The Elements of Character Arcs

EverafterposterMichael Hauge defines the character arc as the emotional journey from identity to essence.  The essence is the inner child, the core of the character who has been wounded through life and now needs to be healed. The identity is the layers of the onion that need to be peeled away, as each is a progressively stronger shield created to protect the essence. The storytellers job is to transform each character while keeping them “in character” across that emotional arc.

The twelve signs of the zodiac fit into the four basic elements of earth, air, fire, and water. Every character has a birth date and in astrology this defines the natal chart. The three primary aspects in the natal chart that flavor the strengths, personality, and talents of a character are the sun, moon, and rising sign.

The sun sign is the essence of your character, which at the beginning of the story is considered their greatest weakness. The essence is well hidden by the identity but after the trials and events of the story, that create an emotional transformation, the identity amplifies the essence. When you know the final moments and setting of your story it is easier to see how it reflects back to the opening scene.

Consider the movie, EVER AFTER (a Cinderella story), and the heroine, Danielle. In the final scene Danielle is a crowned princess kissing her prince by the castle window that overlooks their kingdom. Monarch energy is associated with fire, Leo the Lion, King of the beasts. Fire energy is the one element that transforms others while not being transformed itself. Danielle is first portrayed as a child being primped in fancy clothes for the grand event of meeting her stepmother. Leo personality types love to be primped. Danielle, the woman, is first portrayed as sleeping by the fire, the first glimpse of her hidden essence, and by her vehement statement, “This is our home and I won’t see it torn apart.” At each conflict through the story it is her fiery temper that breaks through and gets her in trouble.

Danielle’s essence is fire but her identity is the earthy farm girl. Danielle is responsible to her tasks, her family and the farm. Her identity is the shield she has built around her essence to survive. She’s a woman comfortable in her own skin who knows her place in the world. This is what she fights to retain at the beginning of the story but at the end of her journey she is no longer content to do farm tasks and can rule a kingdom.

The rising sign in astrology is associated with the identity, the public face, and it relates to the sign of the zodiac is on the horizon at the moment of birth. Every sign on the zodiac rises every day.  No matter the sun/essence of a character, their identity can resonate to any one of the twelve zodiac signs. Choose one with a different elemental flavor as flat characters are the ones that only resonate to one element. A farm girl at the beginning and a farm girl at the end will dilute the power of a visual transformation from identity to essence.

Since Danielle’s transformation is from an earthy Taurus girl to a benevolent Leo monarch, aspects of a queen need to be present in the beginning just as her relationship to the land must remain at the end of the story. For her to remain in-character across that arc from identity to essence, her emotional journey has its own elemental flavor.

The emotional journey is associated with the moon. The moon travels through all twelve signs of the zodiac every month. This means no matter what the sun sign, or rising sign, the moon can still be any of the twelve. The moon represents how the character feels and reacts on an emotional level to every conflict. The moon adds depth to how the essence reacts when wounded.

Danielle’s moon sign is water and represents deep passions. She’s filling a bucket in the opening scene as a woman, and the midpoint on her emotional journey is when she is swimming in the lake. Here she embraces the one element she is missing, Air, the intellectual and artistic energy represented by Leonardo Di Vinci and Prince Henry.

Prince Henry’s moon sign is Air. His emotional journey is represented by his disdain for the philosophy of Thomas Moore, which he then embraces at the end of the story. He loves to debate and recognizes Danielle has the water element he’s missing with the statement, “You have more passion in one memory than I have in my entire being.” That this revelation happens in a monastery library suggests his moon sign is Aquarius more than Gemini or Libra as Aquarians are “at home” in the ivory tower.

It is significant that the elements these characters are missing are both at the emotional level, their moon signs. It is clarified in the scene with Leonardo Di Vinci right before the ball when Danielle states, “A bird may love a fish, but where would they live?” Yep, her watery moon is in Pisces.

The first time Prince Henry appears he is flying from his gilded cage, totally in his fiery identity while galloping away from the castle. This image represents Aries energy more than Leo or Sagittarius because he’s in bold action and confident in confrontations. He is at the midpoint of his emotional arc when he announces, “I want to build a library where everyone can study, no matter what their station.”  It’s the first glimpse of who he can become when his fiery identity and airy emotions are grounded with his earthy essence. He’s totally empowered in that moment and primed to be slammed with a major setback.

Prince Henry’s essence has a Capricorn flavor of responsibility to his obligations as having been born to privilege. It’s not hidden but he fights accepting his essence, with action, through the entire story.

Danielle and Henry’s primary wounds relate to their birth and are unchangeable. She’s a fire child with no mother and he’s an earth child doomed to be king. The first emotional reaction happens when they are old enough to be aware of these aspects of their life, usually by the age of eight. They are too young to process the wounds so the identity steps in with the first protective layer. For Danielle, her loss and abandonment issues are triggered with the death of her father. What the audience sees for Prince Henry, after Danielle’s deception is revealed at the ball, is him sitting in a corner sulking like an eight-year-old boy. Prince Henry fought his destiny to be king until he could use the power of being king, with extra soldiers, to save Danielle. She had already saved herself as is fitting for a worthy queen.

The audience believes Prince Henry and Danielle can be happily ever after together because their identities harmonize with the essence of the other. Danielle’s essence and Henry’s identity are both fire, Henry’s essence and Danielle’s identity are both earth, and their emotional energies of water and air is the missing element for the other.

Using these basic personality elements to determine the flavor of the identity and the essence is a great way to keep your characters in character even as they transform. Choosing a specific emotional (moon) flavor will also help determine how the wound affects the essence and the reaction. A wounded water child will weep, a wounded fire child will roar, a wounded air child will sulk, and a wounded earth child will hide.

Now when you create the backstory for your characters you can wound their essence and build their identity with unique flavors. Have things happen at different ages that will need to be healed later in life to add layers to the identity onion. Then write your story as the journey to reverse the damage and reveal the essence.

Originally Published by Terri Patrick: “The First Edition” Dec. 2015; Rose City Romance Writers chapter newsletter

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About Terri Patrick

Writer of Romance and Memoir. Life is an adventure, take that journey.
This entry was posted in Soul Mate Publishing, Terri Tells All!. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Elements of Character Arcs

  1. Thanks for this terrific blog on developing characters fully by using astrological signs/charts. I use astrology when developing my characters, especially their sun signs. However, I haven’t created their moon and rising signs, but it certainly would be beneficial. I found it amusing to think of my own astrological chart. I’m a water sun sign. Cancer, with an Aquarius rising, the rest of my chart is primarily air and water, no earth. So, I can definitely relate.

  2. Pingback: The Elements of Character Arcs |

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