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Writing: Character—Which Comes First, The Arc or the Backstory?

In deciding to write a novel, I have taken on the monumental task of creating characters. Of course, when I first made this decision, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Whooo-Boy! 

In previous posts I discussed creating personalities and senses of humor for characters, and that was hard enough, but it turns out that writing a compelling story is about more than a collection of interesting personalities interacting with each other. In my latest journey down the rabbit hole, I discovered that what makes a story truly engaging is having at least one character (usually the protagonist) undergo an internal change—known as the character arc.

In fact, according to many writing advice bloggers, YouTubers and authors, the internal arc is the whole point. 

But in order to necessitate a change, there must be a reason why the character needs to change, which means there must be a backstory to explain it.

So, character arc or backstory? Which should I write first?

Hmmm . . . good question. Well, I guess to a certain extent it must be the arc, yes? Because if you don’t know how the character will change, then you don’t know where the character starts the story, and until you know where the character is as the story begins, then how can you know the backstory? 

Of course, the truth is that there are no real rules when it comes to writing. I suppose you could have an idea for a character who has had a particular experience in their past that shaped them into who they will be at the beginning of the story and develop the arc from there–So, I was back to where I started —with no answer. Perhaps because there isn’t one.

Thinking I needed to get down to basics to understand which might be the best place to start, I watched a video by YouTuber and author, Rachael Stephen. From her I learned that a character needs to have a goal (external and therefore known goal), a motive (the reason why they want the goal), stakes (what the consequences will be if they don’t achieve the goal), and conflict (obstacles that get in the way of achieving the goal).

From my reading, watching and listening, I learned that conflict can come in a variety of forms: another character, aka the antagonist; nature; the nature of life; and the self, i.e. internal conflict.

This internal conflict is the seed of the character arc: there is something within the psyche of the protagonist that is getting in the way of achieving the goal—either because it prevents them from defeating the antagonist or because it prevents them from letting go of the past so they can move forward, or both. And the protagonist is usually unaware of this. 

On her website, Helping Writers Become Authors, K.M. Weiland describes the internal change the character must go through using terms such as lie, truth, need, goal and ghost. 

The protagonist has a goal, which the lie is preventing them from attaining. The lie is something the protagonist believes about the world or about himself but which is wrong. So what the protagonist needs is to accept the truth that the lie is wrong. The ghost is the backstory experience that caused the lie to be formed and accepted by the protagonist.

Story consultant, Michael Hauge, puts this in another way: the protagonist’s external quest for a goal is a journey of accomplishment; while the protagonist’s internal quest (probably unknowingly embarked upon) is the journey of transformation. The biggest difference here from Weiland’s version, is that Hauge highlights the personal nature of the lie and the truth by referring to them as the protagonist’s persona and essence. 

Hauge explains that the backstory experience caused a wound (like Weiland’s ghost) which led to a belief about the world or the self that in turn caused a deep-seated fear which caused the protagonist to try to protect herself by taking on a persona—a sort of armor. But the persona prevents her from living her truth, or essence. So the journey of transformation, then, is about moving from one’s persona to one’s essence.

Lisa Cron, the author of Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, suggests figuring out who the character is before the story starts, then what they want, why they want it, what misbelief (her term for the lie or persona) they have and then the defining experience (i.e. backstory) that caused the misbelief. 

I was on the point of saying that for myself, I feel as if the character arc seems like the logical place to start when I found the book The Emotional Wound Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book lists different traumatising experiences, ranging in severity from incest and accidentally killing someone to caving to peer pressure and having a learning disability.

But the book not only lists different wounding experiences, it also lists what the character might fear because of the wound, what false beliefs they might embrace, and what personality traits they might develop. 

With so much information, it’s a compelling incentive for starting with the backstory.

So after everything I looked at, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to my question is  my least favorite answer–it depends. But, okay–I’ll go with that. Having delved so deeply into character arcs, I now feel more comfortable  with the idea that there isn’t a right answer.

This was definitely not the end of this rabbit hole—there was an offshoot labeled theme that I’m going to have to investigate!

Links to sources

Rachael Stephen: 

K.M. Weiland: 5 Ways to Use Theme to Create Character Arc (and Vice Versa)

From Film Courage: Screenwriting Plot Structure Masterclass – Michael Hauge

Lisa Cron:

Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi:

5 thoughts on “Writing: Character—Which Comes First, The Arc or the Backstory?

  1. Hey! I just finished reading your blog today. I am again finding how overwhelming it must be to write a story,or novel, or anything longer than a tweet. Keep after it Amanda, you are a really good writer.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting; I’ve never thought of this. This makes me realize that I usually go with the arc first, and then make the backstory later, and it’s often fitting the backstory to the arc.

    Liked by 1 person

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