Crafting Character Arcs in Reverse

· beat sheet,character arcs

A lot of writing advice will tell you to craft your plot to fit your main character’s arc.

And that should definitely be the case if you’re writing a fiction story where the main character grows and learns over the course of the story. But there’s more than one way to do that.

And my way is a little bit…backwards. 

Crafting character arcs can be tricky for writers (even those of us with a few books under our belts.) While most advice is to start with your character’s flaw and then tailor the plot to show their growth away from that, I’m going to offer a slightly counter point of view.

First, figure out some of the big ideas / themes / settings / STUFF that you want to write about in your book first. Then craft the character to fit those things. 

This might not work for every book, but it worked really well for Wolves.

I knew after reading a tweet about a creepy late-night encounter during the Iditarod sled race, that I wanted to write a story about a girl racing alone through the dark with a team of dogs. That was the heart of the story. The more research I did into the Iditarod and sled racing and things like Balto and Call of the Wild, the more I pinned down this whole sled race idea. I figured out what the planet would be like to have this race and what sort of problems the people in that world would face.

Once I knew those things, I decided that I wanted to really focus on the relationship between a girl and a wolf. I felt like there are tons of great romance stories in YA, but what about a great friendship story? After that, I started crafting the character that would eventually become Sena.

I asked myself all sorts of questions to figure her out and to make her character fit this story. Would she want to race or not? It could make the story stronger if the character who didn’t want to race was forced to do it. So, I gave her a bit of history to make her hate the race and everything it stood for. (Example: it killed her mothers five years ago and took away everything she loved.)

Then I asked: why would she not want to be friends with the wolf? Because it would make their relationship that much stronger if Sena didn’t want a relationship in the first place. So, I built that into her backstory as well. (Example: After her mothers died, Sena can’t bear to be around wolves because they remind her of her loss.)

These are just two details that went into crafting my character arc to fit the story elements I wanted to include. And creating an arc in reverse that way is what made Sena’s character journey so much more emotional than if I had done it the other way around.

Now, this might not always work for every story. While it made writing Wolves very straightforward and fun, it did NOT work for the sequel.

The problem with sequels is that you probably already have some ideas in mind -- which I did for Remy's story. I already had her character because she had a huge role in Sena's story. I also had a vague idea of the plot. And so I tried to sort of shoehorn things into what I thought Remy's story was for at least the first four drafts. But it wasn't working because, even though I tried, I couldn't just shift Remy's character to fit the world and the wider plot things. Remy already was a strong character and refused to budge.

Finally, I realized by draft five that her character was going to be what she already was, not what I wanted it to be to fit the theme I had in mind. Once realizing that, I wrote her the way she was and shifted my themes and plot things to suit her, rather than the other way around. And it worked! So while the backwards character arcs can work for many stories, they might not work for ALL stories. 😅 (Hopefully others can learn from my pain so it wasn't all wasted.)

Do you think creating a character arc in reverse works well for your story? Ask me on Twitter or Instagram. I’m always happy to chat about writing.


A version of this story appeared in Wolves and Wonder, my monthly newsletter that includes no-nonsense writing advice along with book updates and sci-fi inspiration. Get it in your inbox; you'll love it.