Character Arc & the Emotional Heart of Stories

Think back to one of your favorite stories. Did it make you laugh? Cry? Were you awestruck? Filled with wonder? Did it make the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Were you angry when you finished the story and motivated to take action?

This ability to touch us emotionally gives stories their power. A series of short videos sponsored by Expedia provide some great examples of how an emotional punch can be packed into two to three minutes of great storytelling. I’ve embedded three of my favorites from the series at the bottom of this post.


Each tells a very different story with very different characters, yet at the core each is a personal journey. Expedia, a travel-oriented e-commerce website, was very creative in how it linked the outer journey from one place to another in the physical world with the inner journey taken by the main character in each of the stories.

One of the key questions about creating characters for a transmedia story is: “Do the major characters have clear character arcs (changes – for better or worse – in the characters’ inner nature)?”

When creating a character arc, you need to address four basic points:

  • What is the character’s problem?
  • What is the character’s struggle?
  • What is the character’s transformation?
  • What is the character’s realization?

The character arc that we see in each of the stories in the Expedia series is what makes them so powerful. As you watch these three videos, note how the main character changes from the beginning to the end. As you watch the clips, write down answers to these questions:

  • What is the character’s problem? What conflict or issue is he facing?
  • What is the character’s struggle?
    • What does the character feel? What are the emotional aspects of the struggle?
    • What does the character think? What are the logical/rational aspects of the struggle?
    • Why is this such a struggle for the character? What is there in the character’s past or present that causes the struggle?
  • What is the character’s transformation?
    • How do the circumstances (e.g. events, other characters, settings, etc.) effect the character’s thoughts and feelings?
    • How do these circumstances change what the character feels and thinks?
    • What is the progression in the character’s transformation? (The change should happen over the course of the story, not suddenly at the very end.)
  • What is the character’s realization?
    • By the end of the journey, what has the character learned?
    • How is that reflected in the character’s thoughts, attitudes and behavior?
    • How does this realization resolve the problem the character faced at the beginning of the story?

Writing the answers to these questions on a sheet of paper will give you a very good model to begin creating the character arc for your own story. Once you’ve figured out the character arc, you can start looking at how you can use transmedia storytelling techniques to most effectively portray the character’s outer and inner journey.

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