. For better or worse you've got those deeply rooted beliefs and you turn to them when you make big decisions. They're part of what makes you, you. Next, write down any positive or negative behaviors you have that result of your three postulates. Once you've got that filled out, we'll move on to your protagonist. 3. Character Postulates: Now that you've got a good grip on what a postulate is, let's talk about your protagonist postulates. Depending on what stage you're at with your novel, you might already have a really good idea of who your protagonist is, or you might still be getting to know them. Regardless, I'm sure you already have something to work with. Some little personality quirk, a passion, a goal, a fear, or even just an image of this protagonist in a certain scene and you're itching to write it because they do something wild. Whatever you know about them, start asking yourself, why? Why does she have this quirk? Why is she so passionate about that one thing? Why is that her goal? Why is that her fear? Why does she do that wild thing you see her doing? Dig into it and you're going to start to uncover those deep rooted beliefs, the postulates. I know it can be hard to get started with this, so we're going to do a little brainstorming. Here are five fill-in-the-blank postulates that I took from the writing craft book, The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein. "The most terrifying thing in the world is, blank." "I was put here on earth to, blank." "The most important thing in the world is, blank." If I am not, blank, or do not, blank, then no one will love me." "If I am, blank, or do, blank, then everyone will love me." Take a few minutes and fill those in for your protagonist. Then write down any other postulates that come to mind. Remember, none of these are set in stone. If you decide they don't align with how you see your hero after all, that's fine. But try to get down, five to 10 of these, and then we'll move on to behaviors and flaws. 4. Behaviors and Flaws: Now, that you've got those character postulates, let's talk about the behaviors that might result from them. Remember, these could be positive behaviors or negative behaviors. Let's do another example. Let's say one of your character's postulates is, "I was put on this earth to serve others." That could result in a positive behavior perhaps leaving the character to a career that's all about helping her fellow humans. But it could also result in a negative behavior, such as a character who's so focused on helping others that she neglects to take care of herself. In that kind of negative behavior, a character who is constantly putting herself second, because she believes she must always help others first, that's the kind of flaw you can build a story around. Take a good look at that list of postulates you made for your protagonist. Choose the three that you feel are the most true to that character. Then list two potential resulting behaviors, one positive and one negative for each of those postulates. When you're done with that, we'll move on to finding that character arc. 5. Character Compulsion: At this point, you may already be seeing a potential character arc or transformation. But if you're not, don't worry. That's what the next few steps are about. In The Magic Words, Cheryl Klein points out that all characters, like all people, have more than one postulate. But for fiction, for a novel, you really want to focus on the most important postulate that character has. She calls it his compulsion. This compulsion, this flaw, this postulate, this belief, this is the big one that your protagonist is going to have to come to terms with, probably during the climax of your novel, and overcome and change if he's really going to get what he wants and needs. It's going to push your protagonist to that ultimate transformation. Spoiler alert, it's also going to drive your plot. Take a look at that list of top three postulates that you came up with for your protagonist. Which one of those results in the biggest, most potentially destructive negative behavior? That is probably going to be your main character's compulsion. That's her big flaw that she's going to have to recognize and correct, in order to overcome that final obstacle in the climax of your story and achieve her goal, or go down in flames, if that's your thing. It's not a coincidence that this compulsion is probably tied into the themes of your novel. For example, let's go back to the character who believes the most important thing in the world is family. Because of that belief, she's defending a family member's abuse. Her transformation, her letting go of that belief, is going to happen when that family member finally takes it too far. What exactly is too far? Well, that depends. But given that this is such a deeply rooted belief for your character, it's going to take something huge, potentially even something tragic, to get her to finally come to terms with it and let go of that belief for good. Some possible themes for this story might revolve around broken families, chosen families, family betrayal, or family obligations. Take a few minutes to write down your protagonist's biggest flaw or compulsion. The negative behaviors that might result from that compulsion and some of the themes your story might explore. Next up, we'll create that character arc. 6. Creating a Character Arc: We found your protagonist's flaw, an authentic relatable flaw that stems from a deep-rooted belief and will resonate with your readers. Now it's time to find some obstacles, and not just any obstacles. Specifically, you want to throw stuff in your main character's path that's going to cause them to doubt that deep-rooted belief. This is how you drive them to their lowest point in the story, that dark night of the soul, when they wonder if everything they've ever believed to be true is a lie. In The Magic Words, Klein uses a great example, Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc's compulsion, her strongest postulate was that God would protect her in every situation. This belief drove her to lead her country into war against an oppressor. It was challenged when she was captured in battle and ultimately executed. She remains to this day a fascinating character because her postulate and her resulting actions and behaviors and the consequences were so epic, and that's what makes her story so powerful and enduring. Take a few minutes to write down any obstacles you see your protagonist facing that will push him to the limit regarding his deepest held belief. Which of those obstacles might make him cling to his belief even harder and what will it take him to finally acknowledge his flaws and recognize the truth? Once you've finished that list, take all of these obstacles and rearrange them in order of easiest to hardest, in terms of how your protagonist will or will not overcome them. That very last obstacle. The big bang event that finally shatters your protagonist's deepest belief, that's your moment of transformation. We're almost there guys. Now it's time to uncover that plot. 7. Finding a Plot: You've got a flawed character, you've got obstacles, you've got a big transformation. Really, you have all the ingredients to a great plot already here. Let's just nail down the details. First, describe your protagonist at the beginning of the story. What's her current situation, her personality, her status quo? Example, she's a lonely woman obsessing over her ex-husband and his new wife. She believes her life would be better if he had never left her. She's an alcoholic and often drinks to the point of blackouts, a habit which recently led to her being fired. She fantasizes about a seemingly perfect couple she observes and becomes irate when she spots the woman kissing another man. Next, describe your protagonist's compulsion or her biggest flaw and a resulting negative behavior, as well as your novel's theme. Example, she turns to alcohol as an escape from her life, which she feels has gone off course since her husband had an affair and left her. She wakes up after a drunken blackout, bruised and bloody, and with no memory of what happened. The woman she saw cheating on her husband has gone missing. She worries she was somehow involved. The themes are about reality, both accepting reality and manipulating reality. Third, write down your protagonist's want or goal at the beginning of the story. She wants to find the missing woman. Fourth, write down the stakes. In other words, if your protagonist doesn't achieve that goal, what terrible thing will happen? The higher the stakes, the better. Example, she must solve the mystery of the missing woman before the police because she worries she might have done something to the woman during her blackout. If the police find the woman's body and she was involved, she might be arrested and charged with murder. Fifth, write down at least three of the obstacles you listed earlier, all except the biggest one. Example, one, her alcoholism. She temporarily overcomes it and stops drinking, but she hasn't confronted the source of the problem, something she's repressing that compels her to drink her memories away. Two, she becomes convinced she's found the murderer and manages to convince the police who arrest him but he turns out to be innocent. Three, the woman's body is found and the investigation intensifies. Four, she jumps into an affair with the victim's perfect husband. Sixth, write down that final obstacle that forces your protagonist to confront her compulsion and change her beliefs. Does she succeed? How, and at what cost? Example, as things unraveled, she turns back to alcohol and drinks herself into a blackout. Then at last, she begins to seek out the truth that she's been repressing. Her ex-husband was having an affair with the victim and she saw them together. He roughed her up and it wasn't the first time. She began drinking during their marriage as a way of coping with his abuse, gaslighting, and manipulation. She must work with his new wife to defeat him and see that he is brought to justice. When he attempts to manipulate her and eventually attacks her, she kills him in self-defense. Finally, in the aftermath, how is your character fundamentally changed? This description should be in stark contrast with the way you described her in step 1. Remember, this isn't a small change, it's a transformation. Example, in the aftermath, she is sober and moving on with her life. She is now fully aware of the reality of what her marriage was and is no longer living in a fantasy world. That is what we call a character-driven plot. By the way, if you guessed my examples were pulled straight from the novel, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, you get a cookie. 8. Wrap Up: [MUSIC] That's it. Now you've got a three-dimensional character with a relatable, authentic flaw who overcomes all of these amazing obstacles to discover what she truly needs and get what she wants, and along the way, she transforms into a hero. I hope you'll share your character transformations on the class page so I can meet your protagonists, and thank you so much for taking this course.