Writing Character Arcs: The Lie Your Character Believes

I feel like this is a good blog about character arcs, but I’ve also had two glasses of wine, so who really knows?


When a fellow blogger, robertcday, told me that he was a pantser, I assumed it meant that he was someone who yanked down people’s pants in public for fun. However, after some research, it turned out that a pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little (thewritepractice.com). The world is safe from having to see your undies if you run into a pantser (admittedly, I am feeling kind of upset about the hilarity I’m missing out on because of this).

If you’re a pantser, the kind of person who writes without planning, you probably think that you don’t have much need to think about character arcs and that this article won’t be useful to you. However, this article isn’t about writing: it’s about revision. Once you have the story written out, elements like character arcs are things that you need to consider if you’re looking to get published.

Revision is hard especially if you don’t have the disposable income to spend on a professional editor and your friends can’t seem to ever get around to reading your work (Hint, hint. Was that passive aggressive enough?), or can’t provide any critiques other than, “It’s good!” I’ve been working on revising a draft of my completed manuscript for over a year because of these struggles. My strategy has been to break down the revision process into important elements, and my current focus is the character arcs in my novel.

Character Arcs

Firstly, what the heck is a character arc? A character arc is the evolution of your character throughout the story. There are arguably three basic character arcs: the positive change arc, the negative change arc, and the flat arc.

The Positive Change Arc occurs when a character begins their journey with some sort of unfulfillment or denial; after going through a number of trials that challenge their beliefs, the character will ultimately end up changing positively.

The Negative Change Arc is essentially a backwards version of the positive change arc: the character will have degenerated and changed for the worse by the end of the story.

The Flat  Arc centers around a static character who doesn’t change throughout the story; they are already complete, and it’s often the character arcs of the minor characters that change because of them.

 The first two arcs involve The Lie Your Character Believes.

The Lie Your Character Believes

We all have things that we cling to even if we know that they’re not necessarily true.

The lie I’m currently believing is that there’s a chance I can not only meet a quality person online, but also like said quality person when in reality, the chances of me liking anyone I meet in an inorganic situation are astronomically small. 

We resist accepting that these things we believe are lies because quite often, the alternative is unappealing. In my Tinder example, if I accept that I won’t like someone I meet off of a dating site, that takes dating out of my control, and my depressed brain will likely think, “OH MY GOD, I’M GOING TO DIE ALONE.” See? Not appealing at all.

When it comes to writing, this resistance against the truth is good. Resistance creates conflict, and conflict creates interesting plot lines.

Helping Writers Become Authors provides and excellent list of lies characters from pop culture believe:

  • Might makes right. (Thor)
  • The only way to earn love is through servitude. (Jane Eyre)
  • Kids aren’t worth taking care of. (Jurassic Park)
  • The people you love will always lie to you. (Secondhand Lions)
  • Your only worth is in being the favorite. (Toy Story)

Only a few things can happen over the course of a story when characters believe lies. They will:

A. recognize the lie they believe which will make them into better characters than they were at the beginning of the story (positive character arc).

Or on the flip side of the coin:

B. the characters will still change, but for the worse (negative character arc). They will either never recognize the lie and continue down a path of delusion, or even worse, recognize the lie only after it’s too late (see: Othello).

Accounting for The Lie Your Character Believes is a great way to develop any character because no matter how your character responds to the lie, the character won’t be static, and will change over the course of the story. A character that has believable change over the course of a story is a well-written one.

The best part of this character element, is that it doesn’t just apply to the protagonist of your story, but to the secondary characters as well.

Let’s look at the villagers in The Beauty and the Beast. The lie they believe can best be summarized in this line from the mob song:

We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact, it scares us.

That is their lie. If they don’t understand something, they must fear or dislike it. They exhibit this all throughout bith the the cartoon and the live action movie. They don’t understand Belle because of her passion for reading, and therefore label her as “odd.” This lie reaches its climax when the villagers are incensed to violence because of their misunderstanding of the beast and storm his castle with the intent to slaughter him.

After the curse is broken, the villagers learn that their lie, fearing what they don’t understand, is wrong because it lead them to fear their forgotten loved ones. If they hadn’t learned to stop fearing what they don’t understand, they likely would have been very frightened to see clocks and candlesticks transform into men, but they didn’t because they have a positive character arcs.

The villagers are just background characters to the plot, but even they have a lie that they believe. When they respond to their lie (ie alienating Belle, nearly murdering the Beast, and recognizing their fault by accepting their enchanted loved ones), it makes them believable characters. They’ve grown. This makes for quality writing (not saying that Beauty and the Beast is the epitome of English literature, but you get the idea). Character’s believing lies exists in essentially every well-written work.


To Do

When revising your work, analyze each of your characters and answer the following questions about them (including the minor characters): What lies do they believe? How do they develop over the course of the story? Do they have positive or negative character arcs? Do they have an arc at all?

If the answer to the last question is no, then I think it’s time to take creating a Lie for them into consideration.

I answered tgese questiond for my manuscript, and it really highlighted the characters which are well developed, and more importantly, those who aren’t.

I have a character, Jaclyn, who systematically tortures my protagonist, Scarlett, whenever she encounters her because of a lie she believes. However, after Scarlett deals with the lies she’s been holding onto, Jaclyn’s lies are never addressed again, leaving the story feel somewhat unresolved. I would have never noticed it had I not revised for the lies my characters believe.

Whether you’re a pantser, a planner or a plantser (a mix of both!), accounting for the lies your characters believe will improve the quality of your writing.

I’m getting published!

That’s right! You heard me, I’m getting mo fuggin published again!

My short story, “What Counts,” is being published by a magazine called Mistake House.

This has come at the best time.

I love to write; I have always loved to write.

I was just beginning to lose my faith in my ability to be a success at it.

And now here we are again. Yay!

The Write way to get Published in Lit Mags

The unbelievable, unimaginable, and the utterly confounding has happened…I’ve been published by a literary magazine! I know. Is this real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality?

It’s a story called “Treasures” which has been published in the Spring 2015 edition of an online magazine called The Write Room (you can find my story here!). They didn’t contact me at all so it was a complete surprise when I was creeping around the interweb and stumbled across it. This is my first ever publication and I’m completely over the moon, over the stars, and well, right out of this galaxy.

What better way to celebrate than by writing a comprehensive guide to submitting stories to lit mags?

Step 1: Write a story

Seriously, do it. Like I said in my ‘About‘ section, if you write, you are a writer. So get writing, damn it.

Step 2: Edit

Read your story over at least three times with a red pen poised to edit out mistakes. It’s even better if you have a friend that’s willing to give you suggestions for how to improve your story. The worst critique anyone can ever give is, “It’s good.” I find that after I’ve written a story, I need to take a step back from it for a few days otherwise I’ll miss my mistakes.

Step 3: Find a magazine that suits your story

Your story is now polished and ready for publication, so now it’s time to find the proper home for it. Use lit mag databases on sites like pw.org and thereviewreview.net to scan through magazines. I prefer the Review Review because of you can search for genre, submission dates, payment etc. where pw is only sorted by genre. Once you find a few magazines that fit your standards, check them out and see if your story is a good fit for them. The best way to do this is by actually reading what they’ve previously published; most magazines have free back issues on their sites. This is time-consuming. Don’t expect to find the perfect few in a day.

Step 4: Submitting

Read the submission guidelines carefully. Make sure you meet all of the lit mag’s requirements before submitting. You don’t want to disqualify your work before they’ve even read it by not following their rules. You’ll often come across mags that have “simultaneous submissions accepted” in their guidelines. I had no idea what this meant for the longest time, but what it means is that you can submit the same story to more than one magazine at a time, and you should! The more mags you send your story to, the better chances of getting published you have.

Most mags use Submittable and sometimes charge a $3.00 fee to cover its cost. Be wary of anything that charges more than the submittable fee. Sometimes there’s a small reading fee, but it should never be more than $5 (unless it’s a contest; they tend to charge more, but I wouldn’t spend anymore than $20 on these). Think of these small fees as an investment in your future as a writer.

Submit your work with a cover letter. Check out this amazing article from Writer’s Digest on how to write one (it’s super easy). Seriously, actually do this. I didn’t for a really long time and although the story is the editor’s main concern, it wasn’t until I actually started doing a proper cover letter that I got published. Coincidence? I think not.

Step 5: Wait!

Sometimes it takes lit mags a long time (months!) to get to your work and get back to you. I didn’t hear anything from the Write Room for seven months when my story’s submission status changed to accepted on Submittable. Even after that, they still didn’t contact me to let me know it was going to be in the Spring issue. I mean, if I didn’t have my Submittable notifications on, I wouldn’t have even known my story was getting published. The nice thing about finding mags on Review Review is that you can find mags that respond within less than three months if you’re particularly impatient.

Step 6: Expect rejection

I don’t put this step in to discourage you, but to be a realist. I have a whole file folder of generic rejection slips that are addressed to “contributor.” However, some mags are actually cool enough to send a personalized rejection explaining why your story wasn’t for them. These are something to treasure and learn from! Don’t get discouraged. It’s all part of the process and all the more reason to send out your story to as many magazines as possible.

Step 7: Keep submitting until you’re a famous author

This one’s pretty self-explanatory.

That’s it!

Now you know how to submit stories to lit mags, but why submit to lit mags at all? Good question, alter ego. I’ve been told this by numerous creative writing profs and Stephen King’s On Writing also reiterates this: each published story is a stepping stone to building a resume which publishing companies will take more seriously when the time comes to try to publish a novel. Also, it’s pretty fricking cool to be a published writer.

Oh and if you were wondering, my favourite lit mag is Lost in Thought. It’s lyrical, creepy, and dark…all the things I love in literature.

Working Toward the Write Place

Captain’s log, stardate 3/24/2015…

Okay, that’s enough nerding out.

The purpose of this post is to inform all you lovely people where I’m at in my writing career. As I said in the introduction, I am almost done my BA in English lit. I’ve participated in one creative non-fiction course, one script writing course, and two creative fiction courses. I’ll talk more about these workshops later. For now, it’s time for me to indulge in my narcissistic tendencies and talk about myself (yay!).

What I’ve Published so Far

Nothing. Well, okay, that’s not exactly true.

I’ve written a few articles for my school newspaper, the Reflector. Not exactly a huge accomplishment, but it was the first time I ever saw my writing in print and that was pretty darn cool. If you want to know how many butt plugs out of five I gave the 50 Shades of Grey movie, you can find my most recent Reflector article here.

I also wrote a 500 word essay for Maclean’s magazine this year and got paid 75 whole dollars for it! This was the first time I’ve ever been paid for my writing, and I have to say, it felt pretty spiffy. I haven’t counted it as a publishing credit yet because it hasn’t come out. It’s supposed to hit shelves at the end of this month or the beginning of the next in the University Insider report.  However, I can’t say that I got this gig through nothing but hard work and determination; in all honesty, it was simply luck. The boyfriend of a girl I befriended at school works for Maclean’s. He needed an article writer and I suppose that I was such a raving loony about writing that she thought of me when the job came up (thank you Rachel!). BAM…I was $75 richer and will one of these days officially be a published writer!

My third success (kind of) is a story called “Treasures” which according to Submittable, has been accepted by the Write Room (look another pun!), an online lit magazine. “Treasures” is a short fiction story about time travel and it was seven months before its status changed. When I got the email that my submission status changed to accepted I almost threw up I was so excited. However, that happened about a month ago and the magazine has made no contact with me. I’ve contacted them via facebook and submittable, but I have received nothing back. I’ve come to the point of accepting that perhaps the status change was an error, if anything just to avoid driving myself insane. I can’t avoid being hopeful that this is not the case, but only time will tell…In the meantime, I have continued to write and send out stories!

And that’s it! These are my few accolades, but I am proud of each one whether it came about by luck, or didn’t actually come about at all. The same goes for my file folder which is packed with rejection slips. It’s all one step closer to becoming a successful writer.

What I’m Working on Now

A novel which is currently 119 pages in 12 point font on my computer. That’s about 50,000 words! Thanks to Meg Cabot and this post, I finally know how the number of words on computer paper will translate into a published book. I know, I know, quality over quantity, but I can’t stop myself from swelling with joy every time I reach a new page. When I get to cutting things out during the editing process, it will be painful.

My manuscript is a ghost story which I refer to as Joe and she prefers female pronouns. I was struggling to pick which genre to place her in for a while; I wanted her to be an adult book, but my protagonist is in high school which gives it a YA feel. Thanks to a wonderful professor who has also offered to help me with editing over summer, I can now clasify her as Cusp literature (YA books that can also be enjoyed by adults).

I am almost done part one of three and I will finish writing her this year!


Where have you been published? What are you working on right now? Tell me in the comments!